Tag: privacy

A Bizarre Privacy Indictment

Page one of today’s Washington Times—above the fold—has a fascinating story indicting the White House for failing to disclose that it will collect and retain material posted by visitors to its pages on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube. The story is fascinating because so much attention is being paid to it. (It was first reported, as an aside at least, by Major Garrett on Fox News a month ago.)

The question here is not over the niceties of the Presidential Records Act, which may or may not require collection and storage of the data. It’s over people’s expectations when they use the Internet.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the White House signaled that it would insist on open dealings with Internet users and, in fact, should feel obliged to disclose that it is collecting such information.

Of course, the White House is free to disclose or announce anything it wants. It might be nice to disclose this particular data practice. But is it really a breach of privacy—and, through failure to notify, transparency—if there isn’t a distinct disclosure about this particular data collection?

Let’s talk about what people expect when they use the Internet and social networking sites. Though the Internet is a gigantic copying machine, some may not know that data is collected online. They may imagine that, in the absence of notice, the data they post will not be warehoused and redistributed, even though that’s exactly what the Internet does.

There can be special problems when it is the government collecting the information. The White House’s “flag [at] whitehouse [dot] gov” tip line was concerning because it asked Americans to submit information about others. There is a history of presidents amassing “enemies” lists. But this is not the complaint with White House tracking of data posted on its social networking sites.

People typically post things online because they want publicity for those things—often they want publicity for the fact that they are the ones posting, too. When they write letters, they give publicity to the information in the letter and the fact of having sent it. When they hold up signs, they seek publicity for the information on the signs, and their own role in publicizing it.

How strange that taking note of the things people publicize is taken as a violation of their privacy. And failing to notify them of the fact they will be observed and recorded is a failure of transparency.

America, for most of what you do, you do not get “notice” of the consequences. Instead, in the real world and online, you grown-ups are “on notice” that information you put online can be copied, stored, retransmitted, and reused in countless ways. Aside from uses that harm you, you have little recourse against that after you have made the decision to release information about yourself.

The White House is not in the wrong here. If there’s a lesson, it’s that people are responsible for their own privacy and need to be aware of how information moves in the online environment.

Public Information and Public Choice

MalamudOne of the high points of last week’s Gov 2.0 Summit was transparency champion Carl Malamud’s speech on the history of public access to government information – ending with a clarion call for  government documents, data, and deliberation to be made more freely available online. The argument is a clear slam-dunk on simple grounds of fairness and democratic accountability. If we’re going to be bound by the decisions made by regulatory agencies and courts, surely at a bare minimum we’re all entitled to know what those decisions are and how they were arrived at. But as many of the participants at the conference stressed, it’s not enough for the data to be available – it’s important that it be free, and in a machine readable form. Here’s one example of why, involving the PACER system for court records:

The fees for bulk legal data are a significant barrier to free enterprise, but an insurmountable barrier for the public interest. Scholars, nonprofit groups, journalists, students, and just plain citizens wishing to analyze the functioning of our courts are shut out. Organizations such as the ACLU and EFF and scholars at law schools have long complained that research across all court filings in the federal judiciary is impossible, because an eight cent per page charge applied to tens of millions of pages makes it prohibitive to identify systematic discrimination, privacy violations, or other structural deficiencies in our courts.

If you’re thinking in terms of individual cases – even those involving hundreds or thousands of pages of documents – eight cents per page might not sound like a very serious barrier. If you’re trying to do a meta-analysis that looks for patterns and trends across the body of cases as a whole, not only is the formal fee going to be prohibitive in the aggregate, but even free access won’t be much help unless the documents are in a format that can be easily read and processed by computers, given the much higher cost of human CPU cycles. That goes double if you want to be able to look for relationships across multiple different types of documents and data sets.

