Seriously, it’s Not Just the NSA

Last week we discussed how the NSA has to get its data from somewhere, and it turns out the NSA gets it from us – via Google and friends.  The essential point made was that private enterprise also deserves scrutiny and that the NSA thing, while important, can’t be the only privacy issue we think about.

I hope to reinforce that point here.

This is the first paragraph of a press release from the office of Congressman Mike Capuano:

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) are filing the “We Are Watching You Act” in response to reports that national telecommunications companies are exploring technology for digital video recorders (DVRs) that would record the personal activities of consumers as they watch television from the privacy of their own homes. Current law is silent on these devices and this legislation would require both an opt-in for consumers and an on-screen warning whenever the device is recording information about consumers.

You read that correctly – spying on you through your DVR.  I wonder what the EULA for that DVR would look like.

I can’t believe this kind of thing doesn’t violate some existing law, but the Congressman seems to think the legislation is necessary.  It’s disappointing that the legislation is a notice and opt-in thing rather than an outright ban, but you take what you can get I guess.

Now if you have doubts about whether this is a valid concern, read the whole press release.  Then consider that there is precedent for this type of thing.

In 2010 a school district in the Philadelphia area gave students laptops.  This from Ars Technica about the incident:

According to the complaint, the school in question (Harriton High School) had issued laptops equipped with built-in webcams to every student so that they could have “24/7 access to school based resources” and the ability to work seamlessly between school and home when it comes to research and projects. In November of 2009, however, Robbins was disciplined by the Assistant Principal of his school, Lindy Matsko, for engaging in “improper behavior” in his home. At that time, Matsko cited a photograph from the built-in webcam on the laptop.

Robbins’ father Michael supposedly confirmed with Matsko that the school has the ability to remotely activate the webcam “at any time it chose to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam.” Needless to say, Robbins’ parents were outraged at this development, as neither the school nor the district had told parents about this capability. As a result, the Robbins have filed a class-action lawsuit against the district, charging it with interception of electronic communications under the ECPA, theft of intellectual property under the CFAA, violations of the Stored Communications Act, violations of the Civil Rights Act, invasions of privacy, and violations of the Pennsylvania wiretapping and electronic surveillance act.

Pennsylvania high school officials are accused of spying on their students through webcams on district issued Macbooks. Here is a picture a webcam took of a sophmore sleeping at home

Sleeping student on the school laptop webcam; picture from Wired.

If you’re angry about the NSA thing, imagine how you’d feel if the NSA, the FBI or any other alphabet agency were reviewing your napping, eating, drinking and other habits – on video.  By the way, the NSA isn’t sharing our metadata on YouTube.  I wouldn’t count on the self-control of whoever gives you that DVR.  Your friends, family and co-workers will never be able to erase the memory of video of you in those moments you forgot you were on camera.

So as we discussed last week, think about that first link in the chain to the NSA.  I’ll bet Google is.  I’ll bet that’s why they’re trying to play the upstanding citizen now.

More broadly though, let’s be concerned about the information collected and the collection source and whoever gets access to the information later on.  It’s not just governments that are interesting in snooping on us.  (Also, you probably assumed it already, but the United States is not the only government that is doing this sort of thing.)

I’m hopeful this DVR thing will get properly sorted out.  In the meantime, just to be safe, put on a robe.

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