Tag: privacy

Privacy Regulation and Political Economy

Good-hearted people want to cure hunger, ignorance, and other human deficits. Many see the cure in taking from the group of “haves” and giving to the “have-nots.” Along with the injustice of the transfer itself, libertarians like to point out the backward incentives that generous, systematic giving creates. Poverty and ignorance becomes a low-end, but survivable, mode of living. It’s not really a surprise that these problems respond to subsidy by becoming intractable.

That’s simple math to people who understand incentives, so it shouldn’t be hard to recognize incentive structures and their warping in other areas. Take federalism. The Constitution set out a design for government that aligned political incentives well. With a limited federal government and plenary powers left with the states, elected officials closer to the people would provide better government because they would be responsible to smaller numbers of people at the ballot box.

When state officials go wrong, good-hearted, economically-minded people want to cure their deficits. Many see the cure in removing power from the state level to the federal through preemption. State regulation can interfere with national markets, and there is a Commerce Clause that arguably permits national regulation of all things commercial.

But the Commerce Clause was not a grant of plenary authority over commerce anywhere in the United States. It gave Congress power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Think of a border sentry tasked mostly with preventing anyone from erecting gates.

One can “fix” bad state regulation by replacing it with a less-bad, nationally uniform rule. But doing so frees state officials from responsibility. The subsidy makes carelessness a low-end, but survivable mode of governing.

So with California Attorney General Kamala Harris brandishing $2,500 fines per download of apps in California if they don’t meet the terms of the California Online Privacy Protection Act, I don’t think the right answer is for the federal government to whisk in with its own less-bad privacy law that preempts California’s. The attorney general and the authors of California’s law should be allowed to let their behavior have its effects in their state, responding to their state’s voters if it has negative consequences.

The federal government’s only response should be to make clear that there are limits on California’s ability to bring out-of-staters into court. The federal government should preserve the right of people and businesses to exit states that make themselves unfriendly through high taxes, poor services, and inefficient regulation. This will set up the incentive structure under which governance in the United States will thrive, perhaps at the cost of California sinking into the ocean.

A No-Brainer: Bad for Privacy and Liberty

CNET journalist Declan McCullagh has lit up the Internets today with his reporting on a revamped Senate online privacy bill that would give an alphabet soup of federal agencies unprecedented access to email and other online communications.

Leahy’s rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies – including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission – to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.

This would be an astounding expansion of government authority to snoop. And it comes at a time when the public is getting wind through the Petraeus scandal of just how easy it already is to access our private communications.

Assuming McCullagh’s reading of the draft he obtained is remotely plausible, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) should reconsider his current course–if he wants to maintain the mantle of a privacy leader, at least.

The Washington, D.C., meta-story is almost as interesting. Who is where on the bill? And when? The ACLU’s Christopher Calabrese told McCullagh last night, “We believe a warrant is the appropriate standard for any contents.” Freedom Works came out of the gate this morning with a petition asking for oppositions to Senator Leahy’s revised bill.

The Center for Democracy did not have a comment when McCullagh asked, though spokesman Brock Meeks suggests via Twitter today that McCullagh didn’t try hard enough to reach him. The reason that’s important? CDT has a history of equivocation and compromise in the face of privacy-invasive legislation and policies. At this point, the group has said via Twitter that they “wouldn’t support the rewrite described in CNET.” That’s good news, and it’s consistent with people’s expectations for CDT both on the outside and within.

There will undoubtedly be more to this story. Emails should not only be statutorily protected, but Fourth Amendment protected, based on the framework for communications privacy I laid out for the Supreme Court in Cato’s Florida v. Jardines brief.

Feds May Not Have ObamaCare Operational on Time

The Washington Post reports:

By the end of this week, states must decide whether they will build a health-insurance exchange or leave the task to the federal government. The question is, with as many as 17 states expected to leave it to the feds, can the Obama administration handle the workload.

“These are systems that typically take two or three years to build,” says Kevin Walsh, managing director of insurance exchange services at Xerox. “The last time I looked at the calendar, that’s not what we’re working with.”…

The Obama administration has known for awhile that there’s a decent chance it could end up doing a lot of this. Now though, they’re finding out how big their workload will actually become.

