Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Google Office vs. Government “Request”

TechCrunch is a terrific blog covering new Internet products and companies.  Edited by Michael Arrington, it’s a clearinghouse of information on ”Web 2.0” - the agglomeration of innovations that could take online life and business through their next leaps forward.

In this recent post, TechCrunch briefly assessed some concerns with Google’s office strategy.  Google has online offerings in the works that could substitute for the word processing and spreadsheet software on your computer - just like Gmail did with e-mail.

And just like Gmail, documents and information would remain on Google’s servers so they can be accessed anywhere.  This is a great convenience, but brings with it several problems, namely: 

The fact that unauthorized document access is a simple password guess or government “request” away already works against them. But the steady stream of minor security incidents we’ve seen (many very recently) can also hurt Google in the long run.

Arrington’s post goes on to highlight a series of small but significant security lapses at Google.  If Google wants companies and individuals to store sensitive data on their servers, they have to be pretty near perfect - or better than perfect.

Then there is government “request.” Arrington makes appropriate use of quotation marks to indicate irony.  Governments rarely “request” data in the true sense of that term.  Rather, they require its disclosure various ways - by warrant or subpoena, for example, by issuing “national security letters,” or by making a technical “request” that is backed by the implicit threat of more direct action or regulatory sanctions.

On resisting government demands for data, Google has been better than most - an awfully low hurdle.  It opposed a subpoena for data about users’ searches earlier this year.  But Google has a long way to go if it wants people to believe that leaving data in their hands does not provide easy (and secret) access to the government.  Indeed, thanks to the recently passed cybercrime treaty, doing so may well provide access to foreign governments, opening the door to corporate espionage and any number of other threats.

At a meeting of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee in San Francisco last July, I asked Google Associate General Counsel Nicole Wong what the company is doing about its ability to protect information from government “request,” given the sorry state of Fourth Amendment law with respect to personal information held by third parties.  Her answer, which I must summarize because the transcript is not yet online, amounted to “not much.”  (Eventually, the transcript should be linked from here.)

Google has issued a “me too” about an effort to invite regulation of itself.  That project is going nowhere, but if it did get off the ground, it would do nothing about government access to the information that Google holds for its customers. 

Government access to data is a big flaw in Google’s nascent effort to move into online productivity services.

Net Regulation Proponent Concedes: Markets Work

Other than the religious devotees of regulation, most observers of the drive for “network neutrality” regulation have recognized that the essential question is whether there is sufficient competition among broadband providers.  If there is enough competition, broadband providers can’t use their market power to do bad things to consumers and public utility regulation of broadband is not needed.

Columbia law professor and champion of net neutrality regulation Tim Wu is quoted in the October 14 Economist admitting consumers’ power to influence broadband providers:

“The public reaction has already been as powerful and effective as any law,” says Timothy Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who is credited with coining the term “net neutrality”. The debate has put the telecoms companies on notice that they are being watched closely, he says, and has forced them to make public pledges not to block or degrade access. “Shame can have more power than litigation,” says Mr Wu. “The market and consumers can control bad practices, but consumers actually have to be aware of what is going on for that to happen.”

It’s an interesting strategic and ethical question whether brandishing the regulation cudgel is appropriate, but as long as it’s agreed that consumers have influence in the broadband marketplace, that question can wait for another day.

Getting Data Breach in Perspective

Indiana University law professor and cybersecurity/informatics expert Fred Cate wrote sensibly in this weekend’s Washington Post about data security and identity fraud.  “The fact is that few if any [data] breaches lead to identity theft or other consumer injuries.”

When a Department of Veterans Affairs laptop with data on 26.5 million veterans was stolen earlier this year, VA notified all of them and asked Congress for $160.5 million to cover the cost of one year of credit monitoring.  Even if the laptop had not been returned (the data untouched), this reaction would have been overkill.

