Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Age

In light of the anniversary of the Snowden leaks the Wilson Center held a public event on Surveillance, Security and Trust. It’s becoming clear that our regulatory frameworks are severely outdated in regards to current and evolving technologies. In addition, there is a schism between the way older and younger generations view privacy. At the Commons Lab we asked several of our 20-something employees what they thought about privacy and surveillance in the Digital Age.

Are there differences in this country between the way young people see privacy and the way older people do? 

Generational Divide. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Female, Age 20: Absolutely. There are perception differences across a wide spectrum of issues between young people and older people. Personally, I think that the culture and environment that the younger people have grown up in and adopted creates a lack of privacy. For example, with social media, text messaging, and other recent technologies, our lives are never really private. Additionally, with available technology, we continue to hear about how our government can listen and see everything. Although we might not support it, we have grown accustomed to hearing such things, which conditions us to accept a lack of privacy.

Female, Age 22: There is a definitive difference in the way older Americans and younger Americans view privacy. As younger Americans trade their personal information for digital convenience, older Americans are more reluctant as a demographic to participate on the Internet with the same openness. Younger Americans have become accustomed to clicking ‘Accept’ to fine print attachments, often unaware of the degree of privacy they are relinquishing to quickly participate. A good metaphor of this is the oft discussed “American Dream.” It is certainly arguable that in generations past, it was the private ownerships of a private home surrounded by a white picket fence that symbolized success, marking a private space to conduct private affairs. Now, younger Americans gladly share pictures and stories publicly on the Internet depicting what happens in these spaces, offering up the details of their lives for public validation. I think younger Americans are simply willing to share more with a wider circle, but want to feel that the circle they share it with it still under their jurisdiction. Older Americans, on the other hand, may not be concerned with sharing at all with such an audience.

Female, Age 28: Mainly we don’t care. While I’m not considered a digital native I still came of age during the digital revolution and the idea that someone knows my whereabouts at every moment just doesn’t bother me personally — that is, until I think through the greater implications to society and government oversight.  Many of my friends and I follow the rule, “Don’t post it if you don’t want your grandma to read it.”

Male, Age 20: Yes, I would guess that there probably is. Particularly, I expect that the younger generations are more accepting of how commonly their electronic information is shared around the world. We have grown up with it as such a ubiquitous part of our lives that you can’t help but recognize it and move on. For my own part, I simply assume that anything I do on the internet can, and will, become public information. Once you take that as fact, then it becomes just like any other public forum and you act accordingly. I feel that this is an attitude more commonly held by our age group and one that separates us from the opinions of our parents.

Continue reading “Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Age”


Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values

Each day, humans upload more than 500 million photographs documenting every aspect of their lives. But while striking, this statistic pales in comparison to the vast quantity of information created not by humans, but about them. These data come from technologies as diverse as GPS-enabled Smartphones, wearable pedometers, and information captured in web logs and cookies.


Figure 1: Personal health devices such as Fitbit track metrics including distance walked, steps climbed, calories burned, and hours slept each night. Image credit:

This generated information is big data, defined as “large, diverse, complex, longitudinal and/or distributed datasets generated form instruments, sensors, Internet transactions, email, video, click streams, and/or all other digital sources available today and in the future.” Big data brings tremendous potential for advancing scientific research. One researcher studying 35,000 schizophrenia patients demonstrated a genetic variant that eluded previous researchers working with smaller sample sizes. But big data also sharpens the potential for subtle, or even invisible, forms of discrimination. For example, algorithms determining which audiences receive offers for student loans could be so finely tuned that they target only people of a certain, gender, race, or income bracket. Continue reading “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values”

NEW REPORT: Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters

priv_imgSeveral recent natural disasters have illustrated the need for humanitarian groups, volunteers and policymakers to understand privacy issues when searching for missing persons in the aftermath of these crises.

The Commons Lab and the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) at Fordham Law School have teamed up on a new report looking at these legal and policy issues. The report, “Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters,” can be found online here.

From the press release:

The report offers a roadmap to the legal and policy issues surrounding privacy and missing persons following natural disasters. It provides strategies that humanitarian organizations, private sector organizations, volunteers and policymakers can pursue to help those affected by major natural disasters.  For example, the report recommends that the United States government exercise existing legal authority to support appropriate sharing of personal information about missing persons following natural disasters.  More broadly, the report recommends that those developing technologies to share information about missing persons implement design principles that carefully balance privacy consistent with existing legal obligations. The report also calls on privacy policy makers, legislators, and regulators to take steps to clarify how privacy rules apply to missing persons activities in identified key areas so that missing persons activities can proceed without the threat of legal liability. Continue reading “NEW REPORT: Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters”

Nader, Onassis, and Jones: Privacy in Public and Limits on the Private Sector

The GPS case – the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Jones – raises a whole host of issues about privacy in public. The case was about the Fourth Amendment and the government’s ability to follow individuals on public roads. Of the three opinions in the case, that of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s was the most interesting and, potentially, the furthest reaching.

Sotomayor asked “whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the Government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on.” Sotomayor and all the other justices found limits in the Fourth Amendment. I want to look more broadly.

The Fourth Amendment establishes the boundary for government action, but it does not constrain the private sector. What happens if the government cannot follow people because of Fourth Amendment restrictions but the private sector can? After all, what good is the Fourth Amendment if a private company can follow you down every street and sell the information to marketers, profilers, and government agencies too?

Sotomayor raised this question indirectly when she questioned existing case law that holds that an individual has no expectation of privacy in information given to banks and other third parties:

More fundamentally, it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. E.g., [Smith v. Maryland442 U.S. 735, 742 (1979)] United States v. Miller, 425 U. S. 435, 443 (1976). This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.

Many in the privacy community stood up and cheered when reading these words. Privacy advocates were critical of the Miller decision from the start. Much more so than in 1976 when the Court decided Miller, we live in a world where much of our personal information is held by third parties, including banks, schools, utilities, supermarkets, credit bureaus, credit grantors, and Internet providers of goods and services. Many of us live our lives on the Internet and in the cloud. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, EBay, and other companies have our aggregated, detailed data in their files. The issues here are major, and I need to shed complex issues cavalierly as we proceed.

Continue reading “Nader, Onassis, and Jones: Privacy in Public and Limits on the Private Sector”

Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights

On October 24th, 2011, George Washington University Law School hosted a presentation from Dr. Ian Brown entitled “Internet Freedom: a Comparative Assessment” as part of their speaker series on Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights.  Dr. Brown has extensive scholarship on electronic freedoms in the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU), and his talk covered many of the ongoing challenges in balancing the open flow of information and the concerns of government and law enforcement.

Dr. Brown began by outlining the UK and EU legal frameworks on communications.  The UK’s Communications Act of 2003 declares that the Office of Communications (OFCOM) shall “further the interests” of both citizens and consumers “by promoting competition.”   The relevant section in the Treaty on the European Union guarantees “fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” as well as the “constitutional traditions common to the Member States.”  The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights declares that all are guaranteed “respect for his private…communications,” “protection of personal data,” and “freedom of expression.”

These protections are strong.  Government response in a crisis can function differently.  Users of popular services such as Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerry Messaging were caught coordinating looting via their networks.  In the aftermath of this disturbing behavior, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made comments indicating he was considering shutting down some services in a crisis “to stop people communicating…when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”  But, as Dr. Brown pointed out, the Prime Minister has vocally supported revolutionary movements in the Middle East using social media.  To date, the UK government has not sought any additional authority to close down social media networks. Continue reading “Global Internet Freedom and Human Rights”