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Facebook disputes Belgian tracking order over use of English in court ruling

January 29, 2016

Facebook is objecting to the use of English words such as “cookie” and “browser” in a Belgian court order, which has demanded the site stop tracking users without their consent, saying that Belgians may not understand the words.

It forms a small part of Facebook’s appeal in its long-running battle over tracking of non-users of its social network.

Facebook was ordered to stop tracking internet users who do not have accounts with the social network within 24 hours or face fines of up to €250,000 a day. The ruling included the English words “browser” and “cookie” referring to parts of Facebook’s tracking technology.

Dirk Lindemans, a lawyer representing Facebook Belgium told the Belgian newspaper De Tijd: “It is a requirement that justice can be understood by everyone. Otherwise you get a slippery slope towards class-biased justice.”

The social network is appealing the use of English words under Belgian law that dictates rulings must be made in Dutch, French or German from a Belgian court. Facebook is claiming that the ruling should be annulled.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “It’s untrue to suggest that we are appealing our court case only on a point of language. It is one of many arguments which we made when we submitted our appeal documents in January and forms two paragraphs of 190 in a 37 page document.”

Even so, the strength of Facebook’s argument on this point is questionable. The Dutch for “web browser” is “webbrowser” for instance, while in French it is “browser” or “navigateur”. An internet “cookie”, as opposed to a biscuit, is “cookie” in all three languages.

The case, brought by the Belgian Privacy watchdog in June 2015, accused Facebook of indiscriminately tracking internet users when they visit pages on the site or click “like” or “share”, even if they are not members of the social network. Tracking users without their permission contravenes European privacy law.

The Belgian court said Facebook used a special “cookie” that lodged on a user’s device if they visited a Facebook page – for example belonging to a friend, a shop or a political party – even if they were not signed up to the network.

Facebook claims the cookie is used to protect users as part of its security systems, preventing user accounts being hacked.

Brendan van Alsenoy, legal researcher at the KU Leuven Centre for IT & IP law and author of the report into Facebook’s tracking of users on which the Belgium data protection case was built: “I can only express surprise and disbelief. It’s so far from the substance of the case, and needlessly detracts from the important issues at stake.”

Facebook said: “While we’re confident that we are fully compliant with applicable European law, we are working hard to address the Belgian Privacy Commissioner’s concerns in a way that allows us to provide the best possible service and have offered to work with them on a solution.”

Willem Debeuckelaere, president of the Belgian Privacy Commission said: “‘Law is a profession of words’, so keep it professional.”

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It’s Data Privacy Day. Do you know where your data is?

January 28, 2016

You already know companies track your behavior in Web browsers and mobile apps, and soon they’ll monitor you through your smart refrigerator and fitness band.

Yep, you’re a walking, talking data source.

Despite the nagging sense that your information is constantly collected, few people know exactly what gets scooped up or what happens to it.

Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab and software maker ForgeRock are among the groups and companies hoping to change that. Today, on Data Privacy Day, which is devoted to your right to control your data, they seek to point a way out of a seemingly sinister forest.

Could there be a sunny spot where we’re not forced to choose between sacrificing our info or going without a desirable service? Yes, but apparently it will take a lot of effort to get there.

Data Privacy Lab director Latanya Sweeney said that right now the average person has no idea just how much personal data is bought and sold. That particularly applies to health care data, which gets anonymized — supposedly — and sold to a network that remains obscure.

“The purpose is kind of mysterious,” said Sweeney, who is a former chief technology officer for the Federal Trade Commission.

Sweeney and her research team want to reveal who is sharing your info. Their project, “All the Places Personal Data Goes,” aims to illustrate the path your personal info takes from one place to another. On Tuesday, the Knight Foundation awarded the project $440,000 to expand its efforts.

This means Sweeney’s group will continue using public-records requests and other methods to gather information on data buyers and sellers and make it available to journalists and others. The project will also soon host a data-visualization competition to bring the issue to life.

The Data Privacy Lab has already proved that some “anonymous” health care data can actually be pieced together to identify patients. In 2013, the lab published an unsettling discovery, which drew on hospital discharge records collected by Washington state that detailed everything from a patient’s age and gender to diagnoses and treatments.

Sweeney’s team then found news stories about car accidents and other emergencies and used them to put names to the records. After the team released its findings, Washington state changed its anonymization process.

That’s the effect Sweeney hopes to have on a larger scale: shine a light on data and promote changes to protect privacy. Though the project started with health care, it has since expanded to cover data from mobile phones.

“What we really want to be able to do is cover the full waterfront,” Sweeney said.

