Tag Archives: privacy - Page 2

Why Privacy From Government Is Necessary For Everyone

The ACLU blog has a great post which explains how all of us have plenty to hide and why privacy is not just a right, but an integral part of human nature. The post focuses on privacy from the government, mostly because while almost everyone agrees that we need privacy from the general public, many people have much more relaxed attitudes about government snooping. Since the government is made up of people, that may seem like an arbitrary distinction until you realize that most people think of the government not as a group of people, but rather as an entity — a sort of deity that wants what’s good for us and protects us.

This is not the government. (Photo by Christopher Connell)


Therefore, the thinking goes for some, just like it’s okay if God knows what books you buy, when you go to sleep and what route you take to work, it’s also okay if the government does. This holds even though if your credit card statement, diary and GPS history ended up on the Internet, that would be an egregious breach. But every once in a while, the news reminds us that the two scenarios are in fact the same — and that one group of people (the government) is no better or worse than another group of people (Internet users) — via stories about abuse of power from government employees. For example, a month ago, a thousand UK government employees were disciplined for illegally accessing people’s work and medical records; in the US, news broke out last year that the FBI was abusing national security powers to get private information on people who weren’t national security risks.

This is the government. (Photo by Steve Shannon)


We give these institutions impersonal names like “the government” and “the police” which makes us forget that they are just a group like any other. So given that government is made up of people, a percentage of whom are bound to be less-than honorable, here are the ACLU’s list of reasons why you need to be able to hide things from them:

  • Certain things are just sensitive: maybe you don’t want anyone to know you have a third nipple, or that you’re pregnant, that you go to a mosque, that you constantly watch awful movies, that you have a crush on Kim Jong Un, etc, etc. The sum of things that are perfectly legal that you’d want to hide could fill a barn. And no one has any business knowing those things without you specifically letting them — not your coworkers, not your friends, your parents, your children, and definitely not police officers or other government workers. Even if you live you a life free of anything that anyone could object to and you are a completely open book, there’s always nudity: there’s no rational reason for it, but you probably don’t want anyone seeing you naked — government employees included.
  • Government workers make mistakes: since they’re just people, they’re fallible. Maybe as a result of just-for-the-hell-of-it surveillance, your crush on Kim Jong Un coupled with some email to your brother ranting about the war in Afghanistan and that copy of Mein Kampf you bought to see what the fuss was all about lands you on a watch list, or worse, in the middle of an investigation. The less data available about you, the less likely you’ll be harassed or wrongly prosecuted.
  • Discrimination based on normal things: one of the recent developments from all the data credit card companies have on us is that they decide credit worthiness based on your spending history. If you shop at cheap stores, maybe you don’t have a lot of money, so your credit will go down. If you frequent bars, maybe you have a drinking problem, so your credit will go down. If you buy a set of butcher knives and some lye, maybe police officers will rate you as more likely to kill someone. If you do a Google search on how to kill someone in their sleep, police officers might arrest you.
  • You’re already doing illegal things: laws being what they are, everyone is guilty of breaking one sooner or later. Maybe you speed, maybe you copied your friend’s CD, maybe you smoked pot in college, or got into a bar brawl: no one is innocent. The only thing saving you from fines and jail time right now is the fact that the government doesn’t know everything you do. Imagine the potential damage to your life if an ambitious prosecutor or a politician you crossed could get access to a video tape of your entire existence.

Therefore, until the day when the possibility for abuse and mistakes on the part of government employees is completely eradicated and until the day laws don’t make criminals out of all of us, the need for as much privacy as possible is absolutely paramount to our freedom.

See also:

From ACLU, via Lifehacker

Fun With Privacy

The Internet’s been grumbling about Google consolidating its various privacy policies into one, and a couple of funny privacy matters shook out of the whole affair.


