9: The End of Privacy

Since the onset of the Internet, operations have been able to monitor the behavior of the people who visit their sites into databases to analyze user behavior, both as individuals and in the aggregate, but had little ability to track this behavior to identifiable individuals. Even when a solution was found to follow and track a user from one site to another, it led back to a specific machine rather than a specific person, so it was possible to use the Internet in a completely anonymous manner, up to the point that a user provided information to a site.

The combination of mobile devices and the Internet removes the ability of users to be anonymous. Each device is used by one person, tied to their personal information by their access account, and they must trust entirely in their carrier to protect their identity. Given the ability to triangulate a signal or access data from the built-in GPS unit, even a person's immediate location can be known. This is perceived as a significant threat to privacy.

As consumers, we are assured that our carriers safeguard our personal and billing information, and that our phones are not broadcasting our location constantly, and that the pictures and personal information we store are not being harvested and provided to marketing companies and government agencies. Btu ultimately, we are expected take it on faith. The technology exists to do all of these things, and hackers regularly bypass the safeguards. So ultimately, how can we know these promises are being kept, and will continue to be kept?

(EN: It's probably worthwhile to pause for a reminder - that much of the concerns over privacy has, to date, been based on what "might" or "could" happen rather than anything that actually has happened. There's also been a great deal of panic and sensationalism on the topic by the media, which has been fairly fast and loose with the truth - so there's a lack of sane and informed discussion and an abundance of ignorant fear-mongering that discredits valid concerns. The author seems already to be slipping to the lower end, so I have low hopes for what follows in this chapter.)

Peeping Toms

There is an anecdote of a journalist who discovered that an educational software would periodically attempt to connect to the manufacturer's server to download software updates. This was spun into an article that proclaimed that companies were placing Trojan horses in children's software designed to harvest sensitive personal information from personal computers and transmit it to unknown recipients over the Internet in a covert manner.

In another instance, security software installed on student laptops was likewise spun into a horror story to back a lawsuit claiming that the local government provided these laptops to children as a method to spy on their households by covertly accessing the web camera to record activities in their homes. The case was not pursued because the FBI was unable to find any evidence of criminal intent. (The FBI was involved because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which makes it a federal offence to collect personal information from children under the age of 13 without permission of a parent.)

Social networking sites and applications give people the ability to publish a significant amount of information about themselves, without a clear knowledge of what will be done with it. Aside of the uses intended by companies, which are at worse motivated by commercial interest, employees of such companies may gain unauthorized access to customer information and use it for more sinister purposes.

Data Miners

Data about consumer behavior has long been of interest to companuies, who seek to use the data they gather to make products more usable and promotional messages more appealing, but the amount of data they are able to collect, and their ability to cross-reference it to create very detailed profiles of users is concerning.

One example is a piece of analytics software called "Flurry," which analyzed some very basic information available to most applications to discover the existence of the iPad before Apple announced it to the public. Individual cookies identified fifty devices; their IP address indicated they were inside Apple's headquarters building; the pixel dimensions of the screen made them larger than a phone but smaller than a laptop; system services indicated they were rigged to support rich media, large text documents, multimediam and games; and the combination of these factors gave the company a pretty good idea of what kind of device was running their software.

Naturally, this ruffled the pride of Steve Jobs, who immediately changed the terms of service and developers agreements to effectively ban any third-party analytics services from his devices. While the ostensible rationale for this ban was to protect the privacy of users, this was not previously a matter that seemed of much concern until it disclosed information Apple itself did not want made public. There is also the concern that, if the use of the device to aggregate users' data led to the device displaying "eerily specific" advertising to them, they will likely balme Apple rather than the software developers, which would be a PR fiasco.

Facebook, the social media megasite, has also had its share of privacy woes. The company has periodically been plagued by bad press when users found that the service disclosed information that they had assumed was private, and that might previously have been private before a change in user agreement and added features made it available to other companies, or even disclosed to the general public. Increasingly, Facebook applications and "Facebook Connect" share user information with other sources, and the user has no ability to opt out of this, or when opt-out is provided, it is all-or-nothing, such that the user must share all information (exactky what information is seldome disclosed) or forego use of a given service. Facebook's privacy policy becomes longer and more complex each year - in 2010, it was almost 6,000 words, logner than the US Constitution.

The author notes that both Apple and Facebook were, and remain, TRUSTe licensees, which is significant as TRUSTe is one of the most widely reconized and trusted associations that certifies that sites and services comply with specific requirements to protect user data. However, the orgnization is so liberal in granting licenses, and so lax in its monitoring of licensees, that its seal carries little actual meaning, and its only recource agaisnt violators is to withdraw its certification. (EN: I did a quick serac tio see if I could determine how many sites have TRUSTe certification, and how many times the certificate has been revoked, but could find no reliable information.)

