Category Archives: Privacy issues

In Uncle Sam, You’ve Got a Friend… Who Wants Everybody’s DNA

In the latest WikiLeaks data dump, around a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables were published online. “Cablegate,” as it is being called, has revealed some rather startling information. Among the tech-relevant secrets, the State Department tasked agents to collect DNA and other biometric information on foreigners of interest.

Specifically, U.S. officials were told that in addition to collecting “email addresses, telephone and fax numbers,” they should also snap up “fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and Iris scans.” This directive makes the recent TSA scandal over airport full body scanners seem like child’s play.

Wired joked that this would explain to foreign leaders why the “chief of mission seemed a bit too friendly at the last embassy party.”

Jokes aside, access to DNA information is potentially one of the most important privacy issues of the future.

Read more here.

Will 2009 Be the Year of Multiple Digital Identities?

Here’s an excerpt from my column at TNW today:

Currently, 60 percent of Facebook’s teen users have implemented privacy controls, compared with only 25 percent to 30 percent of adult users. This is an interesting statistic, given the common assumption that members of the younger generation don’t care who sees their data. It is probably also a sign to entrepreneurs that there will be greater demand in the future for people to do more with their profiles, meaning more than one. That particular question brought up more controversy than one might expect.

If people could have more than one profile, argued Facebook’s Chris Kelly, the user experience would break down.

“It is important to have a single identity, and you may want to show different parts to different people,” he said.

Not everyone was convinced. Indeed, as Jim Dempsey pointed out, in real life people often showcase very distinct identities in different situations.

When at work, for example, people have a career persona. When at a spouse’s event, they don their spouse persona, and when picking up their children from school, they show their parent persona. Many people like to keep these personas separate. Now, of course, people often tell coworkers about their kids, but they don’t necessarily want to be defined that way in the context of their workplace. Being able to keep these identities apart in a more convenient way may very well be the next big social network innovation that consumers can’t wait to embrace.

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American Companies Help China Create a Real Life Minority Report

Today, the NY Times reports on a rather shocking surveillance program that China has in the works. The program is starting in the city of Shenzhen, where people will be required to register for residency cards containing a computer chip. According to the Times, “Data on the chip will include not just the citizen’s name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord’s phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China’s controversial “one child” policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card.”

Wow. George Orwell had nothing on these guys.

The Long Street View

Google’s mapping service just introduced a new feature called “Street View,” offering detailed photos of addresses in San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Denver and Miami. While the company might not be breaking any privacy laws, the service raises concerns that need to be addressed.

The photographs are not live and were taken from a device with multiple cameras attached to a car that drove down each available street. The problem for some is that the cameras took photos of people not expecting to be photographed and broadcast across the Net. There are photos of women sunbathing at Stanford University, a man caught urinating in San Bruno, Calif., and a very clear picture of a woman’s thong underwear as she was getting into her truck.

Google argues that the photos are “no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street.” That’s true if you can see the image for a few minutes and then it disappears, or if it is a random photo from a camera phone posted online. However, that’s not how it works.

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Here Come the Next-Gen Passports

This week, the U.S. State Department began rolling out “e-passports,” new high-tech documents that bolster border security through identity safeguards. In a dangerous world, upgrading passports is prudent policy that serves the interests of Americans at home and abroad, but not everyone is happy with them.

E-passports employ the use of radio frequency identification. RFID tags store unique data sets that can be read electronically and have been used successfully for decades on rugged terrain and in punishing environments. Wal-Mart has lauded RFID’s ability to improve its supply chain, and the U.S. military entrusts the tags to track cargo in the deadliest combat zones.

Embedded in the back of these “next gen” passports, RFID tags duplicate the same personal information printed in the passport — name, birth date, passport number, state and a digitized photograph. The tags will be scanned by domestic customs officials to validate the printed information in order to deter fraudsters, illegal immigrants and unwanted predators from entering American territory.

At a time when fake Social Security cards and driver’s licenses can be bought on the street for a few hundred dollars, toughening the nation’s most important identity document is a good start for improving border control. Of course, e-passports don’t come without their naysayers.

Read more here.

Dopy Internet Legislation Hurts Kids

Social networking Web sites like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook are becoming increasingly popular with the nation’s youth, prompting attempts to control the medium. However, though protecting children is the goal, the outcome is too often the opposite.

Recently proposed legislation by Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, threatens to effectively stop minors from accessing social networking sites in schools or libraries. His Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) would prohibit schools and libraries from allowing access to a commercial social-networking Web site or chat room through which minors might be subject to sexual material or advances. For many kids, that amounts to a ban on using the sites from anywhere outside the home.

Read more here.

Calling for a Response to Digital ID

Last year, Congress passed the Real ID Act, a law that calls for standardization of drivers’ licenses across the country by 2008. The current reaction from states like California and New Hampshire raises questions about how a national ID system would affect civil liberties, putting welcome pressure on the federal government.

California might have a reputation for supporting civil liberties but on the national ID debate the state is moving to comply blindly with federal mandates. Just this week, California’s Senate Transportation Committee approved a measure that would bring the state into compliance with the Real ID Act.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is kicking up a storm warning of big brother and what some consider “the mark of the beast.” Indeed, last month the New Hampshire House passed a bill barring the state from taking part in Real ID, rejecting it as a de facto national ID system.

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Spamalot Revisited: Goodmail Trapped in Bad Debate

Despite national legislation, spam remains a menace that clogs e-mail inboxes and costs Internet Service Providers millions of dollars. One California company is trying to stem the flow of unwanted mail, but California legislators are threatening to stand in the way.