A search engine called Skipity has the worst (yet funniest) privacy policy ever. It’s a riot to read — so you should do that, — but to summarize: it starts out with legal nonsense, then goes on to say they don’t think you really care about privacy and that they will use whatever information they can get about you, if it can turn them a profit. You also grant them permission to insert a microchip in your body, use your secrets, watch you through your webcam and lie to you. If they get a chance to sell your data, they “will jump at that opportunity like a pitbull on a fresh steak.” Paragraph 8 reiterates that it’s not a joke:

8. We are serious about all of the above. So don’t go trying to sue us later with some nonsense like ‘I thought that was all satire.’ All your privacy are belong to us. We mean it.

They also disclose that they like chocolate chip cookies and bacon. It may be the only honest privacy policy on web, and a brilliant publicity stunt.


The Guessing Game

An Ars Technica writer tweeted about a Google page she found where you can see in what gender and age-bracket demographic Google thinks you belong. (Apparently Google is trying out for a job at the carnival.) Slate did an informal poll around their office and found it was mostly wrong: it guessed 4 out of 16 people’s demographics completely right, but thought a bunch of women were men, that people in their 30s were twice as old, and had no guess at all for three people. Slate also adds that besides Google’s guess, you can also see what other companies think of you: BlueKaiAOL AdvertisingBizoLotameYahoo, and Exelate. You may be thinking that you’ve never even heard of most of those, but they have certainly heard of you. The good news is that most of them give you the ability to opt out of from them tracking your every move.


And finally, a couple of years ago, The Onion had a very funny and relevant article called Google Responds To Privacy Concerns With Unsettlingly Specific Apology.

From SkipitySlate, and The Onion via Slashdot, Forbes and Neatorama

Unanimous Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Constitutes A Search, Probably Needs A Warrant

According to Wired, in a rare case of unanimity on a privacy matter, the US Supreme Court ruled (PDF) that police placement of a GPS device on someone’s car is equivalent to a fourth ammendment search:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (4th Ammendment to the US Constitution)

The majority opinion, written by Justice Scalia, more or less said that the government was using an electronic spy to do the searching. Just because they didn’t have an actual person rifling through the car, doesn’t mean it’s not a search, because “the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area.”


The US Supreme Court in 2009. Scalia is second from the right, on the bottom. John Roberts is left of him.


The one thing the Supreme Court wasn’t unanimous on, was the point at which a warrant is required for such a search. The specific case they were hearing was of a D.C. drug dealer that was tracked by the FBI, via a GPS device on his car, for 28 days. All nine justices agreed that for tracking someone for that length of time, the feds had needed a warrant. As to the the maximum period the police could track someone without a warrant, five of the justices stayed silent; the other four said that to avoid ambiguity, they should always just seek a warrant.

The case probably went south for the Obama administration when Chief Justice Roberts asked their lawyer if the FBI could attach GPS trackers to the justices’ cars, secretly and without a warrant:

So your answer is, ‘yes,’ you could tomorrow decide that you put a GPS device on every one of our cars, follow us for a month; no problem under the Constitution?

For that, and other details of the deliberations back in November of 2011, check out the Wired article from back then.

From The US Supreme Court (PDF), Via Wired

Surprise! The Feds Are Still Abusing The Patriot Act

Ever since the overreaction to 9/11 caused the Patriot Act to be created as a vehicle to fight terrorism by means of eroding civil liberties, the FBI and Justice Department have been abusing it — from using national security letters to get information unrelated to national security, to using it to go after drug traffickers to using it to fight the homeless. And now there’s something going on in the shadows, about which two senators are raising a vague alarm. They both sit on the Intelligence Committee, which oversees the FBI, among other agencies, and while they can’t tell us exactly what’s going on, they sent a letter to the US Attorney General asking him to set the record straight about some thruthiness.

At the heart of the matter is secrecy: secret rulings made by a secret court that can’t be made public due to national security concerns. What the two senators are saying is that the government is interpreting these secret rulings as allowing them to get private information on people that aren’t threatening national security — like possibly you, the most intelligent of readers. So again the FBI is abusing the Patriot Act to get information unrelated to national security.

