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    Insider Access to Sensitive Data Must Be Carefully Controlled to Avoid Security Threats

    May 31st, 2019

    Recently, a news report said employees of multimedia messaging app Snapchat were using internal tools to violate the privacy rights of users, shining a light on the security threat that can arise from knowledgeable insiders. But the problem of insiders misusing or abusing their access privileges in order to invade the privacy rights of individuals is not new. 

    In Snapchat’s case, Motherboard reported: “Several departments inside social media giant Snap have dedicated tools for accessing user data, and multiple employees have abused their privileged access to spy on Snapchat users.” Sources and emails obtained by the news outlet, “described internal tools that allowed Snap employees at the time to access user data, including in some cases location information, their own saved Snaps and personal information such as phone numbers and email addresses. Snaps are photos or videos that, if not saved, typically disappear after being received (or after 24 hours if posted to a user’s Story).”

    But Snapchat is hardly the first private company to face problems with employees abusing or misusing their security access privileges to violate customers’ privacy. And it is not just technology companies facing these issues. 

    In 2014, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s verdict against a Walgreen concerning a pharmacy employee who accessed the medical record of a customer and gave the prescription information to the customer’s ex-boyfriend, whom the employee was dating. In the case, Hinchy v. Walgreen Co., et al. (pdf), Walgreen was found liable for negligent supervision and retention and invasion of privacy. In 2015, the court, upon rehearing, affirmed the original decision (pdf). 

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    States Are Taking Privacy Into Their Own Hands

    April 30th, 2019

    When people consider data protection officers and privacy regulators, they mostly think about foreign agencies who have made headlines with their battles to protect sensitive personal information from misuse or abuse, such as the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office or France’s Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL). In January, the CNIL fined Google 50 million euros “in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for lack of transparency, inadequate information and lack of valid consent regarding the ads personalization.” And earlier this month, the ICO fined Bounty UK Limited 400,000 pounds because the pregnancy and parenting club “illegally shar[ed] personal information belonging to more than 14 million people.” Last year, the Hong Kong privacy commissioner launched an investigation into “the massive data breach at Cathay Pacific Airways that affected millions of its passengers.”

    Although the data protection agencies can be restricted in their efforts in many ways, and there are questions about the adequacy of some of them, it is notable that these countries have a national agency to handle the privacy and security of sensitive personal data. They also have data protection officers at lower levels of government.

    In the United States, there is no one information protection agency at the federal level. The responsibility is splintered, and the agencies’ power can be handicapped. Some of the agencies include the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the Department of Homeland Security’s Privacy Office, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Trade Commission.

    The PCLOB was recommended by the 9/11 Commission, and the board was created in 2004 and placed within the White House. In 2008, Congress passed and President Bush signed the “Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007,” which took the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board out of the White House and established it “as an independent agency within the executive branch.” Although it has been hobbled throughout its history by vacancies, it has released reports on the National Security Agency’s bulk telephone records surveillance program and a Section 702 of FISA surveillance program. 

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    When Targeted Advertising Can Add to an Emotional Burden

    March 25th, 2019

    Increasingly, targeted behavioral advertising is in the news. Sometimes, the ads created and displayed to individuals are innocuous. But the targeted advertising also can add to a person’s emotional burden at difficult times, as detailed in a recent case below. 

    Targeted behavioral advertising is where a user’s online activity is tracked so that ads can be served based on the user’s behavior. What began as online data gathering has expanded — now there’s online and offline data collection and the tracking of consumers’ habits. Companies can also buy information on individuals from data brokers.

    Some people are uncomfortable with the tracking and targeting by companies and attempt to opt out; by declining to be tracked via e-mail address or by having your Web browser send an opt-out signal to a company as you conduct your online activity. Opt-out puts the burden on consumers to learn about what the privacy policies are, whether they protect consumer data, whom the data is shared with and for what purpose, and how to opt out of this data collection, use and sharing. Consumer advocates support opt-in policies, where companies have an incentive to create strong privacy protections and use limitations so consumers will choose to share their data. 

    People also have installed ad-blocker technology to avoid seeing ads. But there has been a battle. For example, Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox browser have included anti-tracking technology for years. However, some companies choose not to respect Do Not Track signals sent by Web browsers.

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    What’s the Weather? Using an App to Answer Could Mean Giving Up Privacy.

    February 1st, 2019

    Recently, there has been increasing scrutiny of weather apps and the data that they collect. There have been public outcries after investigations and research have revealed mobile apps are tracking the locations of their users even when they say no to sharing the location data. 

    In Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer filed suit in early January against TWC Product and Technology, the maker of the Weather Channel mobile app. He accused the app of “covertly mining the private data of users and selling the information to third parties, including advertisers.” 

    The complaint alleges that TWC used the geolocation tracking technology present in the app to monitor where users live, work, and visit, twenty-four hours a day, as well as how much time users spend at each location. The complaint further alleges that TWC led its users to believe that their location data would only be used to provide them with “personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts.” Instead, TWC allegedly sends this information to affiliates of its parent company, IBM, and other third parties for advertising and other commercial purposes entirely unrelated to the weather.

    The lawsuit alleged that TWC buried the location-tracking information in its privacy policy. It seeks an injunction “prohibiting TWC from continuing to engage in allegedly unfair and fraudulent business activities, including deceptively collecting and selling personal data, as well as Civil Penalties up to $2,500 for each violation.”

    IBM’s initial response was to tell the New York Timesthat TWC “has always been transparent with use of location data; the disclosures are fully appropriate, and we will defend them vigorously.”

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    Happy International Privacy Day 2019

    January 16th, 2019

    International Data Privacy Day is Monday, January 28. There are a variety of events occurring to celebrate. Visit the official site to find events near your area, such as a symposium on data privacy at Rice University. Take the time to think about how privacy is important in your life and how you can protect your rights. Please also donate to any number of organizations out there trying to protect your privacy rights.

    Happy holidays

    December 19th, 2018

    I’m taking a break from posting till January. Until then, I will sporadically link to stories of interest on Twitter so follow me there @privacylives.