Power to the people

Eve Maler, ForgeRock’s vice president of innovation and emerging technology, said companies can decide to take the lead and actually help customers decide how their information gets shared.

In the 1990s, Maler co-invented XML, a popular coding system that lets software and online services exchange data automatically. Now she’s pushing another system, one that lets Internet users control their personal data.

Called User-Managed Access (UMA), the protocol forms a backbone that programmers can build on to give us more choice when we use services. After helping develop the protocol, Maler joined ForgeRock to create a UMA-based product that companies can use in everyday services.

On Wednesday, San Francisco-based ForgeRock launched that product, Identity Platform. Philips, for one, is using it in health care products to help patients share health data with doctors and others on a limited and revocable basis.

ForgeRock has also worked with New Zealand’s government to test a system that lets citizens safely choose to share with caregivers digitized records that help them obtain benefits.

The most important part of ForgeRock’s system, Maler said, is the ability to opt in to, rather than out of, sharing data. If you want to send workout information from your smartwatch, for example, you should be able to hit a button that says “share,” rather than wonder to whom your watch is relaying your health stats.

Other companies are also looking at using the UMA protocol to create tools for letting people decide what and when to share.

Of course, companies will continue mining and selling our personal data. Market researcher IDC predicts the Big Data industry, which collects all kinds of info including yours, will be worth $48.6 billion by 2019. But Maler said some companies actually want to give customers choice. There is some evidence to support this. Google, for instance, has introduced more-customizable privacy options for apps on phones that run its widespread Android operating system.

A sunny land where people control their own data? Sweeney, Maler and others have made that their cause. Too often, people must either accept that devices, services and apps are collecting data or just not use them.

“They’re over a barrel,” Maler said, “and that’s not right.

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Released Documents Show NSA Actually Surprised To Find Itself Portrayed Negatively In Popular Culture

January 27, 2016

The NSA may know lots of stuff about lots of people, but it’s still fairly clueless about how the world works. Documents obtained by Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski show the NSA was shocked to find it hadn’t been portrayed more favorably in a major motion picture.
The National Security Agency attempted a public relations makeover in 1998 via the Jerry Bruckheimer–produced spy thriller Enemy of the State, but the agency was disappointed it was portrayed as the “bad guys” in the film, internal emails between agency officials obtained by BuzzFeed News through the Freedom of Information Act show.

One employee wrote in 1998, “Unfortunately, the truth isn’t always as riveting as fiction and creative license may mean that ‘the NSA,’ as portrayed in a given production, bears little resemblance to the place where we all work.”
Even in the halcyon pre-Snowden days, it was unlikely a massive government spy agency would be depicted as “lawful neutral,” much less “good” in any form of entertainment media. Shadowy agencies make for great conspiracy theories and potentially riveting entertainment (as for “Enemy of the State,” YMMV…). Certainly, it’s unlikely that the NSA would kill a congressional representative for opposing surveillance expansion and it probably doesn’t have any “goons” to send out to intimidate witnesses (that’s more of a CIA thing…). But for the NSA to expect it would be portrayed as the heroes — despite holding meetings with the producers before the film’s release — is a pretty good indication of how isolated it is from the general public.

This brief burst of reality led to a facesaving effort by the NSA, spearheaded by Michael Hayden, who invited CNN to profile the agency to counteract the negative portrayal. Fighting pop culture with pitched puff pieces is a terrible way to rehabilitate a reputation, but that’s the NSA for you. It’s never going to win hearts and minds. (I was originally going to add some qualifiers to the previous sentence but couldn’t find any that worked.) Any effort expended in this area is wasted.

Even more hilarious than the NSA’s dismay at this completely predictable pop culture portrayal is its employees’ complaints about violated privacy.
“I was standing in the parking lot staring like an idiot, wondering why this helicopter with some strange object underneath it was hovering over me,” one employee complained after a production helicopter flew above the agency to get establishing shots. “Will Touchstone be getting in touch with me so I can get paid for my appearance in this movie? Because I have no intention of allowing my image to be used for free,” the employee concluded, unaware of public access laws…

One employee fretted that their car would now be seen in the film, while another complained that his window blinds were up during filming.
Yes, you can fly an aircraft over the NSA headquarters and no one can do anything about it. As long as you follow the FAA guidelines, you can capture establishing shots or vehicles in the parking lot or any “idiot” staring at your aircraft. The NSA is not a military base and very little about what goes on inside can be determined from 500 feet above the building.