Betcha didn’t see that coming.

Part of the reason the workload is so heavy? “Buying health insurance is a lot more difficult than purchasing a plane ticket on Expedia.” You don’t say. But I thought that’s why we needed government to do it.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs Are Sense-Enhancing Technology

The Supreme Court heard oral argument yesterday in Florida v. Jardines, a case that examined whether bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a home looking for drugs was a Fourth Amendment search.

Having attended the oral argument (transcript; audio forthcoming), my sense is that a majority on the Court thinks dog-sniffs at front doors (absent a warrant) go too far. But few of the justices know why. The one who does is Justice Kagan.

What rationale might the Court use to decide the case? Even after United States v. Jones threw open Fourth Amendment doctrine, the instinct for using “reasonable expectation of privacy” analysis is strong. (I’ve joked that many lawyers think the word “privacy” can’t be uttered without the prefix “reasonable expectation of.”) This is where much of the discussion focused, and Justice Breyer seemed the most firmly committed to its use.

But the insufficiency of “reasonable expectation” doctrine for providing a decision rule was apparent when Breyer teed up Jardines’s counsel to knock the case out of the park. There was much discussion of what one reasonably expects at the front door of a home. Neighbors may come up. Trick-or-treaters may come up. Neighbors may come up with their dogs. The police may come to the door for a “knock and talk.” Neighbors, trick-or-treaters, dogs, and police officers may all come up and discover odors coming from the house. What makes the drug-sniffing dog unexpected?, Justice Breyer asked:

Do in fact policemen, like other people, come up and breathe? Yes. Do we expect it? Yes, we expect people to come up and breathe. But do we expect them to do what happened here? And at that point, I get into the question: What happened here?

Joelis Jardines’s counsel could not say what made the dog unexpected.

Perhaps property law draws the line that excludes government agents with drug-sniffing dogs, while allowing other visitors to come to the door. Not so. Justice Alito in particular pressed Jardines’s counsel for any case that had excluded dogs (drug-sniffing or otherwise) from the implied consent one gives to visitors on the walk and at the front door. The argument is unavailing, this idea that Florida’s property law (put into play by the majority holding in Jones, which relied on property rights) solve this case. Florida property law doesn’t exclude dogs from the implied permission it gives to lawful visitors on residential property.

None of this is to say that the government had it easy. Florida’s counsel had uttered just three sentences when Justice Kennedy informed him that the rule from Illinois v. Caballes would not carry the day. In Caballes, the Court found there to be no search at all when government agents walked a drug-sniffing dog around a car stopped for other reasons. (I attacked what I called the “Jacobsen/Caballes corollary” to the Katz decision in the Cato Institute’s brief to the Court, and also in this Jurist commentary.)

It won’t be the rule from Caballes. So what is the rationale that decides this case?

Justice Scalia was on the scent when he reasoned with the government’s counsel about what might be done with binoculars.

“As I understand the law,” he said, “the police are entitled to use binoculars to look into the house if—if the residents leave the blinds open, right?”

Florida’s counsel agreed.

“But if they can’t see clearly enough from a distance, they’re not entitled to go onto the curtilage of the house, inside the gate, and use the binoculars from that vantage point, are they?”

“They’re not, Your Honor.”

“Why isn’t it the same thing with the dog?”

Justice Kagan knows that it is. And she used Justice Scalia’s reasoning in Kyllo v. United States, the precedent that is on all fours with this case.

She recited from Kyllo: “ ‘We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area constitutes a search, at least where, as here, the technology in question is not in general public use.’” And she asked Florida’s counsel, “[W]hat part of that language does not apply in this case?”

“Franky’s nose is not technology,” he replied, referring to the dog. “It’s—he’s using—he’s availing himself of God-given senses in the way that dogs have helped mankind for centuries.”

The existence of dogs in human society for centuries might help the government if dogs had been used for drug-detection all this time. And then only if the question was what it is reasonable to expect.

