Tag Archives: privacy

The Private Sector Reigns Supreme…Again

Good news for Apple fans: the company’s mobile operating system, iOS, as well as its new iPhone 6 devices, feature beefed-up levels of default encryption and–to the horror of our federal government’s “Justice” department–no “back door.” Zack Whittaker of ZDNet argues that the “feds only have themselves to blame” for Apple (and also Google) beefing up their smartphone encryption, because the federal government has failed to scale back the NSA’s bulk metadata collection in any significant fashion. I agree, and I also agree with Whittaker’s (and others’) disappointment in the Washington Post editorials echoing “Justice”‘s call for a “back door” and arguing for a “compromise” on encryption.

Yes, government should be able to compel the production of evidence when it has probable cause and particularized suspicion (and follows procedures appropriate for the context). But government should not be able to compel manufacturers of devices to do its job, to make it unnecessary for the government to approach the device owner directly with the warrant. As Yaron Brook alluded to on Facebook yesterday, it is great to see the profit motive encouraging companies to cater to customers’ privacy preferences.

[Also notable: this story about Twitter suing the U.S. government over limits on its ability to disclose surveillance orders, something about which Apple has also complained.]

Now, if only Apple could figure out a simple and elegant solution to the threats posed by ISIS and Ebola…

The news on Ebola is getting worse, as we learn that a nurse in Spain–who presumably knows what precautions to take and has the materials necessary to take them–contracted the disease while treating two patients who had been brought to Spain for treatment. The nurse’s husband and two others have reportedly now also been placed in quarantine. The Los Angeles Times published a speculative piece, in which one expert opined that “We just don’t have the data to exclude [the possibility of Ebola spreading by air in close quarters].” While it’s natural to worry about a disease that seems to be killing more than half of those who contract it, we need to keep in mind that the assertion about the possibility of airborne Ebola is arbitrary–there is no evidence to support it and therefore it should be dismissed–unless and until such evidence materializes.

While we wait for more information on the transmission of Ebola, it is heartening to read of the Firestone plantation in Liberia, where the tire manufacturer has applied determination and common sense to the task of containing the Ebola outbreak, with great success. “[E]ven as the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded rages all around them, Firestone appears to have blocked the virus from spreading inside its territory.”

It is not surprising to me that a private company has outperformed governments in containing Ebola. In fact, while our own government should likely be doing more–temporary travel restrictions or enhanced screening–to combat the current outbreak, preventing the spread of disease is not a routine government function. Firestone realizes that it is crucial for the success of their plantation in Liberia effectively to contain the virus, and they have acted accordingly. (HT Rick Wilmes, who brought the Firestone story to my attention.)

What is a proper government function, however, is defending citizens against threats of physical force from enemies foreign and domestic. And it is here that the Obama administration’s default is most concerning. ISIS continues to behead western journalists and threaten the beheading of veterans and active members of the military. They are harassing military members and their families via social media. ISIS supporters have even managed to place their graffiti in Washington, D.C. And yet our President and his Secretary of State continue to evade the nature of the threat, or its origin, saying it has nothing to do with Islam and, apparently, everything to do with Syrian rebels needing our assistance.

Thankfully we have some Americans who are willing to speak the truth about the nature of the threat we face. The most unapologetic and outspoken critic of ISIS and Islam of late is, surprisingly, a liberal who most likely would not want to be included in a post praising the private sector: Bill Maher. Here’s the latest in a long series of Maher’s excellent commentary on Islam and the danger it poses:

Check the Real Time account on YouTube for more commentary by Maher, and join me in thanking him for speaking out and telling the truth when no one in our government seems to be able to.

You might also enjoy this from a few years ago: Maher’s “Muslim Dior” fashion show:

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A Facebook News Sandwich

Wired UK reports that Facebook has created a “Connectivity Lab” dedicated to bringing the internet to remote areas via a network of “flying drones, satellites, and infrared lasers capable of beaming internet connections to people down here on earth.” As Wired notes, the news comes within days of Facebook’s acquisition of gaming headset manufacturer Oculus, which Facebook plans to use to develop virtual reality enhancements for its social network.

