Tuesday, September 1, 2009

NY Times: "A Casualty of the Technology Revolution: ‘Locational Privacy’"

Two weeks ago I wrote about a seminal a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on the issue of "locational privacy". The report warns that Americans are losing their privacy as they travel through public space due to location-based technologies and services such as EZ Pass, Google Latitude and cellphones.

The good news is that EFF's work appears to be getting some welcomed attention, namely in the New York Times today. Before I get to today's article by Adam Cohen, let me provide, as I did two weeks ago, the definition of "Locational Privacy" - as articulated by EFF:

"...the ability of an individual to move in public space with the expectation that under normal circumstances their location will not be systematically and secretly recorded for later use. The systems discussed above have the potential to strip away locational privacy from individuals, making it possible for others to ask (and answer) the following sorts of questions by consulting the location databases:

• Did you go to an anti-war rally on Tuesday?
• A small meeting to plan the rally the week before?
• At the house of one “Bob Jackson”?
Did you walk into an abortion clinic?
• Did you see an AIDS counselor?
• Have you been checking into a motel at lunchtimes?
• Why was your secretary with you?
• Did you skip lunch to pitch a new invention to a VC? Which one?
• Were you the person who anonymously tipped off safety regulators about the rusty machines?
• Did you and your VP for sales meet with ACME Ltd on Monday?
Which church do you attend? Which mosque? Which gay bars?"
• Who is my ex-girlfriend going to dinner with?

EFF concluded with this important passage:

In the long run, the decision about when we retain our location privacy (and the limited circumstances under which we will surrender it) should be set by democratic action and lawmaking. Now is a key moment for organizations that are building and deploying location data infrastructure to show leadership and select designs that are responsible and do not surrender the locational privacy of users simply for expediency.

Now here's what New York Times reporter Adam Cohen had to say:

Privacy advocates are rightly concerned. Corporations and the government can keep track of what political meetings people attend, what bars and clubs they go to, whose homes they visit. It is the fact that people’s locations are being recorded “pervasively, silently, and cheaply that we’re worried about,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a recent report.

People’s cellphones and E-ZPasses are increasingly being used against them in court. If your phone is on, even if you are not on a call, you may be able to be found (and perhaps picked up) at any hour of the day or night. As disturbing as it is to have your private data breached, it is worse to think that your physical location might fall into the hands of people who mean you harm.


What can be done? As much as possible, location-specific information should not be collected in the first place, or not in personally identifiable form. There are many ways, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, to use cryptography and anonymization to protect locational privacy. To tell you about nearby coffee shops, a cellphone application needs to know where you are. It does not need to know who you are.

When locational information is collected, people should be given advance notice and a chance to opt out. Data should be erased as soon as its main purpose is met. After you pay your E-ZPass bill, there is no reason for the government to keep records of your travel.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

All in all, I'd say this is a well done article and relatively important one at that - and a testament to the fine work of EFF too. As the author rightly points out, a constantly monitored citizenry used to conjure up images of totalitarian states - not Google and I-Phones. And granted, now technology does the surveillance — generally in the name of being helpful and entertaining, not to stifle dissent or oppress the public.

This fact does not mean that these technologies can't still be used in ways that do reduce freedoms, do play into the hands of overly aggressive and/or oppressive governments, and does invade privacy by using our private information to maximize corporate profit.

AS the author also rightly points out, "It’s time for a serious conversation about how much of our privacy of movement we want to give up."

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