Note that the senators aren’t necessarily disputing the secret ruling that possibly allows all this — they just want the actions to be public knowledge. They’re also warning that secret interpretations of secret rulings made by secret courts amount to secret law, which implies that we’re witnessing the birth of a secret shadow government.

From The New York Times, via NPR

You Are Google’s Product, Not Their Consumer

There’s been a big uproar around a comment Google’s former CEO and current Chairman, Eric Schmidt, said the other week when asked why they are so adamant that people use real names on Google Plus. His answer: Google Plus “essentially provides an identity service with a link structure around your friends” — and you thought it was just a neat way to see your friends’ photos. Free Software Magazine has a very interesting analysis of the situation via an equally interesting Business Week article, which points out the identity service is not so much to help us regular folk keep spammers and cyber bullies at bay, as it is a cash cow for Google.

Why? Because anonymous user data is much less valuable to advertisers than real data. If they can tie your name and zip code to your Google searches, well the sky’s the limit on what they can learn about you; then they can show you ads that are better tailored to your interests, so that you’re more likely to buy their stuff, making their ad campaigns a lot more effective. And here’s how Google advertises itself to investors:

Who are our customers? Our customers are over one million advertisers, from small businesses targeting local customers to many of the world’s largest global enterprises, who use Google AdWords to reach millions of users around the world.

In other words, Google sells you — the digital shadow of you, at least — to advertisers, and that’s how they make money. So their end goal isn’t to make you happy, but rather to make the people who keep their lights on happy: the advertisers. The only thing they have to do is make sure that people use Google services: the search engine, GMail, Android phones, Google News, etc. And that’s the extent to which they care what you think: so that you will keep using their services, and they can keep selling you to advertisers. The hardest part of their job is probably to walk this fine line between pissing people off enough to leave and keeping advertisers interested in their user data. But as long as they keep creating services that are better or cheaper than anything else, then people will keep coming back to rent themselves out to the advertisers.

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. — Andrew Lewis

And finally, The Onion had a funny video a while back about Google’s new opt-out program:

From Free Software Magazine and Business Week, via Slashdot

Undercover Policing Is Getting A Lot Harder

TechWorld Australia has an interesting article that points out how much harder it is to find qualified police officers to send undercover in the age of the Internet. Since everyone under 30 now has pictures of themselves strewn all over MySpace, Facebook, Twitpic, Flickr and Google Plus/Picasa, the chance of a bad guy coming across an undercover cop’s real picture, or someone recognizing the undercover cop in a Facebook album is now high enough to raise the alarm. And the next decade will make it even worse, as facial recognition algorithms become more mainstream. Facebook already has facial recognition built-in, supposedly to help you tag people in pictures more easily — it recognizes the same face in all the pictures of an album, so you only have to tag them once. Therefore it’s not a stretch to think that in the year 2025, you could search for a picture on Google or Facebook and it would tell you exactly who that person is; which, for the mafia, will be an invaluable tool.

Riot Police in Manchester, England. Photo by Phil Long


A study done on the New South Wales police found that the vast majority of them use social networking, and everyone under 26 had uploaded photos of themselves onto the Internet. Which isn’t that bad, because they could theoretically take them down and hope no one copied them, however unlikely that is. But what’s worse is that 85% of them had pictures of themselves uploaded by someone else. And since people start social networking in their teens, by the time they become police officers 10 years later, they are all over the Internet. The worst part of it all though: once you found the undercover’s real Facebook page, you can identify their friends and family, which is not the kind of info you’d want a den of thieves to have.

From TechWorld Australia

The Gestapo Wants You To Think Of The Children

The why-won’t-anyone-think-of-the-children argument is a very effective way to win an argument: are you for or against a bill that increases government surveillance of everyone, in order to catch child pornographer? If you say you’re against, how can be so cruel, and possibly a child pornographer yourself? It’s a nice way to use guilt and/or popular opinion to get what you want. Children themselves do this very well: “why won’t you buy me that toy, mommy? Is it because you don’t love me?” And now, the House Judiciary Committee are using the same method to force Internet service providers to keep everyone’s Internet addresses, which change from time to time, for a year; most keep them for 30 or 60 days now.