What matters is that a drug-sniffing dog is indeed a form of sense-enhancing technology. Selected for its strong sense of smell, and trained to convey when particular odors are present, a drug-sniffing dog makes perceptible to law enforcement what is otherwise imperceptible.

And that is the very definition of searching. At least as Black’s Law Dictionary has it: “‘Search’ consists of looking for or seeking out that which is otherwise concealed from view.”

Police officers use dogs to search for drugs and other materials in which they are interested but which they cannot see by themselves. A drug-sniffing dog is a cuddly chromatograph.

And just now, quietly, you have seen at work the rationale that the Supreme Court should use to decide Florida v. Jardines. Was it a search to bring a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a house? The Court should apply the plain meaning of the word “search” to the facts of the case that has come before it. There’s no need for doctrine at all.

The Fourth Amendment in the Supreme Court This Week

Prior to the development of trade and commerce, movable property was “not esteemed of so high a nature, nor paid so much regard to by the law,” Blackstone tells us in his commentaries on the laws of England. Such property in transit was routinely confiscated by authorities or tariffed at exorbitant rates.

When commercial relations expanded, the quantity and value of personal property increased, and the law “learned to conceive different ideas of it.” Legal protection for movable property increased.

In parallel to the growth of commerce in movables centuries ago, commerce in information is on the rise today. It may be time to “conceive different ideas of it” as well—different ideas that accord information similar protection. This is what a group of amici have encouraged the Supreme Court to do in a brief on an important privacy case being argued this week.

In Clapper v. Amnesty International, the Gun Owners Foundation, Gun Owners of America, Inc., the U.S. Justice Foundation, the Downsize D.C. Foundation, DownsizeDC.org, and the Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund have argued that the Court should recognize a property interest in confidential communications. Doing so would more clearly establish the standing of the respondents in this case to challenge the global wiretapping program Congress established in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

William J. Olson, lead counsel on the brief, articulated the issues well in an email distributing it:

Our amicus brief in the Clapper case extrapolates from the court’s holding in Jones and identifies the property interests at stake in this case as confidential communications that are critical to the practice of law and of the enterprise of journalism. Using a property analysis, the citizens in Clapper have a protectable property interest in their electronic communications as they do in their written communications. Thus, even though plaintiffs are not “targeted” by the Government, the Government’s contention that their search and seizure of plaintiffs’ communications is only “incidental” is unavailing.

Jones v. United States, of course, is the case decided in January, in which government agents tracked a suspect’s car for four weeks using a GPS device without a valid warrant. The Supreme Court found unanimously that this violated the Fourth Amendment. My article in the most recent Cato Supreme Court Review (2011-12) analyzes the case, and you can get a taste of that analysis in the most recent Cato Policy Report (September/October 2012).

I also discussed the Fourth Amendment status of communications in the Cato Institute’s brief in Florida v. Jardines, which is also being argued in the Supreme Court this week. The Court found Fourth Amendment protection for postal mail in an 1877 case, but stumbled when faced with the next iteration of communications technology.

In the year this Court decided Ex Parte Jackson, both Western Union and the Bell Company began establishing voice telephone services. Gerald W. Brock, The Second Information Revolution 28 (Harvard University Press, 2003). Now, instead of written messages in the post, representations of the human voice itself began moving across distance, at light speed, in a way few people understood. This is the technology this Court confronted in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).

The Court handled this technological development poorly. Chief Justice William Taft fixed woodenly on the material things listed in the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause. Wiretapping had not affected any of the defendants’ tangible possessions, he found, so it had not affected their Fourth Amendment rights. Olmstead, 277 U.S. at 464. In dissent Justice Butler noted how “contracts between telephone companies and users contemplate the private use” of telephone facilities. “The communications belong to the parties between whom they pass,” he said. Olmstead, 277 U.S. at 487 (Butler, J., dissenting). Cf. Ex Parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1877) (“Letters and sealed packages … are as fully guarded from examination and inspection … as if they were retained by the parties forwarding them in their own domiciles.”).

Florida v. Jardines is not a communications case. The issue is whether the sniff of a trained narcotics-detection dog at the front door of a house is a Fourth Amendment search requiring probable cause. Cato’s brief invites the Court to dispense with the unworkable “reasonable expectation of privacy” test, using the plain meaning of “search” instead.

