Tag: richard blumenthal

Want Privacy? We Start by Blinding You!

As I noted earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law held a hearing this morning entitled: “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy.” In it, Sentor Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) engaged in a fascinating colloquy with Google’s Alan Davidson.

Blumenthal pursued Davidson about the year-old incident in which Google’s Street View cars collected data on the location of WiFi nodes and mistakenly gathered snippets of “payload data”—that is, the data traveling over open WiFi networks in the moments when their Street View cars were passing by.

Some payload data may have contained personal information including passwords. Google has meekly been working with data protection authorities around the world since then, hoping once and for all to delete this unneeded and unwanted data.

Blumenthal was prosecutorial in tone, but made a classic prosecutor’s error: He asked questions to which he didn’t know the answers.

Isn’t “payload data” extremely valuable for mapping WiFi networks?, queried Senator Blumenthal.

Davidson’s answer, and the consensus of panelists: Ummmm, no, not really.

(If you were to map pay phones, it wouldn’t matter whether people were talking on them, either, or what they were saying.)

Despite looking foolish, Senator Blumenthal persisted, asking Davidson whether collecting “payload data” should be illegal. Davidson demurred, but it’s a fascinating question.

Should it be against the law to collect data from open WiFi networks? That is, to observe radio signals passing your location on a public street? Should the government determine when you can collect radio signals, or what bands of the radio spectrum you may observe? What should you be allowed to do with information carried on a radio signal that you inadvertently capture?

If the government should have this power, the same logic would support making it illegal to collect photons that arrive at your eyes or that enter your camera lens. The government might proscribe collecting sound waves that come to your ears or microphone.

Laws against observing the world around you would certainly protect privacy! Let the government blind us all, and privacy will flourish. But this is not privacy protection anyone should want.

To understand privacy, you have to understand a little physics. As I said in an earlier comment on Google’s collection of open WiFi data:

Given the way radio works, and the common security/privacy response—encryption—it’s hard to characterize data sent in the clear as private. The people operating them may have wanted their communications to be private. They may have thought their communications were private. But they were sending out their communications in the clear, by radio—like a little radio station broadcasting to anyone in range.

Trying to protect privacy in unencrypted radio broadcasts (like public displays or publically made sounds) is like trying to reverse the flow of a river—it’s a huge engineering project. Senator Blumenthal would start to protect your privacy by blinding you to the world around you. Then narrow exceptions would determine what radio signals, lights, and sounds you are allowed to observe…

Internet Censorship

On August 24th, the Attorneys General of 17 states sent a letter [PDF] to the founder and CEO of the Craigslist online platform, to “request” that they take down the “Adult Services” section of the site. The link to that section of the site now stands with a “CENSORED” label over the place where the link stood.

On the TechLiberationFront blog, Ryan Radia has a good write-up, including the legal protections Craigslist enjoys under federal law as a provider of an “interactive computer service.” The AGs undoubtedly know that could not directly shut down Craigslist. They wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on if they attacked the site for the behavior of its users. But they also know that publically badgering Craigslist can win them political points and cut into the site’s image, profits, and ultimately, perhaps, viability. Several Attorneys General have doggedly asked Craigslist to patrol the behavior of its millions of users, never satisfied with the company’s efforts.

The turning point seems to have been a CNN “ambush” interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in which reporter Amber Lyon sprung a terrific gotcha line, calling Craigslist “the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.” It’s a sound-bite with just enough truth: In a community of millions of people, there may be some such trafficking.

Newmark is an unusual character in any world, but especially in media and politics. He is meek, soft-spoken, and utterly guileless. A part of West-Coast tech’s recent interest in East-Coast government and politics, Newmark sought me ought a few months ago for a wide-ranging, ambling, and—for those reasons—charming chat.

Newmark was utterly caught off guard by the interview with the CNN reporter. The tape rolls through painfully awkward moments when Newmark remains simply silent or paces around, making him look stupid, mendacious, or both. (His comment on the interview is here, to which Lyon responds in the video linked above at “ambush.”)

The AGs smelled blood in the water. Their letter pounces on Craigslist and Craig Newmark’s inartful performance.

So the next step is the “CENSORED” block on Craigslist’s “Adult Services” section. Perhaps it’s meant to engender support for First Amendment rights, and to an extent it has. Early returns show support for Craigslist. But it may also create an expectation that large Web sites on which a tiny minority of people abuse speech rights to plan and execute crime may lose their speech protections themselves.

In case it needs pointing out, shutting down a Web site, or the portion of a Web site, on which people plan crime will only move crime to other places on the Internet. The cost to free speech in the AGs’ badgering of Craigslist vastly outweighs the infinitesimal crime-prevention benefit.

The Attorneys General sacrificing speech this way are: Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut (a candidate for U.S. Senate), Dustin McDaniel (D) of Arkansas, Lawrence G. Wasden (R) of Idaho, Lisa Madigan (D) of Illinois, Tom Miller (D) of Iowa, Steve Six (D) of Kansas, Douglas F. Gansler (D) of Maryland, Mike Cox (R) of Michigan, Jim Hood (D) of Mississippi, Chris Koster (D) of Missouri, Michael A. Delaney (D) of New Hampshire, Richard Cordray (D) of Ohio, Patrick C. Lynch (D) of Rhode Island, Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina, Robert E. Cooper, Jr. (D) of Tennessee, Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II (R) of Virginia.

The Nation’s Worst State Attorneys General

Our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have released a new report on the worst state attorneys general in the country.  Despite Eliot Spitzer no longer being eligible for consideration, six attorneys general comprise the worst-in-the-nation list:

1. Jerry Brown, California
2. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut
3. Drew Edmondson, Oklahoma
4. Patrick Lynch, Rhode Island
5. Darrell McGraw, West Virginia
6. William Sorrell, Vermont

The report, authored by Hans Bader (who will be contributing an article to this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review), uses several criteria for determining who made the list of shame: ethical breaches and selective applications of the law; fabricating law; usurping legislative powers; and predatory practices (such as seeking to regulate out-of-state businesses that broke no state law).   

CEI’s press release explains the pick for number one baddie:

California’s Jerry Brown topped the list for misdeeds like refusing to defend certain state laws he disliked.  One example was Proposition 8, a lawfully-adopted amendment prohibiting gay marriage — a law upheld by the state Supreme Court.  “Personally, I opposed Prop 8,” said Bader, “but it’s clear, by definition, that a provision of the state constitution cannot violate that very constitution; and it’s the duty of the attorney general to defend it.”

Hans explains his reasoning further in this op-ed.  Get the full report here.