Intersection: Sidewalks & Public Space

Chapter by Melissa Ngo

"The Myth of Security Under Camera Surveillance"

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    U.S. Supreme Court: Warrants Needed to Search Cellphones After Arrest

    Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

    In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Riley v. California (court pdf; archive pdf) that the police need search warrants to search individuals’ cellphones after their arrest, which is a substantial victory for privacy rights. (Note: This decision is issued for two cases – Riley v. California, No. 13-132, and United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212. Riley concerned two searches of a smartphone after David Riley was arrested, and Wurie concerned the search of a flip phone after Brima Wurie was arrested.) Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for eight of the justices. Justice Samuel Alito joined in the judgment, but he wrote a separate concurrence.

    In the opinion, Justice Roberts noted that cellphones, “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy” and “Cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals.” He explained, “[W]e generally determine whether to exempt a given type of search from the warrant requirement ‘by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.’” In this case, the justices found that individual privacy trumped government interests.

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    National Journal: Privacy Groups Sound the Alarm Over FBI’s Facial-Recognition Technology

    Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

    The National Journal reports that privacy organizations are asking the Department of Justice to consider the privacy implications for the FBI’s controversial facial-recognition technology database, which will soon be fully operational:

    More than 30 privacy and civil-liberties groups are asking the Justice Department to complete a long-promised audit of the FBI’s facial-recognition database.

    The groups argue the database, which the FBI says it uses to identify targets, could pose privacy risks to every American citizen because it has not been properly vetted, possesses dubious accuracy benchmarks, and may sweep up images of ordinary people not suspected of wrongdoing.

    In a joint letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others warn that an FBI facial-recognition program “has undergone a radical transformation” since its last privacy review six years ago. That lack of recent oversight “raises serious privacy and civil-liberty concerns,” the groups contend. [...]

    The Next Generation Identification program—a biometric database that includes iris scans and palm prints along with facial recognition—is scheduled to become fully operational later this year and has not undergone a rigorous privacy litmus test—known as a Privacy Impact Assessment—since 2008, despite pledges from government officials. Read more »

    Center for Investigative Reporting: Privacy, accuracy concerns as license-plate readers expand

    Thursday, June 19th, 2014

    The Center for Investigative Reporting looks into privacy questions concerning the use of license-plate readers:

    [Today,] the use of license-plate readers has emerged as one of the biggest concerns among privacy advocates. Car-tracking technology is becoming ubiquitous in cities around the United States, and the types of data collected and analyzed with the help of license-plate readers is expanding into other realms of personal information.

    Documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting show that a leading maker of license-plate readers wants to merge the vehicle identification technology with other sources of identifying information. Vigilant Solutions is pushing a system that eventually could help fuse public records, license plates and facial recognition databases for police in the field.

    The Livermore company released facial recognition software last year for use in stationary and mobile devices. The technology uses algorithms to determine whether a person’s face matches that of someone in a law enforcement database. Like license-plate readers, privacy advocates say, the technology can make incorrect identifications that ensnare innocent people. Read more »

    CNN: Data surveillance centers: Crime fighters or ‘spy machines?’

    Thursday, May 29th, 2014

    CNN reports on data surveillance centers and the controversial privacy, liberty and security questions that they raise:

    Some residents of Oakland, California, fear their community is creating a monster. The city calls it the Domain Awareness Center, but opponents call it a “spy machine” and a potential “tool of injustice.”

    Known as “the DAC,” it’s a proposed central surveillance facility where authorities can monitor the Port of Oakland and the city’s airport to protect against potential terrorism.

    But the broader issue of centralized data surveillance poses serious privacy questions for millions of people in cities around the globe. [...]

    The danger, say opponents, is putting all these data resources into one place.

    “If you need to go to four different locations to track someone’s movements across town, you’re not going to do it unless you have a good reason,” said Linda Lye of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “But when you can do it with the press of a button because it’s all at your fingertips, you’ll end up doing it based on your idle curiosity.” That, Lye said, creates a situation ripe for abuse. [...] Read more »

    FTC: Snapchat Settles Charges That Promises of Disappearing Messages Were False

    Monday, May 12th, 2014

    The Federal Trade Commission announced that messaging service Snapchat has agreed to a proposed settlement (subject to public comment) on charges that the app violated the privacy of its users. The FTC said:

    Snapchat, the developer of a popular mobile messaging app, has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived consumers with promises about the disappearing nature of messages sent through the service.  The FTC case also alleged that the company deceived consumers over the amount of personal data it collected and the security measures taken to protect that data from misuse and unauthorized disclosure. In fact, the case alleges, Snapchat’s failure to secure its Find Friends feature resulted in a security breach that enabled attackers to compile a database of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers. [...]

    Touting the “ephemeral” nature of “snaps,” the term used to describe photo and video messages sent via the app, Snapchat marketed the app’s central feature as the user’s ability to send snaps that would “disappear forever” after the sender-designated time period expired.  Despite Snapchat’s claims, the complaint describes several simple ways that recipients could save snaps indefinitely. [...] Read more »

    New York Times: How Urban Anonymity Disappears When All Data is Tracked

    Friday, April 25th, 2014

    The New York Times reports on the question of privacy through anonymity in public and how that can change as there is more constant surveillance of public spaces and retention of that surveillance data:

    Information about our innocuous public acts is denser in urban areas, and can now be cheaply aggregated. Cameras and sensors, increasingly common in the urban landscape, pick up all sorts of behaviors. These are stored and categorized to draw personal conclusions — all of it, thanks to cheap electronics and cloud computing, for affordable sums. [...]

    On Friday, a company called LocoMobi announced it had acquired Nautical Technologies, the license plate recognition technology of a Canadian company called Apps Network Appliances. This gear sits at the entrance of a parking lot, identifying the license plates of incoming cars. That data goes to the cloud computing infrastructure of Amazon Web Services. When a car pulls out of the lot, the camera takes another picture, computers calculate how long a car was parked, and a charge is applied.

    The company’s co-founder foresees tying the system to a car’s navigation system, enabling drivers to find and reserve nearby parking spots without wasteful driving. A license plate is certainly public information, and this all seems like a boon for drivers.

    Eventually, however, something else happens, too. Read more »