Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Privacy in your car, online, in your pocket, in your back yard

A cluster of articles in the New York Times highlight a number of technologies, practices, and laws that threaten our privacy. Taken in chronological order:
  1. Private Snoops Find GPS Trail Legal to Follow by Erik Eckholm (January 28, 2012). The good news is that on January 23, 2012, "the Supreme Court held that under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, placing a GPS tracker on a vehicle is a search," meaning that the police will have to get a warrant to do so. The bad news is that the a mere $300 can let you buy "a device no bigger than a cigarette pack, attach it to a car without the driver’s knowledge and watch the vehicle’s travels — and stops — at home on your laptop." You can easily keep track of your teenager, your spouse, your business rival, a potential victim. In some of these cases it would be legal, in others not; but it would be so easy to do and so hard to get caught. (See also Privacy, Technology and Law by Barry Friedman (January 28, 2012) for more on recent Supreme Court decisions.)

  2. Should Personal Data Be Personal? by Somini Sengupta (February 4, 2012). Whether it should be, it isn't; rather it's a commodity so valuable that "In the United States alone, companies spend up to $2 billion a year to collect" data we routinely share on the Internet. Differing cultural attitudes toward privacy - splitting Europe and the U.S., for example - make it difficult or impossible to regulate the ways that international enterprises can collect and use personal data online.

  3. Mobile Apps Take Data Without Permission by Nicole Perlroth and Nick Bilton (February 15, 2012). "Companies that make many of the most popular smartphone apps for Apple and Android devices — Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram among them - routinely gather the information in personal address books on the phone and in some cases store it on their own computers." That we now know about this is a step forward.

  4. Drones Set Sights on U.S. Skies by Nick Wingfield and Somini Sengupta (February 17, 2012). But in a step backward, a new Federal law requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow commercial use of drones - small, remote controlled, inexpensive aerial surveillance devices.
    “As privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage,” said Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “I don’t think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public.”
It's a brave new world out there. Or will be soon.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

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