Two Tales on the Privacy Front

Protecting customer data has been in the news a lot recently and today I’m going to discuss two different news stories concerning the privacy of customer data.

The first story involves a case that will be decided soon by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Carpenter vs. United States, is contemplating the rules of how the government can access historical cellphone call records (and one assumes all other telecom records for calls and emails).

Without discussing all of the details of the case, the short version is that police had asked MetroPCS for the complete cellphone records of sixteen people suspected of robbing cellphone stores. MetroPCS supplied the details of all of the calls to and from each suspected cellphone as well as information about the location of the cell sites servicing each phone during the duration of the calls. The legal question being asked is if this represented a warrantless search and specifically as asked by government attorneys, “Whether the government’s acquisition, pursuant to a court order issued under 18 U.S.C. 2703(d), of historical cell-site records created and maintained by a cellular-service provider violates the Fourth Amendment rights of the individual customer to whom the records pertain.”

Recently fourteen companies including Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft filed an amicus brief in the case that argues that the government is relying on outdated privacy laws from the 1970s that allow for the government to ask for telephone records without a warrant. Interestingly, Verizon joined in this argument.

Most small carriers are aware of this issue by the fact that local police often ask them for call records without a warrant. I can’t recall a time when a telco hasn’t responded to such requests, but I’ve talked to many companies who are often uncomfortable with the process. The fourteen companies get similar requests for call records but also for email records, web search results and other kinds of customer information. They argue that such requests should only be made with a warrant that reflects some level of probable cause. Court experts are calling this the biggest Fourth Amendment case in years because it’s going to consider the issues involved with the search for digital records.

The second news story is a different take on privacy. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate how Google tracks customers. Specifically they say that Google analyzes credit card data to understand the in-store shopping habits of customers. They then sell this data to retailers. EPIC is asking the FTC to investigate the actual practices being deployed as well as to provide some sort of mechanism for people to opt out of this kind of tracking program.

If the FCC takes up this investigation it could also be groundbreaking. This case is the first specific case that asks the government to create some boundaries for such tracking and to allow people to opt out of being tracked.

There are many other companies other than Google who are now using ‘big data’ to compile detailed profiles of people. These profiles are being marketed to vendors of products and services, but there is a great fear among privacy advocates that these same profiles can be used for nefarious purposes by governments and others. For instance, scam artists would probably love to know the identity of every household in the country that has somebody suffering from early-stage dementia.

Anybody that is getting involved in selling smart home products needs to be concerned about these issues. Recently researchers Ming Jin, Ruoxi Jia and Costas Spanos of the University of California at Berkeley examined some routine data collected by smart electric meters and were surprised at how much they were able to figure out about the occupants of a home using the data. For example, they were able to understand the patterns of when homes were occupied and unoccupied and were fairly easily able to tell when a given residence was unoccupied.

As we get more smart devices in homes the combination of the data collected by the various devices will be able to paint a detailed picture of the occupants of a home. This case could be the first step towards defining customer rights for control of their personal data.

2 thoughts on “Two Tales on the Privacy Front

  1. I don’t know which small carriers you talk to, but I can tell you that MTA member companies do not give out call information to any law enforcement agency without a warrant. That is in violation of state and federal law. We take the protection of consumer information very seriously. While we always want to cooperate with law enforcement officers, they have to follow the rule of law just like we do.

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