All familiar enough to transparency boosters. Is there a reason proponents of limited government ought to be especially concerned with this, beyond a general fondness for openness? Here’s one reason.  Public choice theorists often point to the problem of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits as a source of bad policy. In brief, a program that inefficiently transfers a million dollars from millions of taxpayers to a few beneficiaries will create a million dollar incentive for the beneficiaries to lobby on its behalf, while no individual taxpayer has much motivation to expend effort on recovering his tiny share of the benefit of axing the program. And political actors have similarly strong incentives to create identifiable constituencies who benefit from such programs and kick back those benefits in the form of either donations or public support. What Malamud and others point out is that one thing those concentrated beneficiaries end up doing is expending resources remaining fairly well informed about what government is doing – what regulations and expenditures are being contemplated – in order to be able to act for or against them in a timely fashion.

Now, as the costs of organizing dispersed people get lower thanks to new technologies, we’re seeing increasing opportunities to form ad hoc coalitions supporting and opposing policy changes with more dispersed costs and benefits – which is good, and works to erode the asymmetry that generates a lot of bad policy. But incumbent constituencies have the advantage of already being organized and able to invest resources in identifying policy changes that implicate their interests. If ten complex regulations are under consideration, and one creates a large benefit to an incumbent constituent while imposing smaller costs on a much larger group of people, it’s a great advantage if the incumbent is aware of the range of options in advance, and can push for their favored option, while the dispersed losers only become cognizant of it when the papers report on the passage of a specific rule and slowly begin teasing out its implications.

Put somewhat more briefly: Technology that lowers organizing costs can radically upset a truly pernicious public choice dynamic, but only if the information necessary to catalyze the formation of a blocking coalition is out there in a form that allows it to be sifted and analyzed by crowdsourced methods first. Transparency matters less when organizing costs are high, because the fight is ultimately going to be decided by a punch up between large, concentrated interest groups for whom the cost of hiring experts to learn about and analyze the implications of potential policy changes is relatively trivial. As transaction costs fall, and there’s potential for spontaneous, self-identifying coalitions to form, those information costs loom much larger. The timely availability – and aggregability – of information about the process of policy formation and its likely consequences then suddenly becomes a key determinant of the power of incumbent constituencies to control policy and extract rents.

Picture Don Draper Stamping on a Human Face, Forever

Last week, a coalition of 10 privacy and consumer groups sent letters to Congress advocating legislation to regulate behavioral tracking and advertising, a phrase that actually describes a broad range of practices used by online marketers to monitor and profile Web users for the purpose of delivering targeted ads. While several friends at the Tech Liberation Front have already weighed in on the proposal in broad terms – in a nutshell: they don’t like it – I think it’s worth taking a look at some of the specific concerns raised and remedies proposed. Some of the former strike me as being more serious than the TLF folks allow, but many of the latter seem conspicuously ill-tailored to their ends.

First, while it’s certainly true that there are privacy advocates who seem incapable of grasping that not all rational people place an equally high premium on anonymity, it strikes me as unduly dismissive to suggest, as Berin Szoka does, that it’s inherently elitist or condescending to question whether most users are making informed choices about their privacy. If you’re a reasonably tech-savvy reader, you probably know something about conventional browser cookies, how they can be used by advertisers to create a trail of your travels across the Internet, and how you can limit this.  But how much do you know about Flash cookies? Did you know about the old CSS hack I can use to infer the contents of your browser history even without tracking cookies? And that’s without getting really tricksy. If you knew all those things, congratulations, you’re an enormous geek too – but normal people don’t.  And indeed, polls suggest that people generally hold a variety of false beliefs about common online commercial privacy practices.  Proof, you might say, that people just don’t care that much about privacy or they’d be attending more scrupulously to Web privacy policies – except this turns out to impose a significant economic cost in itself.

The truth is, if we were dealing with a frictionless Coaseian market of fully-informed users, regulation would not be necessary, but it would not be especially harmful either, because users who currently allow themselves to be tracked would all gladly opt in. In the real world, though, behavioral economics suggests that defaults matter quite a lot: Making informed privacy choices can be costly, and while an opt-out regime will probably yield tracking of some who would prefer not to be under conditions of full information and frictionless choice, an opt-in regime will likely prevent tracking of folks who don’t object to tracking. And preventing that tracking also has real social costs, as Berin and Adam Thierer have taken pains to point out. In particular, it merits emphasis that behavioral advertising is regarded by many as providing a viable business model for online journalism, where contextual advertising tends not to work very well: There aren’t a lot of obvious products to tie in to an important investigative story about municipal corruption. Either way, though, the outcome is shaped by the default rule about the level of monitoring users are presumed to consent to. So which set of defaults ought we to prefer?

