Privacy Weekly Episode 7

šŸ–– Greetings and welcome to the Privacy Weekly - Episode #7.

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In this episode:

  • US Tech Companies Invest Heavily In Privacy Advocates
  • Internet Freedom Is Declining
  • Uber To Experiment With (Video) Recording Of Its Rides
  • Five Senators Want To Learn More About Ring
  • Tim Cook Says It's Time The US Has A Federal Privacy Law
  • Interpol To Condemn Use Of Strong Encryption
  • Australia Wants Its Citizens To Use Facial Recognition For A Wide Range Of Services

US Tech Companies Invest Heavily In Privacy Advocates

Bloomberg Law posted an article about US tech companies investing in privacy think tanks and public interest groups. This is in addition to their typical funding of lobby groups.

Bloomberg Law identified seven non-profits that work on privacy issues, which have received funding totalling $1.5 million. The number could be higher because it's difficult to pinpoint contributions.

Why would tech companies invest in privacy think tanks? Because these groups influence privacy policy makers to work on policy that favours big tech!

This is against the backdrop of the US not yet having a federal (national) privacy law, and specific states working on state level privacy laws to fill the gap (for example California and the CCPA).

How is this different to typical lobbying that goes on in the US? Typically, lobbyists are paid by companies to lobby on their behalf, and lobby contributions are registered publically. Whereas these privacy think tanks are not readily disclosing big tech financial contributions, and even stating publically that they're unbiased.

Links: Bloomberg Law

Internet Freedom Is Declining

According to MIT Technology Review and the think tank Freedom House, Internet freedom is declining worldwide. That's because social media, which is a large chunk of internet in the eyes of many end users, is increasingly being used to manipulate and spy on its users.

Manipulation: Using social media to spread fake news, disinformation and lies. This makes it more difficult to know what the 'truth' is.

Spying: Using social media to spy on how users use social media, what their views are, and how they interact with others.

Freedom House states that their global internet freedom score has dropped. This is a measure of how free the internet is to its users.

The big picture: The effect of social media is increasingly playing a role in elections, and generally how society deals with and discusses social issues. Facebook is under fire for allowing political ads that may contain fake information, while Twitter has banned political ads on its platform.

Links: MIT Technology Review, Freedom House

Uber To Experiment With (Video) Recording Of Its Rides

Uber is experimenting with making audio and video recordings of its rides, according to Fortune, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Its aim is to increase security of its rides because people (both drivers and riders) will know they are being recorded, and will thus behave themselves (or so the thinking goes), and if something does go wrong, both drivers and riders will have a way to prove it.

The recordings are sent to Uber, if a driver or rider requests to do so, and can only be accessed by Uber employees in case of complaints or disputes. The experiments are occuring in Texas, and soon to spread to Florida and Tennessee.

There are a number of privacy safeguards, according to the reports:

  • Recordings are only accessible to Uber employees.
  • Recordings are only uploaded to Uber if a driver or rider requests it.
  • If clips are shared with drivers, riders faces are blurred.

Zooming out:

  • Uber are under pressure to improve safety. They have been very standoffish in the past in taking responsibility of what goes on during a trip, even their ex-CEO was involved in a well publicized rant during an Uber trip.
  • This is yet another measure by a company that will impact public expectations of privacy. Even though you could argue expectations of privacy are low in an Uber car.

It will be interesting to see how well this feature will work and whether end users will appreciate it. If it's popular, privacy may take a back seat (pun intended).

Interestingly, in many US states, its legal for drivers to record their rides. In fact, Uber had to ban one of its drivers that live streamed its rides.

Links: Fortune, New York Times

Five Senators Want To Learn More About Ring

Ring has been in the news because of potential privacy issues related to their products. In fact I've written about them in episodes 4 and 5.

In case you don't know: Ring provides surveillance products like a doorbell with a camera and various other types of cameras which are all accessible via the internet and a handy app. The products help to keep your home safe, but at a cost to privacy of people in the vicinity of a home. Video footage is often shared amongst neighbours and law enforcement.

Now Five senators want to learn more about the privacy impact of Ring. Specifically, they want to know more about how law enforcement can access footage of Ring devices, and how access is managed and restricted. Earlier correspondence with Ring revealed that little safeguards are in place to limit access and thus protect privacy.

The Ring situation is interesting, because on the one hand you have a useful product that can secure homes and prevent crime (to some extent) and record crime. On the other hand, it does so at a cost to privacy. It seems that little measures are taken to limit impact of privacy and that could be a problem for the company. What also makes this interesting are the various stakeholders involved: you have 1) the home owner (and owner of Ring device), 2) law enforcement, 3) neighbours that are interested in potential crimes and criminals in the area and 4) innocent people being filmed because they walk past a property.

As EFF puts it. Ring (and its owner Amazon) are building a large surveillance network, one porch at a time.

Links: Electronic Frontier Foundation

Tim Cook Says It's Time The US Has A Federal Privacy Law

As reported by The Verge, during an interview with ABC News, Tim Cook said that it's time the US has a Federal privacy law. He said that big tech hasn't learnt from its mistakes regarding privacy and that's why a federal privacy law is required. He also said that too much attention is put on splitting up big tech companies rather than putting in the right (privacy) legislation.

Zoom out: Many political figures, most notably Elizabeth Warren, are calling for big tech companies to be broken into smaller companies because they're too powerful.

Links: The Verge, ABC News

Interpol To Condemn Use Of Strong Encryption

Interpol, the international police organization, is to condemn the use of strong encryption. They say it protects criminals such as child sex predators. Interestingly, this statement is made without backing from its roughly 60 member countries. As reported by Reuters.

Three nations, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have been pushing for encryption back doors. This would allows governments with access to encrypted content. This would work to provide access to criminals communications, but it might also risk confidentiality of normal law abiding citizens.

Zooming out: There have been many debates about the use of strong encryption that not even the government or law enforcement (or even the tech providers) can break. This protects privacy of citizens, but also of bad actors.

Links: Reuters

Australia Wants Its Citizens To Use Facial Recognition For A Wide Range Of Services

The Guardian reports that Australia (various government deparments) is considering expanding the use of facial recognition to include:

  • Watching adult content for age verification purposes.
  • Claiming rebates of energy services on a state level website.
  • As a two factor authentication solution.
  • Using public transport.
  • Identifying vulnerable individuals.

Now, just to reiterate: these are just considerations for now. They're not going ahead and implementing facial recognition solutions (for these use cases) just yet.

Links: The Guardian