Posts Tagged ‘Privacy’

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You’ve Got Mail; I’ve Already Read It… It’s not Important.

March 9, 2010

We all have the expectation that when we spend our 44 cents and mail a letter, the contents are a private matter between us and the person to whom we address the letter.  We take the right so seriously that it is a federal crime to open or even interfere with another person’s mail.  How would you feel about the post office opening your letters, making a copy and archiving it, analyzing the contents, and only then sending your letter on its way?  We would have our pitchforks in hand ready to make a pincushion out of the official responsible.

Technology is a wonderful thing but simply having the ability to do something does not make it a good idea.  Yet, Google’s Gmail service does exactly what’s described above.  Are they violating federal law?  No, they’ve covered themselves with a EULA.  EULA stands for End User Licensing Agreement, it is the page filled with all sorts of legal double talk you must agree to while installing software like Gmail.  To read one of the many pages of Google’s EULA, click here.  When you agree to use Gmail, you grant Google permission to use the contents of your email for their own purposes.  They analyze your email’s content and prompt you on things like referencing an attachment but not having one.  In that case, when you try to send it, a warning pops up informing you that nothing is attached.  That seems reasonable enough, but that same analysis targets advertizing to you as well.  Think of it as personalized junk mail.

This is where things get a bit gray with the EULA.  It does give Google the legal right, but it is buried in a document hardly anyone reads, as they are commonplace.  A fact Google is counting on, to say the least.  Moreover, it is far down the document and hidden among standard items that protect Google from lawsuits.  Google, being a free service, is entitled to seek profit where they can and this is the path they picked to do that.  The only problem with Google is the stealth with which they undertake the process.  It would be nice if Google stated its intentions in an open fashion so users understand exactly what they give up to receive “free” email service.

We always have the option to subscribe to a service that does not analyze email, but how do we know what any Internet Service Provider (ISP) does with our email?  We expect the same level of privacy with an electronic letter that a printed one enjoys.  Currently, that privacy simply does not exist. Say you send an email to your Aunt that lives in another country, you have a copy of the email you created, your ISP keep a copy, any server that the email is transferred through has one, the routing server that sends it overseas has a copy, your aunt’s ISP keeps one, and of course your aunt does too.  Any one of these copies may be read and copied and distributed without your knowledge.

ISPs claim the need to make copies for “backup” purposes, in case of a problem.  Sometimes they are required by law to keep copies for a period of time.  While complying with the law is hard to argue, the backup claim is tenuous at best as local copies exist.  The real problem comes with the length of time emails are archived in various backups around the world; there is no limit.

When you use the US Postal Service to mail a letter, no copy is made unless a judge grants law enforcement the right to intercept the letter.  It seems the same logic needs to apply to email and any agent that delivers mail in any form.  In the case of Google, if you grant permission, that is another matter.  Still, Google should live up to its unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” by pointing out their business practices.

For now, understand your emails do not enjoy the same privacy protection as a traditionally mailed letter.  Our rights have not caught up to the digital revolution.  Everyone my age remembers the Watergate break-in back in 1972 that lead to President Nixon’s resignation.  Another aspect that is forgotten, he used the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without a warrant of any kind and for purely political reasons.  Rather than learn proper oversight from that event, with the Patriot Act we allow the FBI to use something called a National Security Letter to seek information, like emails, without a warrant as long as it involves matters of a time-sensitive nature, as a looming terrorist attack, where going through a court is not practical.  The Department of Justice has documented over 1,000 cases of abuse of this system(Various Sources: Washington Post; CNN; New York Times).  We don’t know for what purpose the FBI abuses occurred, but it is obvious that allowing them the ability means they will use it.

Again, email does not enjoy the same protection as a mailed letter.  We only have the rights we can protect; for now, we cannot protect email from interception and being read.  In other words, no email is private, no matter what someone may tell you.  Keep that in mind next time you compose an email and press the send button!

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When No One Says No To A Bad Idea

February 20, 2010

There is a saying that deals with getting input from many sources before a making a decision, it goes “no one of us is as smart as all of us.”  If only we would follow that advice, the world would be a much better place.  Still, even when the “us” part is consulted, there is no guarantee the outcome will not be patently boneheaded.

This particular idea turned out so bad, we have one “Big Brother” outfit, the FBI, investigating another that’s not normally thought of as “Big Brother,” the Lower Merion School District in Lower Merion Township, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.  It seems the school district gave itself the ability to remotely activate the webcams on 2,300 laptops issued to high school students, even when the laptops are located within the student’s home.  What parent, in their right mind, would allow strangers to monitor their children, even in their bedrooms?  That’s just it, they didn’t; parents did not even know the laptops had the capability.  While current civil legal action brought this to light, the FBI is now investigating whether or not the school district violated various federal laws, including wiretapping.

Here’s what we know so far: last November, a vice principal at Harriton High School confronts a sophomore about inappropriate activities the student was involved in within the student’s home and produced photographic evidence to prove it.  The student stated the issue concerned drug use, which he denies.  The VP claims he took drugs, the student claims he was eating candy.  In fairness to the school district, they dispute that they took any improper images, state the vice principal never confronted the student, and that the only time the feature is ever used is to recover a lost or stolen laptop.  Here is a link to their website and their statement concerning this issue: School District Response.

As intriguing as this is (there is bound to be a made for TV movies soon) focusing on this particular incident misses the much broader problem, the school district gave itself the ability to monitor students anytime they have the computer open.  They can claim to the end of days that the ability is only used to recover lost property but they cannot get around it amounting to a government agency placing a “bug” in the home of every high school student that received a laptop.  It brings several questions to mind, does the school district have a legal department?  If so, why don’t they use them?  What morons made this unbelievably bad decision?  What are the odds that voters keep the current school board members in the next election?

The school district seems to be positioning itself behind a claim of oversight regarding consent to this invasion of privacy.  A case can equally be made they deliberately held back this information to prevent tampering with its ability.  Regardless of their true intent, when ability exists, it is used.  An ironic example being the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently found the FBI, the organization investigating the school district, abused a prevision of the Patriot Act designed to gain intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks without a warrant.  In other words, they used the act to circumvent the need for a warrant in non-terrorist related investigations, what the OIG called “a systemic abuse of power.”

The point is no agency should be allowed unchecked power.  The school district is not the police and they do not have the right to investigate crime and gather evidence.  More importantly, they do not have the right to serendipitously monitor students within their homes.  As the case with the FBI illustrates, regardless of initial intent – ability will be used.  This school district may or may not have abused the power, the courts will decide that, but they cannot deny they have the ability.  They cannot deny they did not inform parents of this ability.  Had they, parents would have revolted against the school board.  They had to understand that going into it.  It is the only way educated people, with the intent of improving the education of children can possible make such a stupid decision.

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