Privacy, Security & Government Surveillance

Last night, I appeared on a short segment on the PBS News Hour discussing, “What’s the future of privacy in a big data world?” I was also joined by Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum. If you’re interested, here’s the video. Transcript is here. Finally, down below the fold, I’ve listed a few law review articles and other essays of mine on this same subject.

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With each booth I pass and presentation I listen to at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it becomes increasingly evident that the “Internet of Things” era has arrived. In just a few short years, the Internet of Things (IoT) has gone from industry buzzword to marketplace reality. Countless new IoT devices are on display throughout the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center this week, including various wearable technologies, smart appliances, remote monitoring services, autonomous vehicles, and much more.

This isn’t vaporware; these are devices or services that are already on the market or will launch shortly. Some will fail, of course, just as many other earlier technologies on display at past CES shows didn’t pan out. But many of these IoT technologies will succeed, driven by growing consumer demand for highly personalized, ubiquitous, and instantaneous services.

But will policymakers let the Internet of Things revolution continue or will they stop it dead in its tracks? Interestingly, not too many people out here in Vegas at the CES seem all that worried about the latter outcome. Indeed, what I find most striking about the conversation out here at CES this week versus the one about IoT that has been taking place in Washington over the past year is that there is a large and growing disconnect between consumers and policymakers about what the Internet of Things means for the future.

When every device has a sensor, a chip, and some sort of networking capability, amazing opportunities become available to consumers. And that’s what has them so excited and ready to embrace these new technologies. But those same capabilities are exactly what raise the blood pressure of many policymakers and policy activists who fear the safety, security, or privacy-related problems that might creep up in a world filled with such technologies.

But at least so far, most consumers don’t seem to share the same worries. Continue reading →

Robert Scoble, Startup Liaison Officer at Rackspace discusses his recent book, Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, co-authored by Shel Israel. Scoble believes that over the next five years we’ll see a tremendous rise in wearable computers, building on interest we’ve already seen in devices like Google Glass. Much like the desktop, laptop, and smartphone before it, Scoble predicts wearable computers represent the next wave in groundbreaking innovation. Scoble answers questions such as: How will wearable computers help us live our lives? Will they become as common as the cellphone is today? Will we have to sacrifice privacy for these devices to better understand our preferences? How will sensors in everyday products help companies improve the customer experience?

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In my Reason column this week I took inspiration from the fact that I will soon be sporting a Narrative Clip life-logging camera, and I wrote about our coming sousveillance future when everyone will be recording everyone else with wearable cameras. Lo and behold, looks like our good friend Fred Smith of CEI last night lived that future.

That’s a video posted by a biker who apparently wears a camera on his helmet and records his rides. He was calling the police to report a car blocking the bike lane when Fred and his wife Fran asked him not to. One thing I find fascinating is that being recorded, their instinct was to record back with the cameras on their phones.

As wearables become mainstream we’re going to begin to see many more videos like this, and I leave it to the reader to decide whether that’s a good thing. Sousveillance, whether we like it or not, will be a giant accountability machine. Obviously, recording the behavior of police and other government agents will help keep them accountable, but we’ll also be recording each other. Indeed, this biker wears a camera in part, I’m sure, to hold others accountable should anything happen to him on the road. What’s interesting is that what we will be held accountable for will be not just traffic accidents, but also sidewalk interactions that until now would have remained private and anonymous. Do check out my column in which I go into much more detail about the coming mainstreaming of sousveillance.

Tomorrow, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will host an all-day workshop entitled, “Internet of Things: Privacy and Security in a Connected World.” [Detailed agenda here.] According to the FTC: “The workshop will focus on privacy and security issues related to increased connectivity for consumers, both in the home (including home automation, smart home appliances and connected devices), and when consumers are on the move (including health and fitness devices, personal devices, and cars).”

Where is the FTC heading on this front? This Politico story by Erin Mershon from last week offers some possible ideas. Yet, it still remains unclear whether this is just another inquiry into an exciting set of new technologies or if it is, as I worried in my recent comments to the FTC on this matter, “the beginning of a regulatory regime for a new set of information technologies that are still in their infancy.”

First, for those not familiar with the “Internet of Things,” this short new report from Daniel Castro & Jordan Misra of the Center for Data Innovation offers a good definition:

The “Internet of Things” refers to the concept that the Internet is no longer just a global network for people to communicate with one another using computers, but it is also a platform or devices to communicate electronically with the world around them. The result is a world that is alive with information as data flows from one device to another and is shared and reused for a multitude of purposes. Harnessing the potential of all of this data for economic and social good will be one of the primary challenges and opportunities of the coming decades.

The report continues on to offer a wide range of examples of new products and services that could fulfill this promise.

What I find somewhat worrying about the FTC’s sudden interest in the Internet of Things is that it opens to the door for some regulatory-minded critics to encourage preemptive controls on this exciting new wave of digital age innovation, based almost entirely on hypothetical worst-case scenarios they have conjured up. Continue reading →

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) have reintroduced their “Do Not Track Kids Act,” which, according to this press release, “amends the historic Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), will extend, enhance and update the provisions relating to the collection, use and disclosure of children’s personal information and establishes new protections for personal information of children and teens.” I quickly scanned the new bill and it looks very similar to their previous bill of the same name that they introduced in 2011 and which I wrote about here and then critiqued at much greater length in a subsequent Mercatus Center working paper (“Kids, Privacy, Free Speech & the Internet: Finding The Right Balance”).