Washington has a hard time responding to problems dispassionately and proportionately.  If only this failing could be the crisis du jour - even just for a day.

How, Again, Is This a Good Use of My Tax Dollars?

This week, Robert Cresanti, the under secretary of commerce for technology, presented the first-ever “Recognition of Excellence in Innovation” award to ODIN Technologies of Dulles, Virginia.

Why on earth a federal bureaucrat should run around giving awards to local firms is beyond me. Perhaps Technology Under Secretary Cresanti could have taken the day off. Or maybe just retired, if no actual work is pressing for his time. 

Let’s make the “Recognition of Excellence in Innovation” award a really special honor by discontinuing it. (Tell ODIN that nobody could ever reach the standard they’ve set.) 

I mean, really. Mad as hell and not gonna take it any more. Happy Friday.

Voter Fraud and Other Political Facts

The House bill to require photo ID for voting rests on the premise that voter fraud is a significant problem. It turns out that premise is a little shaky. A report prepared for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has found little evidence of polling-place fraud, according to USA Today.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform (Carter-Baker Commission) found “no evidence of extensive fraud in U.S. elections or of multiple voting,” though it does occur and could affect a close election. To inspire confidence in the system, the Commission recommended using the national ID card created by the REAL ID Act as a voter registration card. Proof of citizenship would be required to get a driver’s license, tightening government control of the citizenry just a little more.

I’ve written here before about “political facts,” things made true by consensus rather than any measurement or observation. The soaring costs of identity fraud and its relationship to data breaches are political facts that have a lot of currency in Washington today.

Another political fact getting a lot of attention and lather is the notion that child pornography has become a $20 billion dollar industry. “Exponential” growth of this problem is being used to justify legally mandated retention of data about our online travels by Internet service providers. Exploitation of children is loathsome, but it turns out the $20 billion figure is bunk.

One wonders how many other problems Congress addresses itself to might be exaggerated or even fictional.

WSJ Weighs in Against ‘REAL Bad ID’

This morning’s Wall Street Journal opinion page blasts Republicans for passing the REAL ID Act.  [subscription required] 

Keyed to a recent report showing the costs of compliance at $11 billion, the piece notes that all Americans will have to reapply for their drivers’ licenses and ID cards if states go along with this unfunded federal surveillance mandate.  It also addresses whether a national ID protects against terrorism or provides effective immigration control and finds REAL ID wanting on both counts.  My book Identity Crisis shows why.

Sooner rather than later, Congress will recognize its error in passing the REAL ID Act.  Most likely it will try to kick the can down the road.  Look for a quiet attempt to change the deadline for getting a national ID in everyone’s hands. 

But that is not the solution.  If Congress wants a national ID, it should have hearings, markup and pass legislation, then fund and implement a national ID itself. 

Congress didn’t have a single hearing or up-or-down vote on the REAL ID Act.  This much exposure would kill a national ID plan, of course.

Bureaucracy and Lost Privacy

In my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood, I argue that identification is required of us too often by both corporations and government as we go about our business. I also do my best to articulate the reasons why this is bad, and how we can escape it.

With my senses tuned to the overuse of identification, I’m keenly aware of the osmotic process by which institutions soak up information about us, pass it around, and use it in ways we may not prefer.

Here’s an example from real life: I have recently spoken at several conferences dealing with identification, identity, financial risk management, and the like. When the time came to get reimbursement for my travel, one of the conference organizers asked me to give my Social Security Number if I was going to rely on faxed receipts for reimbursement.

The e-mail thread below shows how complex IRS regulations require financial administrators in the corporate world to over-comply, collecting (and possibly filing with the government) information that neither entity needs.

This is bureaucracy in action (both public and private), and it’s the constant drip, drip, drip of privacy going away.

[Names have been changed to protect the guilty.]

*********************

—–Original Message—–

From: katie [at] conference [dot] org

Sent: Fri 9/29/2006 10:19 AM

To: Jim Harper

Subject: W-9 Forms Needed

Hello Jim,

Thank you so much for sending over your receipts.