Here’s why I still come down mostly on Adam and Berin’s side, and against many of the regulatory remedies proposed. At the risk of stating the obvious, users start with de facto control of their data. Slightly less obvious: While users will tend to have heterogeneous privacy preferences – that’s why setting defaults either way is tricky – individual users will often have fairly homogeneous preferences across many different sites. Now, it seems to be an implicit premise of the argument for regulation that the friction involved in making lots of individual site-by-site choices about privacy will yield oversharing. But the same logic cuts in both directions: Transactional friction can block efficient departures from a high-privacy default as well. Even a default that optimally reflects the median user’s preferences or reasonable expectations is going to flub it for the outliers. If the variance in preferences is substantial, and if different defaults entail different levels of transactional friction, nailing the default is going to be less important than choosing the rule that keeps friction lowest. Given that most people do most of their Web surfing on a relatively small number of machines, this makes the browser a much more attractive locus of control. In terms of a practical effect on privacy, the coalition members would probably achieve more by persuading Firefox to set their browser to reject third-party cookies out of the box than from any legislation they’re likely to get – and indeed, it would probably have a more devastating effect on the behavioral ad market. Less bluntly, browsers could include a startup option that asks users whether they want to import an exclusion list maintained by their favorite force for good.

On the model proposed by the coalition, individuals have to make affirmative decisions about what data collection to permit for each Web site or ad network at least once every three months, and maybe each time they clear their cookies. If you think almost everyone would, if fully informed, opt out of such collection, this might make sense. But if you take the social benefits of behavioral targeting seriously, this scheme seems likely to block a lot of efficient sharing. Browser-based controls can still be a bit much for the novice user to grapple with, but programmers seem to be getting better and better at making it more easy and automatic for users to set privacy-protective defaults. If the problem with the unregulated market is supposed to be excessive transaction costs, it seems strange to lock in a model that keeps those costs high even as browser developers are finding ways to streamline that process. It’s also worth considering whether such rules wouldn’t have the perverse consequence of encouraging consolidation across behavioral trackers. The higher the bar is set for consent to monitoring, the more that consent effectively becomes a network good, which may encourage concentration of data in a small number of large trackers – not, presumably, the result privacy advocates are looking for. Finally – and for me this may be the dispositive point – it’s worth remembering that while American law is constrained by national borders, the Internet is not. And it seems to me that there’s a very real danger of giving the least savvy users a false sense of security – the government is on the job guarding my privacy! no need to bother learning about cookies! – when they may routinely and unwittingly be interacting with sites beyond the reach of domestic regulations.

There are similar practical difficulties with the proposal that users be granted a right of access to behavioral tracking data about them.  Here’s the dilemma: Any requirement that trackers make such data available to users is a potential security breach, which increases the chances of sensitive data falling into the wrong hands. I may trust a site or ad network to store this information for the purpose of serving me ads and providing me with free services, but I certainly don’t want anyone who sends them an e-mail with my IP address to have access to it. The obvious solution is for them to have procedures for verifying the identity of each tracked user – but this would appear to require that they store still more information about me in order to render tracking data personally identifiable and verifiable. A few ways of managing the difficulty spring to mind, but most defer rather than resolve the problem, and add further points of potential breach.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for government or policy change here, but it’s not always the one the coalition endorses. Let’s look  more closely at some of their specific concerns and see which, if any, are well-suited to policy remedies. Only one really has anything to do with behavioral advertising, and it’s easily the weakest of the bunch. The groups worry that targeted ads – for payday loans, sub-prime mortgages, or snake-oil remedies – could be used to “take advantage of vulnerable consumers.” It’s not clear that this is really a special problem with behavioral ads, however: Similar targeting could surely be accomplished by means of contextual ads, which are delivered via relevant sites, pages, or search terms rather than depending on the personal characteristics or browsing history of the viewer – yet the groups explicitly aver that no new regulation is appropriate for contextual advertising. In any event, since whatever problem exists here is a problem with ads, the appropriate remedy is to focus on deceptive or fraudulent ads, not the particular means of delivery. We already, quite properly, have rules covering dishonest advertising practices.

