Daily updates on privacy stories in the news.

The 2010 Census: The Big Count Begins

Every ten years the United States performs an enumeration of the population for the purpose of apportionment of the Congress. The Census has grown in scope and sophistication to support the apportionment of federal funds among the states and jurisdictions served for benefits ranging from highway funds, to school lunch programs. There are increased concerns about how census data will be used in a post 9-11 world where the government wants greater unfettered access to data on citizens for profiling, and investigative purposes, without providing much transparency to the public on government activities. Illegal access to telephone records, secret watch list, and invasive surveillance technology places this year's census in a new context far different than at the time the Constitution was written. Promises and assurances by the federal government that privacy of census takers will not be abused nor threats of prosecution for those who do not want to participate is not the best way to increase public trust in the process. The census is fundamentally a count of how many men, women, and children live in a particular area and should be nothing more.

Census time heightens privacy concerns, by Declan McCullagh, CNET News

Seeing Through Your Walls: Smart Grid Has Great Potential For Insight into Home Life

The Smart Grid is coming. Its first steps are in the form of smart meters being installed in homes around the nation. Some of the installations come with extensive energy use surveys that collect information on what time do you go to work, what time do you come home, what day to do you do laundry, How often do you microwave your dinner, etc. The smart meter records and transmits electricity usage from the home every 15 minutes and coupled with the answers provided by home owners a lot of intimate details about home life is being shared with utility companies for the first time. Arriving in the energy usage information arena are companies who would like to know about your energy use for what they say is to "help" you better manage your electricity consumption. Watch out for the fine print regarding what else they might want to use your home energy consumption information for such as sharing it or selling it to advertisers who will want to selling you everything from takeout food, to home appliances. When you turn on an appliance and how long it stays on communicates something about you and your lifestyle that others might find very valuable. Privacy, consumer, and civil liberties organizations are working hard to protect the rights of consumers. The struggle is to establish fair information practices for all smart grid personally identifiable information that does not rely extensively on the failed "notice and choice" model favored by businesses.

Smart Grid Data: Too Much For Privacy, Not Enough For Innovation?
Jeff St. John, earth2tech.com

Look Out: Washington Ready to Roll Out National Worker ID Card

The idea of a national ID card keeps coming back-- first is was REAL ID, now its a Social Security Card with a biometric component. The biggest contributor to identity theft in the United States is the abuse of Social Security Numbers for everything related to credit, employment, and education. This time language around this new proposal for national ID sounds like it is about illegal immigration, but the impact will be on anyone who is working or would like to work regardless of your legal status. Some of the same issues related to REAL ID may arise along with some new ones. Collection of certain biometrics like fingerprints that have secondary government uses should raise civil liberties as well as privacy flags. In addition, the numbers of persons required to use this single document will outstrip any identification system ever created in this country. There will be problems with accuracy, reliability, transparency, and oversight. Workers will not care about this document when it works, but what they do need to know before enrolling is what will happen when the system fails. For example, failures by the Social Security Administration to collect and record data accurately, failures by technology used by employers to read the biometrics of employees, or failures in verification of biometric information when checked with government records are only a few of ways things could go wrong and leave people unemployable for a reason other than whether they are or are not U.S. citizens. What will happen when people misplace Social Security Cards and need replacements? What happens if identity thieves break the security of the document? Will there by INS raids where every employee needs to show their papers or get taken away? Could employers confiscate cards and hold their workforce hostage?

The right way to mend immigration, Charles E. Schumer and Lindsey O Graham, Washington Post, Columns, March 19, 2010

Facebook's Beacon Privacy Violation Makes it 9M Richer

Facebook offered to settle all lawsuits that resulted from its failed Beacon application, which violated users' privacy. The Beacon application without user prior agreement reported online purchases to social contacts of users, which broke federal privacy laws and resulted in several lawsuits by unhappy customers. Facebook offered to settle one case in a bold move to dismiss all other cases around the country for 9M. About 6 million would be left after attorney fees to fund a foundation. The members of the 3 person foundation board were named in the settlement agreement. The board was established with 2 people, which included a Facebook executive. They had to agree on the naming of a third person who would help decide how to spend the 6M set aside for online privacy research.

Clever: Facebook Funds A Privacy Watchdog Group, Nicholas Carlson, Business Insider, Silicon Alley Insider, March 18, 2010

Internet Users Find it Easy to Talk to Strangers

Something that you learned as a child is soon forgotten by adults living and working online. "Don't talk to strangers!" The same users if approached on the street and asked for their name, birth date, and social security number would not react well to the request. However, when online many users give up this information without thinking twice about who they are sharing the information with and how it might to used. Alessandro Acquisti an academic researcher at Carnegie Mellon University discovered how easy it is to guess social security numbers using identifying information provided by users of social networking services.

How Privacy Vanishes Online
By STEVE LOHR, New York Times, March 16, 2010

GAO: Whole Body Scanners Raise Questions About Effectiveness

U.S. could spend $3 billion to place whole body scanners in airports around the world. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report states that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says each whole body image machine would cost $170,000 and requires 3 people to operate. The cost of covering 60 percent of all security checkpoints at the busiest commercial airports is about $300 million with an addition 3,550 TSA personnel. Privacy groups have raised questions about passenger privacy and challenged the agency's assertions regarding safeguards against abuse or misuse of nude images of passengers. The GAO report also raised questions regarding the effectiveness of whole body imaging technology in detecting low density materials such as powder or gel explosives as well as items that may be designed to allude detection. Former Administration Department of Homeland Security senior officials have gone to work of companies selling the whole body scanners to TSA.

Scanners may not have detected alleged explosive in Detroit jet case, GAO reports, By Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post, March 18, 2010

FCC Releases Broadband Plan

The Federal Communications Commission released its plan for broadband deployment within the United States. Broadband is all about high-speed two-way Internet connectivity.The US lags behind many European nations, Japan, and South Korea in national broadband deployment. The FCC document advocates increased competition, support universal availability, and an update in government laws/regulations to support expansion of broadband use. The report cites everything from e-health records, to the development of the Smart Grid as being relevant to the topic of national broadband deployment. Faster broadband transmission rates are correlated to time spent online for work and leisure. There are stubborn gaps in broadband deployment to rural and inner city areas that may respond to an organized national effort. The US solved problems with access to basic services such as railroads, highways, electricity, and telephones through federal programs like the transcontinental railroad, rural electrification program, national highway system, and national telephone service efforts.

FCC National Broadband Plan, Federal Communications Commission, March 16, 2010

Fusion Centers Looking for Applications for Data Mining Capacity

The Department of Homeland Security Department has funded 72 state and local Fusion Centers, which establish data mining relationships with public and private data warehouses. Local and state law-enforcement agencies that operate Fusion Centers depend on funding from Federal government agencies to open centers, train staff, and develop intelligence expertise. It has long been understood that local and state law-enforcement did not want to limit the work of Fusion Centers solely to terrorism related investigations. The relationships between state/local Fusion Centers and Federal government agencies is not transparent.

, State fusion centers look to expand beyond counterterrorism efforts, Patrick Marshall, Government Computer News, March 12, 2010