A recurring theme on News Sandwich is the celebration of innovation, particularly in an economy struggling to survive after the lashings it has received from the last few presidents. But I find Facebook’s investments especially heartening because they are explicitly aimed at the long term: “[W]hile discussing the Oculus buy, Zuckerberg painted both projects as platforms that represent not the near future of Facebook, but the distant future.”

Innovative tech industry leaders are even more important today, because we are depending on them to figure out ways to protect our privacy until we can either elect the right politicians and win the right court cases needed to achieve major changes in the law.

Remember when Obama promised to end the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program “as we know it”? Well, as I suspected, so far it’s just a bunch of hot air. If you dig down into this New York Times story, entitled “Obama to Call for End to N.S.A.’s Bulk Data Collection,” you will learn, first, that “the administration has decided to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the program as it exists for at least one more 90-day cycle”—i.e., at least another three months of the program as it is. Then, the plan is apparently to do exactly what Obama previously admitted was not a real solution: require the phone companies to retain the metadata. The only difference, apparently, is that the data will be retained for only 18 months, whereas the NSA is currently collecting and retaining data for five years.

Hmmm, 18 months. Just enough time for Obama to finish up his term, leave office, and even help the next democrat get elected.

Conspiracy theories aside, it is wrong for the government to force companies to retain this data even if, as the New York Times reports, “federal regulations already generally require [it].” Moreover, even assuming (as I do) that phone companies have a legitimate business reason to retain some metadata for some period of time, it is wrong for government to be able to obtain that data without probable cause and particularized suspicion.

What was perhaps most disappointing to me about Obama’s announcement of, essentially, nothing, was the news that Edward Snowden hailed Obama’s proposals as a “turning point.” Am I missing something? I just don’t see that requiring phone companies to do the government’s dirty work makes a bit of difference. Is Snowden trying to negotiate a plea bargain with Obama?

With Obama seemingly determined to keep his toys, and Snowden dropping the ball, I turn to the tech industry innovators and leaders to develop ways to protect our privacy in the current legal context. And I am hopeful that Mark Zuckerberg will do his part. In a recent post on Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote:

The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst.

I’ve called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future. Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform.

So it’s up to us — all of us — to build the internet we want. Together, we can build a space that is greater and a more important part of the world than anything we have today, but is also safe and secure. I’m committed to seeing this happen, and you can count on Facebook to do our part.

Whatever complaints I have about Facebook—the ads, the default settings or notifications I don’t always like, the confusing changes in news feed and profile layouts—I commend Mark Zuckerberg for continuing to innovate for the long term, and for committing to protect our privacy, despite governments that seem intent on violating it.

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Human Beings vs. Today’s Government

I was glad to read that Twitter is considering suing the Obama Administration because of its unjust restrictions on Twitter’s ability to disclose information about government requests for user data. The Hill reports that Twitter’s head of global legal policy, Jeremy Kessell, blogged about his dissatisfaction with a recent agreement reached between tech companies and the Justice Department, an agreement that still restricts the companies disclosures to reporting a range of the number of requests received. Whereas the range before the agreement was 1 to 1,000 requests, now the range, for some categories of requests, is 1 to 250. How generous of the government!

The government says it has a compelling interest in restricting the disclosures, and that this justifies the reduction of customer trust—and therefore the reduction in business—that Twitter and other tech companies will suffer. Tell that to the homeowners in New London, Connecticut, who had their homes seized, and later bulldozed, in accordance with eminent domain law. Nine years after the United States Supreme Court upheld this use of eminent domain in the name of “economic development,” the land lies empty.

Twitter’s quest for greater transparency could be a nice complement to Lavabit founder Ladar Levison’s current legal battle with the U.S. Government. The government had an arguably valid order to obtain data on Lavabit’s most famous user, Edward Snowden. But if Levison had handed over his encryption keys as ordered, the government would have had access to account data of all Lavabit’s users, and Levison would have had no way to know whether the government was abusing that access. To hear more about Levison’s decision to shut down his company rather than surrender access to all his users’ data, listen to my Feb. 7 interview with him here.

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