The same sort of reply works for some of the other concerns, which are all linked in some more specific way to the collection, dissemination, and non-advertising use of information about people and their Web browsing habits. The groups worry, for instance, about “redlining” – the restriction or denial of access to goods, services, loans, or jobs on the basis of traits linked to race, gender, sexual orientation, or some other suspect classification. But as Steve Jobs might say, we’ve got an app for that: It’s already illegal to turn down a loan application on the grounds that the applicant is African American. There’s no special exemption for the case where the applicant’s race was inferred from a Doubleclick profile. But this actually appears to be something of a redlining herring, so to speak: When you get down into the weeds, the actual proposal is to bar any use of data collected for “any credit, employment, insurance, or governmental purpose or for redlining.” This seems excessively broad; it should suffice to say that a targeter “cannot use or disclose information about an individual in a manner that is inconsistent with its published notice.”

Particular methods of tracking may also be covered by current law, and I find it unfortunate that the coalition letter lumps together so many different practices under the catch-all heading of “behavioral tracking.” Most behavioral tracking is either done directly by sites users interact with – as when Amazon uses records of my past purchases to recommend new products I might like – or by third party companies whose ads place browser cookies on user computers. Recently, though, some Internet Service Providers have drawn fire for proposals to use Deep Packet Inspection to provide information about their users’ behavior to advertising partners – proposals thus far scuppered by a combination of user backlash and congressional grumbling. There is at least a colorable argument to be made that this practice would already run afoul of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which places strict limits on the circumstances under which telecom providers may intercept or share information about the contents of user communications without explicit permission. ECPA is already seriously overdue for an update, and some clarification on this point would be welcome. If users do wish to consent to such monitoring, that should be their right, but it should not be by means of a blanket authorization in eight-point type on page 27 of a terms-of-service agreement.

Similarly welcome would be some clarification on the status of such behavioral profiles when the government comes calling. It’s an unfortunate legacy of some technologically atavistic Supreme Court rulings that we enjoy very little Fourth Amendment protection against government seizure of private records held by third parties – the dubious rationale being that we lose our “reasonable expectation of privacy” in information we’ve already disclosed to others outside a circle of intimates. While ECPA seeks to restore some protection of that data by statute, we’ve made it increasingly easy in recent years for the government to seek “business records” by administrative subpoena rather than court order. It should not be possible to circumvent ECPA’s protections by acquiring, for instance, records of keyword-sensitive ads served on a user’s Web-based e-mail.

All that said, some of the proposals offered up seem,while perhaps not urgent, less problematic. Requiring some prominent link to a plain-English description of how information is collected and used constitutes a minimal burden on trackers – responsible sites already maintain prominent links to privacy policies anyway – and serves the goal of empowering users to make more informed decisions. I’m also warily sympathetic to the idea of giving privacy policies more enforcement teeth – the wariness stemming from a fear of incentivizing frivolous litigation. Still, the status quo is that sites and ad networks profitably elicit information from users on the basis of stated privacy practices, but often aren’t directly liable to consumers if they flout those promises, unless the consumer can show that the breach of trust resulted in some kind of monetary loss.

Finally, a quick note about one element of the coalition recommendations that neither they nor their opponents seem to have discussed much – the insistence that there be no federal preemption of state privacy law. I assume what’s going on here is that the privacy advocates expect some states to be more protective of privacy than Congress or the FTC would be, and want to encourage that, while libertarians are more concerned with keeping the federal government from getting involved at all. But really, if there’s an issue that was made for federal preemption, this is it.  A country where vendors, advertisers, and consumers on a borderless Internet have to navigate 50 flavors of privacy rules to sell a banner add or an iTunes track does not sound particularly conducive to privacy, commerce, or informed consumer choice.