Since you did not send me actual receipts, I need you to fill out this W-9 form and fax it back ASAP.

Thanks again,

-Katie

Katie Folsom

Conference Specialist

*****************************

Are you sure? This is reimbursement for travel, not income. And even if it were income, I believe the amount in question here would not even require a W-9. (Also, I’m traveling through Sunday without access to a printer or fax. ;-)

Having suffered through my talk, you probably understand that I don’t needlessly share information with the government or with organizations who are going to needlessly share with the government.

If you could politely ask your accounting folks to show where the law or IRS instructions require them to have my SSN to reimburse me for travel, I would appreciate it. (I’m not a tax law expert, just knowledgeable enough to be dangerous/annoying.) If they can’t show that they need this information, they don’t need it.

Thanks! Sorry for being prickly, but it’s my job.

Jim

Jim Harper

Director of Information Policy Studies

The Cato Institute

***************************

—–Original Message—–

From: elizabeth [at] conference [dot] org

Sent: Friday, September 29, 2006 11:32 AM

To: Jim Harper

Cc: Katie [at] conference [dot] org

Subject: Re: Fw: W-9 Forms Needed

Hi Jim,

While I understand your concern regarding needlessly sharing information, IRS regulations specify that a W-9 must be filled out whenever receiving income from a company. Please see the “Purpose of Form” section on the front of the W-9. Your travel reimbursement is technically considered income.

One way around this (to avoid having to fill a W-9 out), however, is to send us all of you Original receipts and get reimbursed on those. Basically, in layman’s terms, the IRS is trying to avoid “double-dipping”. If we reimburse someone for receipt copies, that person can then claim/deduct the originals on their own personal/business taxes. The W-9 form is the IRS’ tracking solution to this.

Please let Katie what you intend to do, so she can be on the lookout for either your W-9 form or your original receipts in the mail (sent with tracking information for your protection). I hope this cleared things up a bit.

Thank you.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth LaFontaine

Senior Accountant

*********************

“Jim Harper”

10/03/2006 06:04 PM

To elizabeth [at] conference [dot] org

cc Katie [at] conference [dot] org

Subject RE: Fw: W-9 Forms Needed

Hi Elizabeth –

Sorry for the delay. I’ve been traveling. Again.

As I understand it (and I have double-checked), W-9s are needed when you are going to file a 1099. If you believe that there is a requirement to file a 1099 on reimbursement of my travel expenses, could you please tell me where that is? Which 1099 would you file? If you think that it’s the 1099-MISC, please note that the threshold amount for filing the 1099-MISC is $600 in income.

And I have strong doubts that this is income. If you were to file a 1099 dealing with reimbursement for travel expenses, the IRS would be looking for it on my 1040, and I have never included travel expenses on a 1040.

Let me apologize for being a stickler about this, but many administrators believe they have to collect SSNs when they do not. It may be that you are over-collecting SSNs and possibly even filing forms you don’t need to.

If you can point me to documents showing that I’m mistaken, I welcome being corrected. But unless you do, I’m pretty sure that you don’t need a W-9 and can issue a check to me.

Thanks!

Jim

Jim Harper

Director of Information Policy Studies

The Cato Institute

************************

Hi Jim,

As I stated in my previous email, you do not need to fill out a W-9 if you do not wish to. Simply send all of your original receipts to Katie so she can process your check. Unfortunately, that is the only way you will be reimbursed. Sorry for any inconvenience, but those are the policies we strictly abide by and they in no way infringe upon any reservations you may have about providing information you don’t want to provide.

Please let Katie know when she can be expecting your receipts in the mail. We will reimburse you $4.55 for Priority mail with Delivery Confirmation if you’d like.

Regards,

Elizabeth

Elizabeth LaFontaine

Senior Accountant