The Right to Remain Searchable

There is some debate over whether the fourth amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure should be extended to protect the content of personal electronic devices. While it is generally difficult for authorities to obtain a warrant to search a person's residence (they must convince a judge there is cause to do so, and the warrant specifies what is being sought), the restrictions on law enforcement are less rigid in terms of searching a person's vehicle or their person.

In general, law enforcement has an unrestricted right to conduct a search of anyone who is arrested, which can be something as simple as a minor traffic violation. (EN; this is a separate matter, but an "arrestable" offense gives the officer the right to physically detain a person. At one time, only felonies that would be punishable by imprisonment of five or more years fell into this category, but it has been expanded to include misdemeanor offenses. In some locations, littering or jaywalking are arrestable offenses.)

In such an instance, the officer can search a person, without any explicit cause for concern, and anything they find on a person can be used as evidence against them for the filing of additional charges, entirely unrelated to the premise under which they were searched. This issue has existed, even before mobile technology, and has been a matter of some contention.

This includes enclosed objects - the officer can open a box or envelope found in someone's pocket - and it has also been applied to data devices. For years, courts have recognized digital evidence gathered from pagers, cell phones, and the same standard is being applied to smart phones.

The smart phone, however, puts and unprecedented (EN: except for PDAs, that is) amount of data in a person's pocket: e-mails correspondence, address books, text messages, etc. that discloses a significant amount of information about the owner that was previously not taken outside the home or office.

Moreover, there is no distinction between data that is stored on the device, and data that is stored on remote servers that are accessible by the device - so the search and seizure of a person's mobile device gives an officer the ability to harvest information from their Facebook profile, their bank account, or their home computer, which are not stored on the device.

While the authorities legitimize their actions as being in public safety, and few can argue the "right" of a person to conceal their wrongdoings or future plans to do harm to others, there are significant civil rights issues: the content of a person's private correspondence reveal private information that can be used against an individual - that they are a homosexual, or member of a disfavored religious or ethnic group, that they hold certain beliefs others find objectionable, or that they have publicly criticized elected officials. Such information has no relation to any just function of law, but could be abused to prejudice authorities to treat them unfavorably, to impugn their character to a jury, to subject them to public disgrace, or to blackmail them.

It is presently a matter of academic debate as to how much access police should have to private data and their responsibility to safeguard from public access any information that is not germane to a specific line of criminal prosecution. But even if policies are set to restrict the behavior of police and public officials, any evidence seized is in the custody of the state, which may be intentionally disclosed or insufficiently safeguarded against public disclosure.

But in fact, nothing has actually been done to extend the protections of the fourth amendment to mobile devices. As such, the convenience of having "your life in your pocket" comes at considerable risk.

(EN: In genreal, I see this as less of an issue of politics and more as an issue of security - the dreadful things a police officer can do if he gets hold of your mobile device are no different than the dreadful things that anyone could do if they get hold of the same device, with less reluctance and no legal protection. The solution to both is better device security to make content inaccessibel without the permission of the owner. Even then, there is some special attention to be given to law enforcement, as they regularly advocate for havign a back-door into device they can use at their convenience. But to my way of thinking, having strong security and exercising one's right not to tell the officer the password to your accounts unless and until compelled to do so by due process of law would go far to ensure that due process of law is used to access private data.)

Does Privacy Matter?

Aside of the ongoing debate, there is an underlying disagreement over whether privacy is important: a greater number of people are entirely causal about giving away all sorts of personal information, posting their profiles for public inspection, giving their information to those they know intnd to use it for makreting information, and proclaiming publicly things about themselves that are considered by others to be intensely personal and private.

In many instance, providing personal information is a condition of trade, implicitly or explicitly. We surrender our personal details to Google or Facebook in exchange for "free" services, with the full knowledge this information will be available to advertisers who pay for the ability to market to us.

This information is often more widely exposed - sites such as "open book" (www.youropenbook.org) expose postings by idnividuals outside the circle of friends and contacts that they expected might receive them. A handful of other sites regualrly post screenshots of posts that people might have though better of. Whiel this is largely doen in a spirit of humor, it might be used to discover things about a specific person they might prefer to have kept private - remarks made in a moment of indiscretion (even if they were later deleted), or remarks made about a person by others. Some would further argue that it is for the best that such people are exposed for what they are and that others are encouraged to think before they share.

(EN: This seems rather moot point - a person who shares information about themselves cannot later claim that their privacy has been violated when that same information is known to others. However, when personal information is collected and published by someone other than ourselves, or when a party to whom we provided information abuses it or fails to safeguard it, the suggestion that it doesn't matter holds little water.)