Politics, Economics, and the Law
It wasn’t “news” the last time I wrote about social media and the degredation of privacy, and it isn’t this time either. It wouldn’t have even been “news” if I’d written on this a couple of weeks ago, when I meant to.
Paul Venezia wrote a good article comparing what is being done in digital space to analogous situations in physical space. The thrust seems to be that these sort of snooping activities, all too common now, are widespread mainly because they’re very easy to do, and there aren’t as many laws concerning them. Reading your email is somehow different from reading your physical mail beacuse, well… it just is. Internet snooping, while it would certainly seem to violate the legal protections of privacy, doesn’t violate the letter. And that makes it A-okay.
A Texas researcher added an app to Facebook, allowing you to name enemies. I haven’t kept up with the story, if there’s indeed a story to keep up with, but by now the app could well have been axed. It’s well known that Facebook has consistently told users to get bent regarding a ‘dislike’ feature. The advertisers-first angle is, of course, spot-on. Facebook is an artificially friendly(ish) place, and that’s good for Facebook’s customers. If the only available options are to either like something, or ignore it, that suits companies just fine. No one can ever hate them, and they’re all seperated only by the degree to which people love them. It’s hard to fault Facebook, really. Most of us would probably do something quite similar, if hawking users’ information would net us $4.27 billion dollars during the year.
On the topic of Facebook, the House shot down a bill that would have outlawed the practice of employers requesting Facebook login information. Also fun, they’re claiming rights to the word ‘book.’ And here’s a look at what Facebook sends police if they subpeona your account.
More in privacy and security news:
Found on Popehat, the Ninth Circuit rejects the government’s attempts to base criminal prosecution on violations of usage agreements. The majority opinion is a pretty entertaining read, too.
The NSA, fattened on post-9/11 dollars, is building a gigantic data center in Utah. I’ll have more to say on this in the future, because it’s a Really Big Deal, but for now I’m just somewhat alarmed. I’d encourage you to be alarmed as well. I’d also encourage you to download a copy of TrueCrypt, and encrypt all your data. Maybe your email too, just for giggles. If my tax dollars are in some small way paying for this, I want to make sure they’ve got plenty to keep them entertained. AES encryption with a suitably strong password should keep even the government busy for a while.
Get out your chemicals and rubber hose, the FBI wants to “advance the science of interrogation.”
Well, appeals courts have made rulings. The 10th has rejected an appeal on the grounds that no verdict has been rendered in the original case, and the 11th is saying that decryption is tantamount to testimony, and therefore subject to fifth amendment protections. I like this reasoning, myself. The issue going to the Supreme Court is most likely inevitable, but in the meantime it can’t hurt to accumulate some rulings that forbid forced decryption of data. A distinction being made by courts seems to be between data investigators know is on a hard drive, and investigators wishing to decrypt data so that they can poke around a hard drive and see what they can find.
CNET posted an article yesterday concerning a distressing ruling by a Colorado federal judge where he decided that American citizens can be forced to decrypt hard drives in order to allow law enforcement to examine the contents.
In his ruling, Judge Blackburn writes:
“I find and conclude that the Fifth Amendment is not implicated by requiring production of the unencrypted contents…”
I suppose this is the sort of thing about which reasonable people can disagree. The fifth amendment asserts that, among other things, a citizen cannot “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” One might assert that, in decrypting your data, you are not actually witnissing against yourself. Can we reason that the typing of the passphrase is a form of speech, and therefore would qualify as a form of “witnessing”?
As one might expect, Judge Blackburn trots out the “public interest” show pony in his justification, and asks to Think of the Children™, remember the terrorists, etc.
“Public interests will be harmed absent requiring defendants to make available unencrypted contents in circumstances like these. Failing to compel Ms. Fricosu amounts to a concession to her and potential criminals (be it in child exploitation, national security, terrorism, financial crimes or drug trafficking cases) [. . .]”
There have been other cases where this has come up (referenced in the CNET article), and given the conflicting end results it seems likely this will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the semi-near future. The case immediately in question involves money laundering and fraud.
This seems as good a time as any to segue into the topic of encryption and file erasure. While it remains to be seen what the final word is regarding the courts’ ability to compel you to decrypt your data, it is still good practice to encrypt anything you wish to remain private, especially on portable devices which may be lost or stolen. Most likely you have no crimes to hide from the police, but you almost certainly have some kind of information that you’d prefer not to be disclosed to all and sundry. Bank information, various email and social accounts left logged-in, etc. Truecrypt is a fantastic open source encryption program that I’d highly recommend. Also, as you may or may not be aware, deleting files from your computer does not actually remove them, but only marks the space free. If you want something to acutally disappear, it must be overwritten. I would recommend Eraser for this task. In a world of ever-shrinking privacy, you must take personal responsibility to keep what you can of it.
(Hat tip to The Agitator for posting the article link.)
UPDATE: Discussion to be found on The Volokh Conspiracy.