Privacy picks: ACLU efforts, reviving Snapchat stuff, anonymity and Big Data, government access to emails

We’ve got privacy on the brain, what with a Mercury News interview with an ACLU lawyer, news about Snapchat photos being recoverable, anonymity in the age of Big Data, and the feds thinking they don’t need warrants to access people’s emails.

I talked recently with Nicole Ozer, director of  tech and civil liberties at the Northern California ACLU, about online (and offline) privacy in the age of Facebook, location-based data and more.

Among other things, the ACLU supports legislation and causes that seek to protect privacy. For example, it sponsored the California bill (SB 362) that in 2008 banned forced RFID (radio frequency identification) implants in humans. Most recently, the ACLU was a sponsor of the Right to Know Act (AB 1291), which would require companies to disclose information they’re collecting and sharing about their customers. The bill was tabled just over a week ago. Troy Wolverton wrote for SiliconBeat that one of the bills’ sponsors “blamed the Internet industry’s fierce lobbying campaign for the delay.” As Steve Harmon wrote for Bay Area News Group, tech companies, banks and other industries opposed the bill.

Ozer talks passionately about how important it is that people know the harms that can come from the wide sharing of personal information about consumers. For example, Right to Know is also backed by organizations representing people who might have more compelling privacy issues than the average consumer, such as the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and others.

In a blog post last week, Ozer said the fight for the Right to Know continues: “The fact that companies are lobbying so hard to keep us in the dark about what’s really happening to our personal information just underscores the importance of the Right to Know Act.”

Quick links to other privacy news:

• Snapchat and similar apps are popular because they promise that electronic flirting and other potentially embarrassing communications will self-destruct or disappear after a certain amount of time. (See Quoted: On Snapchat, Wickr And Erasing Our Digital Tracks.) But not so fast. Those sexy photos or amorous messages can be recovered after all, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, which quotes the company offering such a service, Decipher Forensics: “This research will help law enforcement officials retrieve what has been believed to be unrecoverable.” But for $300 to $500, it will provide the same service to the public. (Android only, for now.)

• The MIT Technology Review asks whether anonymity is still possible in the age of Big Data: “In effect, the more data there is, the less any of it can be said to be private.” This includes data that doesn’t actually seem like it’s online, but can be combined with online data. For example, Target and Facebook have teamed up on a discount program called Cartwheel — where the online and offline walls come tumbling down, whee!

• Finally, amid efforts to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) comes news that documents obtained by the ACLU show that the Department of Justice and the FBI believe they don’t need warrants to access emails, Facebook chats and other online communications. But CNet notes that different government agencies and U.S. attorneys have varied practices. The news comes on the heels of a New York Times report that the White House may back an FBI plan to wiretap the Internet. (See also Wiretapping The Internet: Will It Fly?)


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  • Von

    Good article showing the scary side of these social networking sites. One wonders if people are going to rebel and simply disconnect. It would be a shame if people feel they can’t take advantage of all the positive aspects of the Internet because their privacy is being exploited. There are alternative ways to connect in a private, secure fashion. More needs to be done.