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    Obama’s new federal privacy council long overdue, but Americans need more protections

    February 24th, 2016

    Recently, President Obama released a package of cybersecurity reform proposals. Along with these proposals, Obama also unveiled a new executive order: “Establishment of the Federal Privacy Council.” The council will be composed of senior privacy officials from at least 24 federal agencies, including Cabinet-level departments and NASA and the Office of Personnel Management, and “may also include other officials from agencies and offices, as the Chair may designate.”

    The new council is tasked with developing, coordinating and sharing ideas and best practices for federal programs to protect privacy and implement “appropriate privacy safeguards” throughout the administration.

    Although the council’s mission is important, this move seems incomplete. First, such a concerted effort to improve privacy protections throughout the federal government should have begun years ago. If privacy and security protections for sensitive personal data had been prioritized, there might not have been the problems caused by the hacker attack last year against the Office of Personnel Management, which did not use encryption or other such security technology to protect the information (including fingerprints) of the millions of current and former federal employees affected. Read more »

    Happy International Data Privacy Day 2016

    January 28th, 2016

    International Data Privacy Day is today. Take the time to think about how privacy is important in your life and how you can protect your rights from being infringed upon. Please also take the time to donate to any number of organizations out there trying to protect your privacy rights. Visit the official site to find events near your area.

    Organizations Must Protect Against Insider Threats to Security

    January 21st, 2016

    As personal information becomes more accessible and shareable through massive databases there is the question of security. Agencies and companies build protections against threats, but there is a unique problem with insider threats: Often, people are misusing or abusing their access privileges to private data rather than attempting to illegally gain access to the information.

    We’ve seen the problems that arise when insiders abuse or misuse their access privileges to individuals’ data and violate the individuals’ privacy rights. Last week, the Florida Times-Union reported that Jacksonville and a Highway Patrol trooper reached a settlement after she sued, accusing police of misusing their access to a driver’s license database to gather information on her and harass her.

    A similar situation is said to have occurred in Minnesota, where 104 officers from 18 agencies in the state accessed one woman’s “driver’s license record 425 times in what could be one of the largest private data breaches by law enforcement in history.” A state report later found such misuse was common.

    Federal databases also have the problem of insiders misusing or abusing their data-access privileges. A recent ProPublica investigation found a variety of privacy violations at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. “Some VA employees have used their access to medical records as a weapon in disputes or for personal gain, incident reports show,” such as one case where health data was improperly accessed and used in a divorce proceeding. Other individuals misused their authority to access medical information after suicides or suicide attempts by fellow employees. Read more »

    As Our Devices Increasingly Talk to Others, Privacy Questions Arise

    December 17th, 2015

    As technology continues to evolve and become integrated into our lives, there are significant questions about privacy and security. We’ve discussed before the “Internet of Things,” which is a computerized network of physical objects. In IoT, sensors and data-storage devices embedded in objects interact with Web services. Such connected televisions, refrigerators and other devices can raise privacy and security questions.

    For example, consider the “smart” or “connected” car. People buy such vehicles for the benefits of integrating technology into something where they can be for hours at a time. Your car or truck knows where you go and when. It knows how fast you drive and how quickly or slowly you brake. Your car knows if you’re wearing a seatbelt.

    Privacy experts have noted that unclear or vague privacy or usage policies could allow companies that collect drivers’ sensitive data to share or sell that information with others, creating databases that may invade the privacy of consumers. For example, the locations where individuals drive to could reveal deeply personal information. Do you go to a church or mosque at the same time every week? Have you visited an adoption or fertility organization? Did you join a protest or demonstration? Did you recently start going to a building that includes the offices of several psychotherapists or one that houses a drug addiction clinic?

    One privacy issue recently arose with connected automobiles — and it caught many people off-guard. ABC25 in West Palm Beach, Fla., reported that a Ford car with opt-in 911 Assist allegedly ratted out a hit-and-run driver in Florida. Read more »

    Legislators, Federal Officials Seek Limits on Use of Stingray Surveillance Technology

    November 10th, 2015

    Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently introduced a bill, H.R. 3871, The Stingray Privacy Act (pdf), to limit the use of cellphone surveillance technology known as cell-site simulators or “Stingray” technology. The bill, Chaffetz says, “would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before deploying a cell site simulator consistent with recently issued federal guidance and the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. H.R. 3871 does provide targeted exceptions for exigent circumstances and foreign intelligence surveillance.” The federal guidance mentioned is recent policies on cell-site simulators released by the departments of Justice (pdf) and Homeland Security (pdf), with various exceptions for special circumstances. The new guidance was released after public and Congressional scrutiny of the use of the surveillance devices.

    The Stingray and similar cellphone surveillance technologies are extremely invasive. They simulate a cellphone tower so that nearby mobile devices will connect to it and reveal their location, text messages, voice calls, and other personal data. The surveillance technology scoops up data on every cellphone within its range, so innocent people’s private conversations and texts are gathered, too.

    Dozens of police departments nationwide use this cell-site simulator surveillance technology, and there are a lot of questions about how they’re using it. Even the IRS admitted in Congressional testimony that it using the surveillance technology. Read more »

    Libraries Fight to Protect Users’ Rights to Privacy

    October 23rd, 2015

    A recent case in New Hampshire illustrates how libraries continue to be battlegrounds for privacy rights. The Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, N.H., a town of about 13,000 people, decided to join Tor, an anonymization network for online activities. It was a pilot for a bigger Tor relay system envisioned by the Library Freedom Project. According to Ars Technica, the Library Freedom Project seeks to set up Tor exit relays in libraries throughout the country. “As of now, only about 1,000 exit relays exist worldwide. If this plan is successful, it could vastly increase the scope and speed of the famed anonymizing network.”

    The Department of Homeland Security learned of the pilot, Pro Publica reported: “Soon after state authorities received an email about it from an agent at the Department of Homeland Security. [...] After a meeting at which local police and city officials discussed how Tor could be exploited by criminals, the library pulled the plug on the project.”

    After much criticism of the DHS and local law enforcement interference and petitions to reinstate the pilot project (including one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation), the Kilton library’s board voted a few weeks later to reinstate the project. ”Alison Macrina, the founder of the Library Freedom Project which brought Tor to Kilton Public Library, said the risk of criminal activity taking place on Tor is not a sufficient reason to suspend its use. For comparison, she said, the city is not going to shut down its roads simply because some people choose to drive drunk,” the Valley News reported. Read more »