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Breaking the Law, Videotaping Suspicious Characters, and Seeing Through Walls (Friday Links Roundup)

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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September 28, 2012

Reports circulated this week that Facebook’s new Timeline was placing private messages into people’s public Timeline displays. Facebook said it was certain that was not happening. According to a statement from Facebook:

Our engineers investigated these reports and found that the messages were older wall posts that had always been visible on the users’ profile pages. Facebook is satisfied that there has been no breach of user privacy.

Regardless of whether the technical problem was, in fact, occurring, I think that a privacy breach has occurred, at least for some people. Many early adopters of Facebook report that in the early days their Facebook page was an intimate space—shared with perhaps just a small number of college friends—where they exchanged messages that were far more personal than is typical today. Facebook felt like a closed room to many people. Whether or not the “privacy bug” here is real, people’s underlying feelings are correct: to take conversations conducted among one set of people, and expose them to a second, broader set of people, does constitute a “breach of user privacy.” It should be noted that Facebook does allow users to remove items from their timeline after the fact.

There’s been a new development in the ongoing battle to determine who gets helped and who gets hurt by the fact that more and more people are carrying video cameras with them at all times (in their smartphones). Homeland Security officials in Delaware have announced a smartphone app that can be used to send video of “suspicious activity” to the state’s fusion center. I’m skeptical how many people are going to download such an app, though it’s possible that with enough official encouragement it could become much more common to shoot video to the authorities. We have been critical of overbroad citizen “watch” programs since this 2004 report and before, but if this kind of thing really did become common it would raise the practice—including the implicit racial profiling that it involves—to a whole new level. (via Carlos Miller)

The National Institute of Justice, which is the R&D arm of the U.S. Justice Department, is planning to evaluate the effectiveness of sensors that can see through walls, according to a notice published in today’s Federal Register. As we mentioned in our December drones report, technologies such as Synthetic Aperture Radar are being developed that do have the potential to see through walls. Such technologies hold promise for such applications as disaster recovery, but obviously could be an absolute nightmare for privacy, whether deployed on a drone or from the street. Fortunately, after the Kyllo decision, it’s clear that government use of such a device would require a warrant to see into a home. Still, this is a technology that bears watching and it will be interesting to see how effective these devices are judged to be.

Jim Harper at Cato points out this dynamic, much-viewed online talk on why defense attorneys always tell their clients not speak to the police. In the talk, one of the points that law professor James Duane makes is the same point that I made with respect to privacy in my post on why people should care about privacy even if they think they have “nothing to hide”: the law is so extensive and complicated that the authorities do not have much trouble finding something to charge a person with, once that suspect comes into their cross hairs. Partly quoting this Heritage Foundation report by Paul Rosenzweig, Duane says,

One expert on criminal law recently noted, estimates of the current size of the body of federal criminal law vary, although it has been reported that the Congressional Research Service can no longer even count the current number of federal crimes. That’s right, even the federal government has lost count. These laws are scattered over all 50 titles of the U.S. Code, encompassing roughly 27,000 pages. Worse yet, these statutes often incorporate by reference the provisions of administrative regulations. Estimates of how many such regulations exist are even less well settled, although the ABA thinks there may be nearly 10,000.

So the next time someone tells you they don’t care about surveillance because they haven’t done anything wrong, you should say: are you sure?

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