AOL has partnered with Goodmail Systems to offer its customers a service called “CertifiedEmail,” which is designed to protect users from phishing and other online fraud. This is a good idea, yet the California Senate Committee on E-Commerce, Wireless Technology and Consumer Driven Programming, led by Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) is second-guessing the concept.

According to the Goodmail Web site, “CertifiedEmail service offers legitimate, accredited senders the opportunity to assure their messages are reliably delivered and presented to consumers as authentic and safe to open. The CertifiedEmail service is available to reputable, responsible organizations for a small per-message fee.” Charging a fee for the guaranteed delivery of legitimate mail seems like a good way to start taking a real bite out of the spam problem, but not everyone agrees.

Goodmail’s program “is the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it,” Joan Blades, co-founder of the left-leaning MoveOn.org told the Florez committee.

Those who are frustrated with loads of unwanted mail might think Blades’ comments are supportive of change, but her group and others — like the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) — are worried about creating a two-tiered Internet and what they call an “email tax.”

Broken System

In a February 28, 2006, open letter to AOL, the UFW said that Goodmail’s spam solution “is a threat to the free and open Internet” that “would create a two-tiered Internet in which affluent mass e-mailers could pay AOL a fee that amounts to an “e-mail tax” for every e-mail sent.” The letter is signed by groups like Common Cause, which typically don’t rise up to fight taxes, so one might wonder what’s really going on. The answer is two-fold.

First, some people want everything to be free even if it means the entire system is broken for everyone. Second, it is difficult for some people to accept change even if it moves the environment in a better direction. It is clear that the current system is broken.

One need look no farther than one’s inbox to figure that out, but in addition, AOL estimates that 80 percent of all e-mail is blocked. That’s a big chunk of mail consuming a good deal of ISP resources — and consumers are harmed when they still have to deal with the junk mail and scams that aren’t blocked.

Those who think that the current e-mail system is “free” need to consider the value of time spent dealing with spam and phishing scams. It is indeed free for spammers to send mail, yet it is the innocent recipients who pay the price. Where’s the common cause in that?

Read more here.

Fighting Spam Also Requires Fighting Knee-Jerk Critics

AOL and Yahoo will soon roll out a new program to charge advertisers for guaranteed access to users’ e-mail boxes. It’s not the perfect spam-fighting program that some would have hoped for, but those critiquing the plan on free speech and other grounds are out to lunch.

The reason most people’s inboxes are overflowing with nasty bits of unwanted, unsolicited e-mail is because the economics of the entire system encourage it. Economists call the problem the “tragedy of the commons,” which occurs when individuals exploit common resources at the expense of others. That is, spammers send e-mail for free, yet it costs those receiving it billions for network maintenance costs and lost productivity time.

Real Life

E-mail spam is a huge problem, because users have not been able to effectively establish property rights over their inboxes. One of the ways to potentially solve this problem is through an idea called e-stamps: in order to send mail, a sender would have to attach an electronic stamp.

In an ideal world, corporations and other people unknown to the receiver would pay for stamps, but individuals and corporations who know each other could issue the encrypted stamps for communication between themselves for free.

That is the theory. What’s happening in real life is a first step toward fixing the problem.

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Read more here.

Government agencies breaking privacy rules…again

Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache at CNET today report on federal agencies tracking web visitors against the rules. It’s not surprising, but it is disturbing. If government wants to increase surveillance in America and argues that we should trust them to follow the rules, then this example puts a huge dent in their argument. If a company made a similar mistake, they’d be facing a fine, but what will happen to the bureaucrats who ignore their public duties?

Face recognition tech goes mainstream

There’s a company called Riya that offers software to search personal photos using face recognition technology. Jennifer Granick of Stanford law school wrote a piece about it and its privacy implications, but her take is old and doesn’t see the big picture. Yes, face recognition technology changes society in ways that no longer allows the type of anonymity we have been used to, but that’s not the story here. The news — and it’s GOOD news — is that the government no longer has a monopoly on this piece of surveillance tech. That means the threat of living in a big brother state actually decreases, as it allows anyone to watch the watchers. Moore’s law keeps making technology more accessible and that promotes liberty.

Printer-Spy Caper Threatens Freedom

The next time you print a summary of your favorite James Bond film, you should consider that there might be more than one spy on the page. That’s because printer manufacturers and the U.S. Secret Service have been quietly collaborating to track documents — a worrisome revelation.

An announcement by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) that their staff cracked the code Xerox uses to secretly tag documents printed by color laser printers recently put the issue in the spotlight.

Read more here.

The New Security Threat: Federal Bureaucrats

A new threat to national security surfaced this week and if federal agencies fail to address it, they could hamstring important tools to catch terrorists. The General Accounting Office (GAO) reported this week that federal agencies are breaking privacy and security laws while conducting data-mining activities. According to the GAO, of the five federal agencies examined, “none followed all key procedures.”

Read more here.

Digital Village: A Lesson from London

The subway and bus bombings in London on July 7th added new fuel to the continued debate over security and liberty in a high-tech world. But it remains an open question whether the two must be opposites.

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” Ben Franklin once said. That sentiment is what drives many in the civil liberties community to fight against government use of national ID cards and surveillance cameras. Franklin makes a good point but his words “essential” and “temporary” muddy the waters. For instance, consider surveillance in the United Kingdom.

To read more, click here.

National ID debate

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the REAL ID Act of 2005. Privacy advocates decry the act as move towards a national identification card while others back it as a key national security measure. Both sides miss important points, including the fact that Americans already have a national ID card.

It’s called a driver’s license. That piece of ID is what one normally shows to get on a plane or apply for a credit card. And the validity of that information is important for both safety and commerce.

Read more…