Of course, when they were asked to limit the use of those addresses to child porn investigations, the lawmakers showed their true colors and refused. So it’s not about kiddy porn at all, but rather that’s just a red-herring so that Big Brother can surveil all of us — the vast majority of which are innocent, and 99.99% of whom aren’t child pornographers. But to hell with everyone’s freedom of privacy: won’t anyone think of the children? The House is going to vote on the bill probably in September.

From NPR

Utah Polygamy Law To Be Challenged

The reality TV show on TLC ‘Sister Wives‘ is like an unscripted version of  ‘Big Love‘: it’s about a man that’s legally married to one woman, but also ‘spiritually married’ to two more; they have 13 kids among them. The problem with this arrangement is that they used to live in Utah, where it’s illegal for a married person to imply they’re married or living with someone else as well. Since the TV show started, Utah prosecutors have been thinking about going after them, so they moved to Nevada and filed a lawsuit against the Utah polygamy law.

The Brown Family, from TLC's 'Sister Wives'


Their common-sense grounds are that it’s perfectly legal to have adulterous affairs or to have multiple sexual partners and the only difference here is that that they’re calling it marriage instead of affairs. Their legal grounds are in the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs Texas, in which two gay men were arrested for having sex in violation of Texas’ sodomy laws. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that those laws violate due process because of privacy. In other words, you can do whatever you want in the privacy of your own home. It also seems to this lay person that the Utah law violates freedom of expression: we should be able to purport to be polygamists if we want to, whether that’s true or not. The only thing the state can regulate is who gets marital rights to you, and even that is ridiculous: the state should not be able to decide what personal relationships we choose to get into.


EFF Provides Tips For Dealing With Digital Cops

The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that we now probably carry around more information on our smartphones than we physically have in our houses. Fifty years ago, information was stored in Rolodexes and saved letters, filing cabinets and photo albums; today all of that is in smartphones: contacts app, email app, Word documents, PDFs, photo apps, etc. If the police come to your house and ask to search it, you’d probably refuse unless they had a warrant. The interesting thing is that that’s becoming an anachronism: they would probably find less of the stuff they’re looking for in your house than in your smartphone (unless they’re looking for physical evidence like dried blood stains, for which there is no app yet).

So it follows that you should have the same policy as you do for your house and refuse access to your smartphone, unless they have a warrant. If they do have one, then make sure they only search what the warrant specifies. And try not to say anything to the cops (including passwords), but if you do, make sure it’s the truth. And if at all possible, talk to a lawyer before they do anything.

From EFF, via Laughing Squid

Apple To Address The iPhone Tracking Issue

The New York Times is reporting that at least on the iPhone side, the issue of the smartphone tracking itself is being addressed by Apple and will be fixed in the next iOS release. Apparently, the locations the iPhone was tracking were actually not of the phone itself, but rather Wi-Fi networks it comes in contact with; which is a bit of lip service, because it’s like saying you’re not writing down the location of the apples in a tree, just the tree itself. The reason it does this is apparently benevolent: to make geolocation easier. Getting your location via GPS can take a couple of minutes and indoors, especially windowless indoors, it just won’t work. Because of that, Apple keeps an iPhone-generated central database of the locations of all cell towers and Wi-Fi networks, and then your particular iPhone uses that database to approximate your location much faster — in a few seconds as opposed to minutes. Oh but wait, it also uses the data to generate a future traffic info service, so it’s not all benevolent.

But, it’s anonymous at least. And they’re blaming that file that’s left on your phone and computer out in the open, on a bug. Therefore, in the next iOS release that file won’t store the location data forever, just for the past 7 days. And it’ll be encrypted.

So what’s the net result of all this? The location file is going to be less ominous and more guarded, but the iPhone will still phone home to Apple as it pleases. You can bet the encryption on that file will be broken pretty quickly though, so all this really does is put a 7-day limit on how fast the Gestapo has to get their hands on your phone.

From The New York Times