Drones Over America

EPIC has obtained evidence under the Freedom of Information Act from the US Department of Homeland Security that is has fitted Predator drones with domestic espionage capabilities. The document, Performance Specification for the US Customs and Border Protection Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Version 2.4, dated March 10 2010,  includes the following technical requirements: infra-red sensors and communications, plus either synthetic aperture radar (SAR), Ground Moving Target Indicator mode (GMTI – tracking) or signals interception receivers (page 7). The UAV should:

be “capable of tracking an adult human-sized, single moving object” with sufficient accuracy “to allow target designation at the specific ranges.”(page 28)

“be able to maintain constant surveillance and track on a designation geographic point.” (page 28)

The section ‘target marking’ is redacted in EPIC’s version however the CNET website managed to get hold of a non-redacted version, which say that the system “shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,”  and specify “signals interception” technology for mobile phone frequencies as well as “direction finding” which will enable the UAS locate them.

And in case people are wondering whether this is just for border patrol, the documents specifically states that it is for collection of ‘Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data in support of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP missions” (page 1). I hope all you US people know exactly how you can challenge drones flying at 20,000 feet up that might be breaching your 4th Amendment Rights…

Corporate Privacy?

I’ve been arguing a lot recently that individual privacy, state secrecy and corporate confidentiality should be regarded as clearly separate things. Keeping this separation is important precisely because it stops organisations which we should expect to be open to inspection and accountable to us, from using ‘privacy’ as an excuse for avoiding such inspection. Philosophically, the distinction should be clear, but legally it may not be so obvious. One problem however lies in the nature of the whole notion of ‘incorporation’, which in its very language already assigns certain individual human attributes to organisations. And corporations are very much aware of this.

Marc Rotenberg points me to a very interesting legal test case in which the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in the USA is currently involved. This case originally started when in 2008 the Federal Communications Commission ruled that corporations could not use ‘privacy’ as a reason to reject Freedom of Information requests. In 2009, a court overruled this decision. And now the FCC, ironically aided by EPIC, an organisation which frequently finds itself challenging rather than supporting the state on such issues, is seeking to have this ruling overturned in the Supreme Court.

This strikes me as a vital case, not just for the USA, for other jurisdictions where corporations will be observing the outcome and seeking to bring similar challenges if they can. If privacy, and indeed any other fundamental human right, is to mean anything it can neither be granted to companies who find it simply a convenient cover for a desire for confidentiality, nor to states who seek to maintain secrecy. Clearly there is information possessed by corporations and by states that might have elements that could be damaging to personal privacy. Private individuals acting in a corporate or state capacity may perhaps in some clearly delineated circumstances have the right not to be personally identified, even more so for individuals from outside the organisation concerned, but the ‘what’ of the information should still not, by association with an individual expressing a desire for privacy or anonymity, acquire the protection of privacy.

Facebook, Privacy and the follies of youth

It is hard to say anything about Facebook that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Of course, the decision to reverse its attempt to change its terms, which would have made it nigh on impossible for members to remove material they had posted, is a good one. Effectively what it would have done is made Facebook the owner of all personal data posted on the site.

The campaign against it was of course organised through Facebook groups! That in itself should have been enough to persuade Facebook’s young owners of the power and passion generated by the system they had created. But I don’t think they really do understand it, or indeed very much about the implications of what they are doing at all. I mentioned their youth. Last time Facebook got into trouble, it was because of comments made by their ‘Marketing Director’ (age: 24) at Davos, which were (apparently erroneously) taken by the press to indicate that Facebook was going to sell personal data.

Now, I know that it’s not cool and probably won’t make me popular to knock youth at a time where youth is everything (despite the fact that the word is ageing) – Fast Company last month had snowboarder Shaun White as its cover star in a story full of fawning admiration about how rich he had become by telling big companies about the youth market. But at least White seems to have his head screwed on – maybe it’s a class thing? Facebook’s owners on the other hand need to grow up a bit. They need to learn a bit more about the value of some rather old-fashioned fundamental rights, particularly privacy, and strop treating the system they have created as the personal spare-time sophomore project as which it began. I think that they just didn’t appreciate how people would view their proposals.

There is a serious issue here. Privacy is something that you only start to truly truly understand as you get older. Partly this is because your mistakes and your secrets get more serious and more potentially damaging as you get older! But, as I have said before, most of those are nobody’s business but your own and no-one benefits from forced transparency – honesty and conscience are also profoundly personal matters. It has been argued that the ‘youthfulness’ of the Net has encouraged a general carelessness with privacy. I am not sure that is entirely true, as Facebook users have shown – they care. But it’s the careless and – let’s face it – privileged youth of many of these new entrepreneurs, the fast companies, which is more concerning. Most are not success stories from the wrong side of the tracks, who have learned ‘the hard way’.

The threat of legal action from EPIC, which was preparing to take them to the Federal Trade Commission might have concentrated minds in this regard. Maybe it was just the threat itself – EPIC have a strong record in these kinds of cases and have taken down Microsoft and Doubleclick. However I would like to think that the arrogance and energy of youth might be tempered with a bit more maturity and consideration in the future. If only, as I’ve said before, because Facebook is no longer a fresh young company in Web 2.0 terms and could easily be eclipsed by the next big thing. Perhaps they can hire someone more ‘real’ like Shaun White to tell them how privacy rights and user control of information would be like, totally rad, dude…

Woah man, I am so stoked about privacy... (Shaun White, not actually advising Facebook on privacy, pictured for Fast Company)
Woah man, I am so stoked about privacy... (Shaun White, not actually advising Facebook on privacy, pictured for Fast Company)

On a more serious note, EPIC put a lot of time and money into protecting privacy in the USA and they do a damn good job, and in cases like that of Facebook they are having a positive affect the world over, so give them some money!