Here are a few recent stories about privacy and technology. The Washington Post reports on how metadata from cellphones can reveal private information, such as whether you’ve had an abortion. Ars Technica reports on a new tracking system on the Moscow Metro that is raising substantial privacy and civil liberty questions. The New York Times reports on a cheap tool that allows for ordinary people to spy on each other and also reports that facial-recognition technology is making gains in surveillance systems. The Huffington Post reports on the possibility of data collection by Google’s self-driving cars. PBS has a video story about online privacy.
“Here’s how phone metadata can reveal your affairs, abortions, and other secrets” Washington Post, August 27, 2013
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance of Americans’ phone calling records. On Monday, the ACLU asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction halting the program while its legality is litigated.
The program only collects metadata about Americans’ phone calls—who they call, when, and how long the calls last. In defending the program, the government has cited a controversial 1979 Supreme Court decision that held that phone records are not protected by the Fourth Amendment because consumers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their calling records.
But Ed Felten, a professor of computer science at Princeton University (and, full disclosure, my former graduate school advisor) argues that this intuition is wrong. In a legal brief supporting the ACLU’s request, Felten argues that the distinction between call “contents” and “metadata” isn’t always clear. Sometimes, the mere fact that someone called a particular number reveals extremely sensitive personal information.
“Moscow Metro says new tracking system is to find stolen phones; no one believes them” Ars Technica, July 29, 2013
On Monday, a major Russian newspaper reported that Moscow’s metro system is planning what appears to be a mobile phone tracking device in its metro stations—ostensibly to search for stolen phones.
According to Izvestia (Google Translate), Andrey Mokhov, the operations chief of the Moscow Metro system’s police department, said that the system will have a range of five meters (16 feet). “If the [SIM] card is wanted, the system automatically creates a route of its movement and passes that information to the station attendant,” Mokhov said.
Many outside experts, both in and outside Russia, though, believe that what local authorities are actually deploying is a “stingray,” or “IMSI catcher”—a device that can fool a phone and SIM into reading from a fake mobile phone tower. (IMSI, or an International Mobile Subscriber Identity number, is a 15-digit unique number that sits on every SIM card.) Such devices can be used as a simple way to see what phone numbers are being used in a given area or even to intercept the audio of voice calls.
“A Cheap Spying Tool With a High Creepy Factor” New York Times, August 2, 2013
Brendan O’Connor is a security researcher. How easy would it be, he recently wondered, to monitor the movement of everyone on the street – not by a government intelligence agency, but by a private citizen with a few hundred dollars to spare?
Mr. O’Connor, 27, bought some plastic boxes and stuffed them with a $25, credit-card size Raspberry Pi Model A computer and a few over-the-counter sensors, including Wi-Fi adapters. He connected each of those boxes to a command and control system, and he built a data visualization system to monitor what the sensors picked up: all the wireless traffic emitted by every nearby wireless device, including smartphones.
“Facial Scanning Is Making Gains in Surveillance” New York Times, August 21, 2013
WASHINGTON — The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.
The Department of Homeland Security tested a crowd-scanning project called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System — or BOSS — last fall after two years of government-financed development. Although the system is not ready for use, researchers say they are making significant advances. That alarms privacy advocates, who say that now is the time for the government to establish oversight rules and limits on how it will someday be used.
“Google Self-Driving Cars Should Record Driver Moves Despite Privacy Fears, U.S. Official Says” Huffington Post, August 28, 2013
SAN DIEGO — Top U.S. safety official Deborah Hersman wants to see Google’s self-driving cars do more than switch lanes and brake for red lights. She said she also hopes the vehicles record what they do.
Before Google’s self-driving cars are admitted en masse onto the nation’s roads, the vehicles should not only be safe, but be equipped with mandatory data recorders that would log any crash or mishap, said Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“When you have a driverless car, you have to demonstrate on the front end that you have the data that shows it’s safe. But we would also say, you need to make sure you have good data recording capabilities, so when there is an event, you can understand what happened,” Hersman said in an interview at the Governors Highway Safety Association’s annual meeting. “There’s got to be good data demonstrated and good data captured.”
“Online Privacy: How Did We Get Here?” PBS video, July 25, 2013
As technology has evolved over the past two centuries, so have our expectations about privacy. This new digital world allows us to connect with each other with increasing ease, but it has also left our personal information readily available, and our privacy vulnerable. Cultural norms have pushed us all online, seemingly at the mercy of whatever terms of service are put before us. Cookies and tracking allow companies to collect limitless amounts of information about us, often more than we’d share with family and friends. And in the push for national security, the government has collected vast amounts of information as well, often without our knowledge. With the NSA leak reigniting this important debate, we take a closer look at the state of privacy in the digital age. Featuring: Robert Ellis Smith, Roger Williams University School of Law; Helen Nissenbaum, NYU; Julian Sanchez, Cato Institute.