Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Facebook, Google, and the Police State

When it was introduced, Facebook's newsfeed caused an uproar over privacy concerns. Users were initially unable to control what appeared on the newsfeed, and cried foul. A few, though, defended Facebook, claiming the anger overblown because there was no change in information privacy, just a change in information publicity.

How people could believe a thing could be made more public without being any less private was beyond me, but I didn't much care; the issue didn't seem all that important. But when a Wisconsin appeals court used the same argument to justify Government tracking of every citizen's vehicle, via GPS, without warrants, it no longer seemed so trivial.

The arguments defending the newsfeed went along these lines:

In Defense of Facebook Feeds - Jared W. Smith
It’s not an invasion of privacy if the information is already public knowledge to your networks. A privacy invasion would be Facebook broadcasting transactions that the privacy settings specifically mask, and that’s not happening.

In defense of Facebook's facelift - Eric Hansen
The good news is that this does nothing to actually reduce the privacy of your Facebook information, only the publicity.

These arguments assume that if someone can potentially obtain a piece of information then, for all intents and purposes, they already have it. But that's not the case. It's the effort needed to acquire information that largely determines how private it is. The harder it is to get at a piece of information, the fewer there will be that actually end up with it. By reducing the effort required to access information (i.e. making it more accessible), you ensure that more interested parties will acquire it.

To clarify the point, let's examine some of the controversy surrounding Google Maps' "Street View" feature. Google Maps' Street View provides users a 360 degree street-level view of any location that one of Google's camera vans have driven through. Since Google's vans are only supposed to traverse (and photograph) public roads, all images available on Street view are images that anyone could have, potentially, captured. Nevertheless, like Facebook's newsfeed, Google Maps' Street View has been accused of privacy infringement.

For example, last year, one of Google's camera vans obtained permission to drive through and photograph the Ft. Sam Houston Army base in San Antonio, Tex. When the Pentagon got wind of this, they issued a directive banning Google teams from documenting street-level views of U.S. Military Bases.

Michael Kucharek, spokesman for U.S. Northern Command, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the decision was made after crews were allowed access to at least one base. He said military officials were concerned that allowing the 360-degree, street-level video could provide sensitive information to potential adversaries and endanger base personnel.

The street view images of the base were promptly removed. But what was the big deal? Patrick Lyons on the New York Times blog points out,

Not that very much about the lay of the land at Ft. Sam Houston is secret; the base is cheek by jowl with a large city, it gets many civilian visitors, its web site includes a map as detailed as your average college-campus plan, and the Pentagon doesn’t mind that the whole place is clearly shown in the satellite photos that are a few clicks away on Google Maps and elsewhere.

but concludes,

Still, you can learn a lot about a building from panoramic street-level images that just doesn’t show in satellite photos, so it’s not too hard to understand the sensitivity in the Pentagon.

This notion that "street-level views" can constitute a security threat is the same reason why Google has voluntarily removed photos of women's shelters from street view.

Google removed photos of women's shelters before launching the feature, said Cindy Southworth, director of technology at the Washington, D.C.-based National Network to End Domestic Violence, which is the umbrella group for state shelters.

"We don't want to call attention to the shelters," Southworth said. "We would rather it look like a choppy horizon line as you pan by. Our hope is that other companies will do a similar thing and reach out to us in advance."

Removing the shelters from the map greatly diminishes the privacy threat to battered women, said Ashley Tan, volunteer coordinator at Woman Inc., a San Francisco-based 24-hour domestic violence crisis line.

Anyone can look up and photograph locations of women's shelters. And it wouldn't be all that more difficult to photograph locations within Ft. Sam Houston, given all the civilian traffic that passes through. But the effort required to fully document these locations is significantly higher if they are not already documented in a publicly accessible database like Google Maps. Tools like Google Maps make this information much more accessible (i.e. more public). By definition, if a piece of information is made "more public", it must also then be "less private".

As I wrote above, all this seemed of little consequence, as Google and Facebook have both added features to help maintain some of the privacy that their tools encroach upon. But then I read this:

Wisconsin police can attach GPS to cars to secretly track anybody’s movements without obtaining search warrants, an appeals court ruled Thursday.


As the law currently stands, the court said police can mount GPS on cars to track people without violating their constitutional rights – even if the drivers aren’t suspects.

Officers do not need to get warrants beforehand because GPS tracking does not involve a search or a seizure, Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel based in Madison.

That means “police are seemingly free to secretly track anyone’s public movements with a GPS device,” he wrote.

Creepy. This was the result of a 2003 case involving Michael Sveum, who was under investigation for stalking. Police obtained a warrant to secretly attach a GPS device onto his car so as to track his whereabouts. The information from the device led to his arrest and conviction. Sveum challenged the conviction, arguing the tracking violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure because the device followed him into areas out of public view, such as his garage.

The court disagreed,

The tracking did not violate constitutional protections because the device only gave police information that could have been obtained through visual surveillance, Lundsten wrote.


“We discern no privacy interest protected by the Fourth Amendment that is invaded when police attach a device to the outside of a vehicle, as long as the information obtained is the same as could be gained by the use of other techniques that do not require a warrant,” he wrote.

Although police obtained a warrant in this case, it wasn’t needed, he added.

That last line is a jaw dropper. It would have been perfectly reasonable for the appeals court to uphold the warrant obtained to track Sveum, based on the case's merits. But to further conclude that a warrant wasn't needed because there was no breech in privacy is outrageous. As reported, this implies the Government can legally attach GPS devices to the vehicles of every citizen without a warrant.

Their reasoning is no less flawed than Smith's and Hansen's. There may be no change in who could potentially access user information on Facebook, street level photographs around the country, or the public whereabouts of Wisconsin citizens, but by expanding the accessibility of this information, they are making it more public and less private..

All this, just to conclude that "warrantless surveillance of citizens" infringes on their privacy. I used to believe that was common sense...