Since not much appears to have changed, I would just encourage you to check out my old working paper for a discussion of why this legislation raises a variety of technical and constitutional issues. But I remain perplexed by how supporters of this bill think they can devise age-stratified online privacy protections without requiring full-blown age verification for all Internet users. And once you go down that path, as I note in my paper, you open up a huge Pandora’s Box of problems that we have already grappled with for many years now. As I noted in my paper, the real irony here is that the “problem with these efforts is that expanding COPPA would require the collection of more personal information about kids and parents. For age verification to be effective at the scale of the Internet, the collection of massive amounts of additional data is necessary.” Continue reading →

Here’s the video from a recent panel I sat on at the 4th annual Privacy Identity Innovation conference (pii2013) in downtown Seattle on September 17, 2013. The panel was entitled, “Emerging Technologies and the Fine Line between Cool and Creepy,” a topic I have written much about here in recent blog posts as well as in law review articles.  The panel was expertly moderated by the awesome Natalie Fonseca, co-founder and executive producer of the pii2013 event as well as the always excellent Tech Policy Summit. Other panelists included Terence Craig, Co-founder and CEO, PatternBuilders and Co-author, Privacy and Big Data, Jamela Debelak, Technology and Liberty Director, ACLU of Washington, and my friend Larry Downes, Consultant and Author of The Laws of Disruption, among other excellent books. We discussed how to balance out the competing tensions surround new information technologies and stressed the various ways we could alleviate the primary concerns about many of them.

(The video, which is embedded down below, lasts just under 40 minutes. The audio is a little uneven because I was too stupid to keep the microphone close to my mouth. Sorry about that!)

Emerging Technologies and the Fine Line between Cool and Creepy from Privacy Identity Innovation on Vimeo.

Facebook announced some changes to its site today that will make it easier for teen users to share content with not just their friends but also the entire world. (More coverage at The Washington Post here.) No doubt, some privacy advocates will cry foul and rush to policymakers with requests for restrictions. Yet, it’s not clear to me what their case would be. There isn’t any COPPA issue here since we are talking about teens, and they aren’t covered by the law. Moreover, it seems entirely sensible to allow teens to make their voices heard more broadly via Facebook’s platform the same way they can via many other online sites and services. Teens have speech rights, too, after all.

On the other hand, this is another “teachable moment” that parents should take advantage of. When sites (especially larger sites like Facebook) change their policies and make it easier for our kids to share more about themselves and their feelings, that is always a great time to have another chat with them about acceptable online behavior. I’ve spent a lot of time here and elsewhere talking about the importance of “Netiquette,” or proper online etiquette in various social settings and situations. We need to talk to our kids and each other about being more savvy, sensible, respectful, and resilient media consumers and digital citizens. And schools and even governments have a role to play in pushing education and media literacy in pursuit of better “digital citizenship.”

The crucial lesson here — and this certainly has relevance to today’s Facebook announcement — is that we need to constantly be encouraging our kids to think about smarter online hygiene (sensible personal data use) and proper behavior toward others. Continue reading →

Michelle Quinn of Politico was kind enough to call me a few days ago and ask for comment for her story about “California Driving Internet Privacy Policy.” Quinn’s article offers an excellent overview of how the Golden State is gradually taking on a greater regulatory role for the Net, at least as it pertains to matters of online privacy. She opens by noting that:

With the federal government and technology policy shut down in Washington, California is steaming ahead with a series of online privacy laws that will have broad implications for Internet companies and consumers.In recent weeks, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a litany of privacy-related legislation, including measures to create an “eraser button” for teens, outlaw online “revenge porn” and make Internet companies explain how they respond to consumer Do Not Track requests. The burst of activity is another sign that the Golden State — home to Google, Facebook and many of the world’s largest tech companies — is setting the agenda for Internet regulation at a time when the White House and Congress are moving at a much more glacial pace.

When she asked me how I felt about this, I noted that: “California seems like it is willing to declare the Internet its own private fiefdom and rule it with its own privacy fist.”  And, no matter how well intentioned any of these new California policies may be, the ends most certainly do not justify the means. Continue reading →

California’s continuing effort to make the Internet their own digital fiefdom continued this week with Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that creates an online “Eraser Button” just for minors. The law isn’t quite as sweeping as the seriously misguided “right to be forgotten” notion I’ve critique here (1, 2, 3, 4) and elsewhere (5, 6) before. In any event, the new California law will:

require the operator of an Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application to permit a minor, who is a registered user of the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application, to remove, or to request and obtain removal of, content or information posted on the operator’s Internet Web site, service, or application by the minor, unless the content or information was posted by a 3rd party, any other provision of state or federal law requires the operator or 3rd party to maintain the content or information, or the operator anonymizes the content or information. The bill would require the operator to provide notice to a minor that the minor may remove the content or information, as specified.

As always, the very best of intentions motivate this proposal. There’s no doubt that some digital footprints left online by minors could come back to haunt them in the future, and that concern for their future reputation and privacy is the primary motivation for the measure. Alas, noble-minded laws like these often lead to many unintended consequences, and even some thorny constitutional issues. I’d be hard-pressed to do a better job of itemizing those potential problems than Eric Goldman, of Santa Clara University School of Law, and Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, have done in recent essays on the issue. Continue reading →