Black’s law dictionary defines “search” as “looking for or seeking out that which is otherwise concealed from view.” Smells that only trained dogs can detect are indeed otherwise concealed from humans.

Familiar though ordinary pet dogs are, a trained dog is a chromatograph. The Court should follow the Fourth Amendment’s language and precedents like Kyllo v. United States to find that a drug-dog’s sniff is a search.

A companion to Jardines, Florida v. Harris, is being argued the same day. That case will examine the sufficiency of drug-dogs as evidence of wrongdoing, an issue that has not received careful examination in the past.

So it’s a big week for the Fourth Amendment in the Supreme Court. Stay tuned for developments.

Want Privacy Choice? Papa’s Gonna Give You One

I was interested by the title of a paper called “Behavioral Advertising: The Offer You Cannot Refuse” by a small coterie of privacy activist/researchers. I love the Godfather movies, in which the statement, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” is a coolly tuxedoed plan to threaten someone with violence or death. I don’t love the paper’s attempt to show that government “interventions” are superior to markets in terms of freedom.

Behavioral advertisers are no mafiosi. They are not in the business of illegal coercion. They’re not in any kind of illegal business, in fact. The choice of title suggests that the authors may be biased toward making targeted advertising illegal. (The lead author argued in 2004 that Gmail should be shut down as a violation of California law.)

What was most interesting, though, was the paper’s unspoken battle with lock-in, or path dependence. That’s the idea in technology development that a given state of affairs perpetuates itself due to the costs of changing course.

The QWERTY keyboard is a famous example of lock-in. The story with QWERTY is that keys on early mechanical typewriters were arranged so that commonly used letters wouldn’t strike one another and jam together. The result was an inefficient arrangement of keys for the fingers, but it’s an arrangement that has stuck.

The reason why it has stuck is because of switching costs. Everybody who knows how to type knows how to type on a QWERTY keyboard. If you wanted to change to a more efficient keyboard, you’d have to change every keyboard and everyone’s training. That’s a huge cost to pay in exchange for a modest increase in efficiency. So we’ve got QWERTY.

Since as close to the beginning as I know of, Web browsers have been designed to store information delivered by Web sites and to return it to those sites. Cookies are the best known form of this, tiny files that allow a Web site to recognize the browser (inferentially, the user) and deliver custom content. There are also “Flash cookies,” more accurately called “local shared objects,” which can store information about users’ preferences, such as volume settings for Internet videos. Flash cookies can also be used to store unique identifiers to use in tracking. These things provide value to Internet users, and most Web sites make use of them to deliver better content.

The authors of the paper don’t like that. The path of Web browsing technology is not privacy protective, and they would call on regulators to fix that with a pair of interventions: preventing Flash cookies from “respawning” cookies (that is, recreating them when they have been deleted) and regulation of consumer-data markets to prevent marketers from learning information about consumers. This would uphold consumer choice, they argue. And they argue dubiously that their work “inverts the assumption that privacy interventions are paternalistic while market approaches promote freedom.”

Now, ask yourself: If the government came in and required everyone to train for and use the more efficient Dvorak keyboard, would that be a paternalistic step? The end result would be more efficient typing.

Of course it would be paternalistic.

So let’s be frank. This is an argument for paternalistic intervention, attempting to allay the authors’ concern about what a favorite technology of Internet users is doing to privacy.

And it is the authors’ privacy concerns, not Internet users’ at large. Opinion surveys in the privacy area are notorious for revealing that consumers will state a preference for privacy no matter what their true interests are.

The good news is that there is far less lock-in in the Internet browser area than in keyboards. Technologists can and do build browser modifications that prevent tracking of the type this article is concerned with.

Their real problem is that few people actually care as much as the authors do about whether or not they receive tailored advertisements. Few people want to use a browser that is essentially crippled to gain a sliver of privacy protection to which they are indifferent.

Paternalist? It sure is. And unlike a paternally driven switch to a better keyboard, this policy wouldn’t obviously make consumers better off.