Still, as Kaczynski notes, the negative portrayal of the agency and the intrusion of unwanted aerial “surveillance” did little to stifle employee enthusiasm for the upcoming film. Unfortunately, the released documents do not contain post-viewing comments from NSA staff after they’d shelled out $5 for the dubious privilege of watching their big screen counterparts murder a congressman and intimidate a witness.

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Parents say middle school’s anti-bullying program violated kids’ privacy

January 20, 2016

Parents of students at a Pittsburgh-area middle school were considering legal action over an anti-bullying program they say crossed the line, local news stations reported Tuesday.
During the Jan. 15 workshop, kids at West Allegheny Middle School reportedly were “grouped” based on how they answered questions about their personal lives. They were asked to identify whether they faced learning disabilities, if other people had called them “fat,” or if relatives had spent time in prison, among other questions, according to KDKA.

School board president Debbie Mirich responded, “We do stand behind the intentions of our workshop and we look forward [to] continuing our work with parents to address this very serious issue of bullying and the unintentional acts that continue to marginalize different groups of students.”

She added that the school board was not involved in running the program, but that students were never forced to answer questions.

Still, some parents argued that the workshop may have made bullying easier. “I would never expect a middle school to ask 13-year-old kids if your parents have ever been in jail, if they’re same sex, if they’re having financial issues,” Marie-Noelle Briggs told WPXI.

Parents said they were considering a class-action lawsuit but did not elaborate, KDKA adds.

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European Antitrust Chief Takes Swipe at Privacy Issue

January 19, 2016

MUNICH — Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s antitrust chief, warned on Sunday that the collection of a vast amount of users’ data by a small number of tech companies like Google and Facebook could be in violation of the region’s tough competition rules.

Ms. Vestager’s comments are the latest in a growing chorus of European criticism about the privacy practices of American tech giants, many of which rely on crunching data based on people’s social media posts, online search queries and e-commerce purchases to fuel their digital advertising businesses.

The comments by Ms. Vestager, who, as the region’s top competition official, has sweeping powers to fine companies that are found to abuse their dominant market positions, show that European officials are stepping up their fight to strengthen data protection. In the European Union, an individual’s right to privacy is viewed on par with other fundamental rights like freedom of expression.

“If a few companies control the data you need to cut costs, then you give them the power to drive others out of the market,” Ms. Vestager said at the DLD conference, a gathering of digital executives and policy makers.

She said that “it’s hard to know” how much data is given up when using an online messaging service.

“But it’s a business transaction, not a free giveaway,” she continued. “As consumers, we need to be treated fairly.”

Ms. Vestager’s warning shot in the often-rancorous privacy debate comes ahead of a Jan. 31 deadline for Europe and the United States to reach a new data-sharing agreement.

The new so-called safe harbor agreement is needed after the European Court of Justice ruled last year that Europeans’ digital data was not sufficiently protected when transferred to the United States. Negotiations between the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, and the United States Commerce Department are continuing — though legal experts, government officials and industry watchers think that an agreement may not be reached by the end of the month.

A number of European executives echoed Ms. Vestager’s fears about how a small number of American tech companies could use their large-scale data collection to favor their own services over those of rivals. Among them was Oliver Samwer, the German entrepreneur who co-founded Rocket Internet, one of the region’s most high-profile tech companies.

“If someone like Google or Facebook has all of the data, then that’s not good,” Mr. Samwer said here on Sunday.

But for Ms. Vestager, a 47-year-old Danish politician who has garnered both fans and detractors for her ambitious competition activities, adding data protection to her portfolio could prove difficult.

She has already begun, for example, investigations into Apple’s tax practices in Ireland and has started a wide-ranging inquiry into e-commerce that analysts say could encompass the likes of Amazon, among others.

Ms. Vestager also brought antitrust charges against Google last April, saying the search giant had unfairly favored some of its digital services over those of rivals. An announcement in that case is expected in late spring, according to officials, while a separate European investigation continues into whether Google used Android, its popular mobile software, to unfairly restrict rivals from operating in the 28-member bloc.

On Sunday, Ms. Vestager denied claims that Europe was unfairly targeting American tech companies, although some executives in the United States have claimed that European officials are trying to bolster local technology companies at the expense of their large American rivals.

Ms. Vestager added that she was not against further consolidation within the industry, despite European antitrust officials’ balking at a number of recent proposed takeovers in the region’s telecommunications sector that they said would reduce competition at the consumer level. Future mergers, she said, should not reduce consumer choice and worsen market competition.

“You can’t just go out there and buy yourself a monopoly,” Ms. Vestager said.

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