I’m taking time off for the holidays and will resume posting here in January. I’ll be posting sporadically on Twitter, so follow me there @privacylives if you want privacy news.
In the latest news concerning a 2012 circumvention of a Web browser’s privacy settings, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that digital advertising company PointRoll — part of media giant Gannett, which owns USA Today and Gannett Broadcasting — has agreed to a $750,000 settlement with New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland and Illinois.
To recap: In February 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported on new research by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer that shows four companies seek to circumvent consumers’ privacy settings in Apple’s browser, Safari. The four companies are: Google, Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group and PointRoll. Google said the circumvention was a mistake and it has disabled the code, but there was (pdf) public criticism, including a complaint (pdf) filed with the Federal Trade Commission. Questions were raised about whether the Safari circumvention meant that Google had violated a settlement it made with the FTC last year over Google’s Buzz product. The Internet services giant had agreed to a comprehensive privacy program to settle charges (pdf) it “used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched its social network, Google Buzz. In August 2012, the FTC announced Google would have to pay a minimal-for-the-Internet-giant fine of $22.5 million to settle charges that it circumvented users’ Do Not Track privacy settings in Safari. In November 2013, Maryland announced that it joined 36 states at the District of Columbia in settling with Google for $17 million. Read more »
I’ve written before about how postings on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other social-media sites have been used against individuals. Such sites have been used to gather evidence in trials against jurors and defendants, in divorce cases, against employees (which can lead to lawsuits), politicians and high school students.
We’ve seen it affect applicants to jobs in the United States and abroad. For a while, there was increasing focus on the practice by some employers of requiring job applicants to hand over their passwords or allow access to their private accounts on social-networking sites in order to gather personal data when the social-networking profiles are closed to the public. States including California, Illinois and Maryland passed laws to protect employees from such prying by employers; Maryland’s law includes exemptions for employers for some investigations into possible wrongdoing by employees.
Recently, the New York Times reported that students are scrubbing their accounts in anticipation of colleges and universities reviewing the social-media postings of applicants. The social-media searches by colleges and universities have been occurring for several years. Six years ago, education services firm Kaplan surveyed 320 college and university admissions officers and found “one out of ten admissions officers has visited an applicant’s social networking Web site as part of the admissions decision-making process.” Read more »
There has been considerable debate about the ethical, privacy, and civil liberty issues surrounding the unauthorized or unknowing retention and use of babies’ blood samples for purposes other than disease-screening in the United States and abroad. Often, parents are not told of the possible lengthy data retention period, possible distribution to other agencies, and possible other purposes for which their children’s blood samples could be used. Now, WNCN in North Carolina looks at the situation, and what it finds shows there are also questions about de-identification or “anonymization” of newborns’ medical data.
Asked what the government plans to do with the data, Scott Zimmerman, director of the N.C. State Public Health Lab, said, “So if an outside agency such as an academic institution approaches us and asks for dried blood spots, there are two approaches that can be taken. One, we can get parental consent to release that dried blood sample to an outside entity. We will not release any DBS that contains patient information without parental consent.”
Zimmerman added, “The only other way DBS are released is if they are de-identified.”
Researchers have shown that, often, data that has been de-identified can be re-identified (or “de-anonymized”), and sensitive data could be linked back to an individual. Therefore, there is a significant privacy concern for individuals’ whose information is shared, without their consent, in this manner. Read more »
At a recent dinner, Uber Senior Vice President Emil Michael suggested that Uber could spend “a million dollars” to hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who were critical of the company, a service for hailing taxis, private cars or ride-shares. According to BuzzFeed: ”That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into ‘your personal lives, your families,’ and give the media a taste of its own medicine.” He mentioned specifically focusing on the private details of the life of journalist Sarah Lacy. Lacy’s response is here. Michael has apologized for his comments, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said Michael’s comments “were terrible and do not represent the company.”
If Uber were to investigate journalists or other critics, it would not be the first company to do so. Two cases involved Germany’s Deutsche Bank and Hewlett-Packard. In 2009, Deutsche Bank fired two executives because of a scandal in which bank executives hired investigators who spied on board members and a shareholder. In early 2006, then-Hewlett-Packard Chair Patricia Dunn hired private investigators that used “pretexting” to acquire the personal phone records of board members and journalists in an effort to locate the source of leaks to the media. (“Pretexting” is a fancy word for “pretending to be someone else in order to get his or her personal information” — in this case, phone records.) There were various criminal and Congressional investigations. Dunn said she didn’t know that the investigators were pretexting, and the charges against her were eventually dismissed. The scandal prompted Congress to pass the Telephone and Records Privacy Act of 2006, which prohibits pretexting to gather phone record data (with exceptions for law enforcement).
BuzzFeed also reported that another Uber executive, the general manager of Uber NYC, did something that also raises privacy questions. During an e-mail exchange with a journalist, the Uber executive “accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.” This raises the specter of an insider misusing or abusing his data-access privileges to invade the privacy of an individual. We’ve talked before about the problems that arise when insiders abuse or misuse their access to individuals’ data. There have been many such cases. Read more »