Argentina Decriminalizes Personal Drug Consumption

Following in Mexico’s footsteps last week, the Supreme Court of Argentina has unanimously ruled today on decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal consumption.

For those who might be concerned with the idea of an “activist judiciary,” the Court’s decision was based on a case brought by a 19 year-old who was arrested in the street for possession of two grams of marijuana. He was convicted and sentenced to a month and a half in prison, but challenged the constitutionality of the drug law based on Article 19 of the Argentine Constitution:

The private actions of men which in no way offend public order or morality, nor injure a third party, are only reserved to God and are exempted from the authority of judges. No inhabitant of the Nation shall be obliged to perform what the law does not demand nor deprived of what it does not prohibit.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that personal drug consumption is covered by that privacy clause stipulated in Article 19 of the Constitution since it doesn’t affect third parties. Questions still remain, though, on the extent of the ruling. However, the government of President Cristina Fernández has fully endorsed the Court’s decision and has vowed to promptly submit a bill to Congress that would define the details of the decriminalization policies.

According to some reports, Brazil and Ecuador are considering similar steps. They would be wise to follow suit.

600 Billion Data Points Per Day? It’s Time to Restore the Fourth Amendment

Jeff Jonas has published an important post: “Your Movements Speak for Themselves: Space-Time Travel Data is Analytic Super-Food!”

More than you probably realize, your mobile device is a digital sensor, creating records of your whereabouts and movements:

Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day. Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not. Got a Blackberry? Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not. If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using a location-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters. Using Wi-Fi? It is accurate below 10 meters.

The process of deploying this data to markedly improve our lives is underway. A friend of Jonas’ says that space-time travel data used to reveal traffic tie-ups shaves two to four hours off his commute each week. When it is put to full use, “the world we live in will fundamentally change. Organizations and citizens alike will operate with substantially more efficiency. There will be less carbon emissions, increased longevity, and fewer deaths.”

This progress is not without cost:

A government not so keen on free speech could use such data to see a crowd converging towards a protest site and respond before the swarm takes form – detected and preempted, this protest never happens. Or worse, it could be used to understand and then undermine any political opponent.

Very few want government to be able to use this data as Jonas describes, and not everybody wants to participate in the information economy quite so robustly. But the public can’t protect itself against what it can’t see. So Jonas invites holders of space-time data to reveal it:

[O]ne way to enlighten the consumer would involve holders of space-time-travel data [permitting] an owner of a mobile device the ability to also see what they can see:

(a) The top 10 places you spend the most time (e.g., 1. a home address, 2. a work address, 3. a secondary work facility address, 4. your kids school address, 5. your gym address, and so on);

(b) The top three most predictable places you will be at a specific time when on the move (e.g., Vegas on the 215 freeway passing the Rainbow exit on Thursdays 6:07 - 6:21pm – 57% of the time);

(c) The first name and first letter of the last name of the top 20 people that you regularly meet-up with (turns out to be wife, kids, best friends, and co-workers – and hopefully in that order!)

(d) The best three predictions of where you will be for more than one hour (in one place) over the next month, not counting home or work.

Google’s Android and Latitude products are candidates to take the lead, he says, and I agree. Google collectively understands both openness and privacy, and it’s nimble enough still to execute something like this. Other mobile providers would be forced to follow this innovation.

What should we do to reap the benefits while minimizing the costs? The starting point is you: It is your responsibility to deal with your mobile provider as an adult. Have you read your contract? Have you asked them whether they collect this data, how long they keep it, whether they share it, and under what terms?

Think about how you can obscure yourself. Put your phone in airplane mode when you are going someplace unusual - or someplace usual. (You might find that taking a break from being connected opens new vistas in front of your eyes.) Trade phones with others from time to time. There are probably hacks on mobile phone system that could allow people to protect themselves to some degree.

Privacy self-help is important, but obviously it can be costly. And you shouldn’t have to obscure yourself from your mobile communications provider, giving up the benefits of connected living, to maintain your privacy from government.

