PEN America Essay: Understanding the Threat

I wrote this essay for a conference hosted by PEN America on the chilling effects of surveillance. I was asked to address what questions researchers should focus on and I discussed the threat posed by stored data and the opportunity for researchers to create new transparency tools. It was originally published here, but you can also read it below!

How do we protect something we can barely see?

As much time as we spend discussing privacy, you would think it’d be easy to define. Yet the more we discuss it, the more it becomes apparent that our definitions of privacy vary widely. For some it means keeping only their deepest secrets safe, while for others any information collected about them without their consent is perceived as a violation. Despite these inconsistencies, most definitions of privacy depend on knowing and controlling what information is collected about us.

Most of the time users don’t realize how much information they are sharing, how it’s stored, or who has access to it. In the analog world, controlling one’s own information was relatively straightforward. Obvious physical and cost barriers limit how quickly and how far information about an individual can be shared. Its reach was our personal circle of friends or maybe a wider community if there were a diligent town gossip. But technology has expanded the reach of information significantly. Now, there are vast quantities of data collected about individual users daily, often stored indefinitely in data centers operated by private companies, and available to anyone that is granted (or can forcefully obtain) access. [Read more…]

CIR/NPR Collaboration – Your Data and Who Has Access to It

I collaborated with NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting to develop this script describing who is tracking you throughout your day.  The video shows how your digital trail can be assembled into a pretty complete picture of who you are.  Some of the script may seem pretty far fetched, but every example was vetted by yours truly and occurs every day (in the US).

You can read the corresponding CIR story here.
NPR’s 4 part series on “All Tech Considered” below called “Your Digital Trail” below:

Part 1: How It Can Be Used Against You
Part 2: Privacy Company Access
Part 3: Does The Fourth Amendment Protect Us?
Part 4: Data Fuels Political And Legal Agendas

Questions on the Google AdID

I’ve received a few inquiries about the recent announcement of Google AdID. Because Google hasn’t released many details about the implementation, I am a bit reluctant to speculate too broadly. However, I thought it would be useful to present some thoughts on the potential reasons for this shift and its impact on consumer privacy.

Google’s proposed advertising ID seems to be motivated by the following factors:

  1. The increasing number of consumers blocking 3rd party cookies. Recent studies indicate that consumers are increasingly concerned about their privacy online and as many as 20% have blocked browser cookies.  I suspect this figure will rise as privacy issues continue to capture public attention.
  2. The trend of advertisers moving to non-cookie based identifiers (e.g. browser fingerprinting).
  3. To avoid missteps along the same lines of Apple/Safari.
  4. The increased pressure to offer advertisers ‘enhanced’ cross-device tracking capabilities like they already do with google analytics.
  5. The tension (and lack of progress) in the Do-Not-Track negotiations–specifically, the Digital Advertising Alliance’s (DAA) recent abandonment of the process. (Google is a member of the DAA.)

[Read more…]

As Technology Changes, So Should Law

Improved technology enabled the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and future improvements will make collecting data on citizens easier and easier.

Recent revelations about the extent of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency come as no surprise to those with a technical background in the workings of digital communications. The leaked documents show how the NSA has taken advantage of the increased use of digital communications and cloud services, coupled with outdated privacy laws, to expand and streamline their surveillance programs. This is a predictable response to the shrinking cost and growing efficiency of surveillance brought about by new technology. The extent to which technology has reduced the time and cost necessary to conduct surveillance should play an important role in our national discussion of this issue.

The American public previously, maybe unknowingly, relied on technical and financial barriers to protect them from large-scale surveillance by the government. These implicit protections have quickly eroded in recent years as technology industry advances have reached intelligence agencies, and digital communications technology has spread through society. As a result, we now have to replace these “naturally occurring” boundaries and refactor the law to protect our privacy.
[Read more…]

KALW’s Your Call: What do data brokers know about you?

KALW Radio | April 8, 2013

I discussed data brokering with host Rose Aguilar on “Your Call,” a public radio program from KALW San Francisco.  The program was part of Your Call’s “Agenda for a New Economy” series and focused on  companies that gather and sell  personal information to marketing firms. We discussed some of the surprising ways data has been used  and methods you can use to control what is shared about you.  

Listen to show

The End of Privacy?

Ford Foundation’s Wired for Change Conference
New York, NY | October 23, 2012

As part of Ford Foundation’s Wired for Change conference, noted consumer privacy experts and technologists Harvey Anderson, Brad Burnham, Kamala D. Harris, Jon Leibowitz and I considered how mining Big Data and safeguarding privacy can reasonably coexist, moderated by John Palfrey.

View complete video archive

Data Days: Data Conference and Pioneers

Berlin, Germany | October 1 and 2, 2012

I was a keynote speaker and panelist at an advertising technology conference in Berlin speaking generally about the problems and opportunities in “big data”.

User data is essentially the raw resource in this industry.  Yet this information doesn’t simply magically appear but is typically collected from users.  These raw materials can essentially be broken up into: 

  1. Information knowingly shared publicly with a site or service.
  2. Information shared via a site/service but intended for another recipient (i.e webmail).
  3. Information collected without the user even being aware.

I highlight how this third category seems to be where most of the privacy tensions stem from, how this data is actually not that useful, and how there’s a huge opportunity in trying to engage the user into providing higher quality ‘consensual’ data (which I dubbed ‘fair trade data’).  Thoughts?


OPEN Silicon Valley: Big Data –The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

OPEN Silicon Valley Forum
Mountain View, CA | June 2, 2012

Online privacy concerns have confounded many an entrepreneurs and taken some off-guard. The recent episodes of Path address book uploads, Apple UDID ban, Google privacy policy change, Safari cookie bypass, Facebook timeline launch, and Target predicting teenage girls’ pregnancies before their families do have all put online privacy front and center in the media, with federal regulators and legislators on the Hill taking note of every single move of these companies. While the concerns around social networks and mobile applications eroding our privacy, reputation, and trust are being voiced, it must be balanced with the reality that online information sharing using innovative technologies presents unprecedented opportunities for the community. Both these dimensions are often considered at odds with each other, leading many- especially the entrepreneurs- to question if online privacy issues can put a brake on the innovation engine fueled by big data technologies.

I was a panelist.

Doing Data Journalism: It’s Not Just Numbers

Columbia Journalism School
New York, NY | March 28, 2012

Data journalism is quickly becoming one of the hottest topics in the industry – but what exactly is it, and what tools, teams and techniques are necessary for doing it well?

On March 28th, 2012 the Tow Center for Digital Journalism hosted several of data journalism’s most prominent innovators and practitioners for a discussion about the possibilities and pitfalls of this evolving field. I was one of the panelists.