Electronic privacy

  • November 27, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Sharon Bradford Franklin, Senior Counsel, The Constitution Project


    As the Department of Homeland Security has evolved over the past ten years, one of its central functions has become to “safeguard and secure cyberspace.”  DHS is the lead agency overseeing cybersecurity for the federal government’s civilian operations.  This role fits well with DHS’s overall homeland security responsibilities, and from a civil liberties perspective, DHS is the federal agency best suited to this job.

    Unless they incorporate adequate civil liberties safeguards, cybersecurity programs that permit the government to collect private communications from computer networks create risks that Americans will be subject to the equivalent of a perpetual warrantless wiretap of their private communications and web browsing.  DHS has demonstrated that it takes these risks seriously, and has involved its Privacy Office in developing and operating cybersecurity programs.

  • September 10, 2012

    by Joseph Jerome

    Recently in The New York Times, Adam Liptak cautioned that the legislative paralysis brought on by congressional polarization has made the Supreme Court increasingly more powerful, but a dysfunctional legislature can also increase the power of the presidency. Issue after issue, important separation of powers principles are being distorted as the other branches assert their power. In the courts, this produces policy without accountability. When the president acts without Congress, it creates a democracy governed by executive decree.

    In our system of checks and balances, power grabs, particularly by the executive, are not surprising. “[A]ll the time, presidents are pushing out on the boundaries of their power and claiming new authority,” Professor William Howell explains, but the president’s ability to secure that authority is dependent upon how the other branches respond. If Congress’ failure to address calls for cybersecurity legislation is any indication, Congress’ response these days is simply to pass the buck over and over again.

    Before leaving for its recent recess, congressional dysfunction was on a full display when the Senate failed to overcome a filibuster of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012. The Senate’s treatment of the issue devolved into a circus, with longtime allies Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) arguing over each other’s national security bona fides. The legislative breakdown followed a familiar pattern:  after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to permit additional amendments to the bill, the threat of a Republican filibuster ended any further discussion, and the Senate closed for business.

    Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted that Republicans did not really wish to filibuster the bill, arguing instead that Republicans only sought to improve the proposed law through their set of amendments.  Yet he failed to mention that one of his own suggestions to “improve” cybersecurity legislation was to completely repeal the Affordable Care Act, leaving Reid to wonder what gutting health care reform had to do with cybersecurity.

  • February 22, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The White House appears to being moving closer to revealing a strategy for addressing rising concerns over privacy breaches in cyberspace.

    Politico reports that a White House event tomorrow is “likely to set the stage for the public unveiling of the administration’s highly anticipated white paper on online privacy, which has been more than a year in the making. The white paper is expected to call for a consumer privacy bill of rights from Congress, while charging the industry to police itself under the watch of federal regulators.”

    Some commentators suggest that the administration’s policy is likely influenced, in part, by the work of the Commerce Department’s Internet Policy Task Force, which issued a green paper after a year-long review “that included extensive consultations with commercial, civil society, governmental and academic stakeholders ….”

    The paper’s forward asserts that protections of consumers’ privacy “are crucial to maintaining the consumer trust that nurtures the Internet’s growth.”

    The potential release of the administration’s plans to address privacy concerns comes admist reporting by The Wall Street Journal that the Internet advertising giant, Google, had bypassed “the privacy settings of millions of people using” Apple’s Web browser, Safari, apparently allowing Google to track “the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.”

  • November 23, 2011

    by Jonathan Arogeti

    Envision OpenPlanet, a hypothetical program that could patch together every surveillance camera in the world and pair it with Facebook’s facial recognition software to create a perpetual video timeline database for each Facebook user. Would this violate the Fourth Amendment as an unreasonable search and seizure?

    This question, posed by George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, represents the crux of the issue explored at a recent forum at American University Washington College of Law titled, “Social Technology and the Threat to Privacy: How Facebook, GPS & Google Are Changing Our Lives.” Click here for video.

    Rosen links this question to the 2006 firing of Stacy Snyder, a Pennsylvania woman who was allegedly fired from her teacher training program after a MySpace picture showed her wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” Snyder sued in federal court that the picture was protected speech, but the judge disagreed because it “didn’t relate to matters of public concern.”

    Rosen points to law and technology as mechanisms for dealing with this “Stacy Snyder problem.” Europeans are experimenting with le droit a l’oubli, or the right to oblivion, as a mechanism to force online companies to protect the privacy of its customers. Technology, too, can secure customer privacy, and he points to a company that erases text messages after a specific period of time designated by the user.

  • November 10, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Margaret Hu, a visiting assistant professor at Duke Law School. Her research focuses on immigration and surveillance policy. She previously served as special policy counsel on immigration-related discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.  


    When it comes to surveillance, size matters. In U.S. v. Jones, the GPS tracking case, the Supreme Court just might agree.On November 8, the Court heard arguments on whether the police violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures when it continued to monitor Mr. Jones’ car with a GPS device after the warrant expired. During oral argument, what seemed clear to the Justices is that cyber-surveillance today is not your grandma’s apple pie surveillance. With new technologies, the Justices seem to be wondering whether being watched 24/7 may one day be as common as, well, apple pie.

    Back in the day, surveillance meant being tailed. The government sent someone to follow you around. Today, technology has given the government the capacity to track both your body and biography 24/7. And it’s not just “persons of interest” anymore. With cyber-surveillance, it’s now cost-effective to track everyone.  But, is it ok for the government to check your email, google searches, and Facebook page? Skim your credit card records and purchases on Amazon? Monitor your cell phone records and smartphone locations? During U.S. v. Jones, the Supreme Court wondered aloud during oral argument whether the government could attach GPS devices to the license plates of everyone who owns a car in the entire U.S.

    This last scenario might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.