The emergence of space-time travel data begs for restoration of Fourth Amendment protections in communications data. In my American University Law Review article, “Reforming Fourth Amendment Privacy Doctrine,” I described the sorry state of the Fourth Amendment as to modern communications.

The “reasonable expectation of privacy” doctrine that arose out of the Supreme Court’s 1967 Katz decision is wrong—it isn’t even founded in the majority holding of the case. The “third-party doctrine,” following Katz in a pair of early 1970s Bank Secrecy Act cases, denies individuals Fourth Amendment claims on information held by service providers. Smith v. Maryland brought it home to communications in 1979, holding that people do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the telephone numbers they dial. (Nevermind that they actually have privacy—the doctrine trumps it.)

Concluding, apropos of Jonas’ post, I wrote:

These holdings were never right, but they grow more wrong with each step forward in modern, connected living. Incredibly deep reservoirs of information are constantly collected by third-party service providers today.

Cellular telephone networks pinpoint customers’ locations throughout the day through the movement of their phones. Internet service providers maintain copies of huge swaths of the information that crosses their networks, tied to customer identifiers. Search engines maintain logs of searches that can be correlated to specific computers and usually the individuals that use them. Payment systems record each instance of commerce, and the time and place it occurred.

The totality of these records are very, very revealing of people’s lives. They are a window onto each individual’s spiritual nature, feelings, and intellect. They reflect each American’s beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and sensations. They ought to be protected, as they are the modern iteration of our “papers and effects.”

All Hail the Demise of a Bad Policy!

Well, not actually. Instead, the Washington Post’s headline says “U.S. Web-Tracking Plan Stirs Privacy Fears.” The story is about the reversal of an ill-conceived policy adopted nine years ago to limit the use of cookies on federal Web sites.

A cookie is a short string of text that a server sends a browser when the browser accesses a Web page. Cookies allow servers to recognize returning users so they can serve up customized, relevant content, including tailored ads. Think of a cookie as an eyeball - who do you want to be able to see that you visited a Web site?

Your browser lets you control what happens with the cookies offered by the sites you visit. You can issue a blanket refusal of all cookies, you can accept all cookies, and you can decide which cookies to accept based on who is offering them. Here’s how:

  • Internet Explorer: Tools > Internet Options > “Privacy” tab > “Advanced” button: Select “Override automatic cookie handling” and choose among the options, then hit “OK,” and next “Apply.”

I recommend accepting first-party cookies - offered by the sites you visit - and blocking third-party cookies - offered by the content embedded in those sites, like ad networks. Or ask to be prompted about third-party cookies just to see how many there are on the sites you visit. If you want to block or allow specific sites, select the “Sites” button to do so. If you selected “Prompt” in cookie handling, your choices will populate the “Sites” list.

  • Firefox: Tools > Options > “Privacy” tab: In the “cookies” box, choose among the options, then hit “OK.”

I recommend checking “Accept cookies from sites” and leaving unchecked “Accept third party cookies.” Click the “Exceptions” button to give site-by-site instructions.

Because you can control cookies, a government regulation restricting cookies is needless nannying. It may marginally protect you from government tracking - they have plenty of other methods, both legitimate and illegitimate - but it won’t protect you from tracking by others, including entities who may share data with the government.

The answer to the cookie problem is personal responsibility. Did you skip over the instructions above? The nation’s cookie problem is your fault.

If society lacks awareness of cookies, Microsoft (Internet Explorer), the Mozilla Foundation (Firefox), and producers of other browsers (Apple/Safari, Google/Chrome) might consider building cookie education into new browser downloads and updates. Perhaps they should set privacy-protective defaults. That’s all up to the community of Internet users, publishers, and programmers to decide, using their influence in the marketplace.

Artificially restricting cookies on federal Web sites needlessly hamstrings federal Web sites. When the policy was instituted it threatened to set a precedent for broader regulation of cookie use on the Web. Hopefully, the debate about whether to regulate cookies is over, but further ‘Net nannying is a constant offering of the federal government (and other elitists).

By moving away from the stultifying limitation on federal cookies, the federal government acknowledges that American grown-ups can and should look out for their own privacy.