The Cost of Surveillance

actual numbers

Graph showing the difference in hourly cost between various location tracking techniques.

The Yale Law Journal Online (YLJO) just published an article that I co-authored with Kevin Bankston (first workshopped at the Privacy Law Scholars Conference last year) entitled “Tiny Constables and the Cost of Surveillance: Making Cents Out of United States v. Jones.” In it, we discuss the drastic reduction in the cost of tracking an individual’s location and show how technology has greatly reduced the barriers to performing surveillance. We estimate the hourly cost of location tracking techniques used in landmark Supreme Court cases JonesKaro, and Knotts and use the opinions issued in those cases to propose an objective metric: if the cost of the surveillance using the new technique is an order of magnitude (ten times) less than the cost of the surveillance without using the new technique, then the new technique violates a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, the graph above shows that tracking a suspect using a GPS device is 28 times cheaper than assigning officers to follow him. [Read more…]

PostTV: For NSA, Google cookies allow ‘laser-guided’ targeting

explains NSA cellphone collection

Intelligence agencies follow targets using cookies installed by Google, typically to track users for commercial advertising purposes, to follow suspects online and target them with malware. You can read more about this story here.

A Group of Geeks Submitted Questions on NSA Activities


I recently submitted comments to the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies along with 46 other leading technologists.  The mission of this Review Group is to assess whether technological advances, specifically technical data collection capabilities, have undermined the public trust.  (Spoiler alert: they have.)

Our comments focused on the need for a technical expert to advise the panel on how online systems work and what the implications are of tapping into them.  We also expressed our concern that the NSA’s efforts to subvert encryption and to plant backdoors undermine security for everyone online.  Most importantly, our comments include a number of technical questions that we feel this panel should focus on and, when possible, ask that the intelligence community provide answers.  You can read the full comments here.

The panel’s work was affected by last week’s government shutdown.  It’s not clear how this delay will impact their timeline for a final report, if at all, but I don’t expect to hear answers to our questions soon.

Bits of Freedom: The Dutch Perspective

The Bits of Freedom Crew

I was recently invited to be a visiting fellow at Bits of Freedom in Amsterdam. This was a great opportunity to gain insight into the European privacy debate, not to mention escape the DC summer and visit an amazing city full of bicycles.

Bits of Freedom is a digital rights organization, not unlike the EFF in the United States. They are a mix of lawyers, activists, and tech folk who work at the intersection of technology and human rights. BoF focuses on issues such as transparency, active hacking, net neutrality, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The staff employ a variety of tools to meet their goals including FOIA, government transparency reports, advocacy campaigns, and direct lobbying to, “influence legislation and self-regulation” both in the Netherlands and across the EU.

My visit focused on learning from the experts here as well as providing some of my own perspective. [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…]

PRISM: Solving for X


Figure 1: PRISM

I thought it would be a fun exercise to describe PRISM  based on information publicly available through the press, private companies, and the DNI. Specifically, how would this system look if we took all the statements made at face value?  This might be a stretch, but it seems like a worthwhile exercise  — not unlike a multivariate equation when one or more of the variables are unknown.

While PRISM is potentially the least troubling with respect to its legality and the type/volume of information of the 4 programs we’ve learned about, it is also the most technically puzzling. There have been many theories on the architecture of PRISM and I’ve been inundated with requests to help press/advocates understand it — so here goes. [Read more…]

Defcon: Can You Track Me Now? Government and Corporate Surveillance of Mobile Geo-Location Data

Defcon 20 Hacking Conference
Las Vegas, NV | July 26 – 29, 2012

In July 2012, I took part in a panel at the 20th annual Defcon Conference. I joined tech experts Christopher Soghoian from the Open Society Institute and Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, for a briefing on the current technological and legal landscape of location data tracking. The panelists explored how consumer location tracking efforts weave a story about the systemic privacy vulnerabilities of smart phones and the legal ways in which law enforcement has been able to hitch a ride. The panel was moderated by the Director of the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, Ben Wizner.

View video archive

2012 State of the Mobile Net Conference

Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus
Washington, DC | May 3, 2012

The 4th Annual State of the Mobile Net Conference featured debates about the most pressing issues facing the exploding mobile net. While App developers frenetically code away, Washington policymakers are looking more and more closely at the mobile net ecosystem. Indeed, Washington policymakers are eager to help the mobile net achieve its potential by freeing up spectrum, implementing consumer protections and considering privacy rules for the burgeoning app market. With the speed at which the mobile net is evolving, how can Washington policymakers provide the appropriate level of assistance?

I took part in a panel called Complex Devices / Complex Privacy Questions: Grappling With Privacy In the Mobile Space

View video archive

Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy

Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law
Washington, DC | May 10, 2011

On May 10, 2011, I testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Privacy Technology and the Law regarding mobile privacy. The other witnesses included representatives from Apple, Google, Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Association for Competitive Technology.

Read prepared testimony.

USA Today live blogged the hearing.

senate testimony
Video archives on CSPAN include my delivered testimony, answers to questions about what “location” means, and a question from Senator Franken about the most serious threat regarding mobile devices and privacy. View CSPAN footage of entire hearing

[Read more…]

Enabling Online Privacy With Do Not Track: By Congress, Corporations or Code?

Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee
Washington, DC | April 5, 2011

The online privacy Do Not Track proposal (DNT), modeled after the popular “Do Not Call” concept, has captured the imagination of those who wish to protect consumer privacy in Congress, in industry and among privacy advocates and consumers alike. Consumer privacy advocates have proposed it, the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission has endorsed it, and Members of Congress have drafted legislation to enact it. Yet remarkably, there is no broad consensus on *what* DNT is or even on *who” should be responsible for making it a reality.

I joined other experts for a panel regarding the potential implementation of Do Not Track. Others included representatives from Microsoft, the Digital Advertising Alliance, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Internet Caucus Advisory Committee.

Listen to audio archive

The State of Online Consumer Privacy

Senate Commerce Committee
Washington, DC | March 16, 2011

On March 16, 2011,  I appeared as a witness at the Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing on consumer privacy. Other witnesses included representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, the US Department of Commerce, Microsoft, Intuit, Group M Interaction, and the ACLU.

Read prepared testimony. 

Blog coverage of hearing.

Key quotes from hearing.


CSPAN archives include my delivered testimony, and a question from Senator Kerry regarding first party versus third party data collection. View entire hearing here.