Thursday, February 14, 2002

every breath you take

Have a great Valentine's Day!

Lately, it seems like privacy is often in the news:

on video

In response to the Washington, D.C., police action to build a network of surveillence cameras, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out what type of information will be collected by the cameras, and who will have access to it. Hopefully the EPIC web site will let us know if their request has been fulfilled.

The NYC Surveillance Camera Project News page has some great articles on the subject of surveillance. One of them, on the failure of facial recognition technology in Tampa, Florida (pdf) may hold less than stellar news for the District of Columbia's Police force. According to the ACLU, Tampa police's use of cameras and face recognition software ended with less than great results: no hits, no arrests, and many false positives. The data the ACLU received was with the use of FOIA requests. The Tampa force used dozens of cameras. The D.C. endeavor includes hundreds of cameras, but they haven't decided upon which "face-matching" software they will use yet.

In Britain, where there are over 2.5 million surveillance cameras, the results aren't seen to be very spectacular also, as an article in the Aspen Daily News reports:
Far from reducing crime, however, Britain's violent crime rate has risen. Cameras seem to have an initial deterrent effect but that often decreases over time. They tend only to prevent opportunistic, or spur of the moment, crimes and otherwise displaces crime to a different area. Indeed, the crime reduction statistics have been declared "wholly unreliable" by Professor Jason Ditton, director of the Scottish Center for Criminology, and without credibility by the British Journal of Criminology.
The Aspen article refers to a report by Jeffrey Rosen, entitled: Being Watched: A Cautionary Tale for a New Age of Surveillance.

on the web

So you're at home browsing the web, when you read a report that your cable company is tracking your every click of the mouse. Do you: (1) call customer service and complain, (2) drink a beer, and offer a toast to evaporating privacy, (3) send a letter to your Senator (4) sell your computer, pack up your belongings and move to some place where no one knows your name? On the heels of news that the Comcast cable company was tracking the viewing habits of their users came a column in the Washington Post that Comcast will stop tracking their users. It appears that someone chose option number three above, as this letter probably had something to do with Comcast's decision.

as you read

If you've read any good books lately, it's possible that the government might want to take a good look at your reading list. Should the government be able to demand that a bookstore turn over a list of books that you've purchased? Or require that an online bookstore provide a list of all of the purchasers of a particular book or cd.
In fact, according to Finan, less-publicized demands by law enforcement for customer information have become "alarmingly" more frequent over the past two years. And not only independent booksellers, but giants like Borders and Amazon, have been subpoenaed. In perhaps the most egregious case, authorities ordered Amazon to give them a list of all customers in a large part of Ohio who had ordered two sexually oriented CDs. Independent booksellers have been especially hard-hit by these cases. And fighting them without the benefit of a corporate budget or in-house counsel means hefty legal bills and months, if not years, of hassle.

on the phone

At least the telephone companies aren't selling information about your account. What? They could be? Customer proprietary network information (CPNI)? There's a misunderstanding involving the information collected by telecommunications corporations about their customer's telephone calls. CPNI includes:
the time, date, duration and destination number of each call, the type of network a consumer subscribes to, and any other information that appears on the consumer's telephone bill.
And telephone companies have been considering selling this information. Should you have to opt-out of the phone company's sale of this type of information about you? Here's hoping that a slight change to the Communications Act of 1934 will end that confusion.

- William Slawski