The Bottom Line
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Message from the Chair: Privacy at Risk
From the August 2013 issue.
Say it with perfume, say it with gold;
Say it with gloves or with mink.
Say it with diamonds, say it with pearls;
But never say it in ink…
~ Author Unknown
NSA. Snowden. Prism. Hong Kong. Russia. Cuba. Venezuela. What in the world is going on?!?!?!? It’s quite by coincidence that LPMT brings you this timely special issue when our privacy – both as individuals and legal practitioners – has never been more at risk; or so we think.
How much risk? Is former NSA contractor Snowden a hero or a traitor? What is our government – and others – really doing with our data?
It all depends on who you ask. Who you believe. Who you trust. Are we analyzing this based on logic, critical thinking or politics?
Are the people answering our questions truly knowledgeable about how this technology works to the point where they can sufficiently answer these questions? Should they answer these questions? Think about this:
- They may be speaking honestly,
- They may be speaking in good faith,
- And they may be wrong!
The troubling aspect of this form of data collection and analytics (if you’ve been following the story, they’ve started using the word that’s common in my vernacular; “metadata”) is not in the collection, necessarily. Although, the means of collection may trigger Fourth Amendment issues (for our purposes, we won’t be debating that today), the troubling aspect is in how the data is analyzed; and whether such analysis is conducted in a vacuum.
Government has stated that they’re not collecting individual, identifying data. Perhaps in good faith, they believe that statement to be true. However, the average person has no idea how relatively easy it is to compile additional, yet benign information that, when combined like puzzle pieces may be used to very clearly identify individuals.
I can cite example after example:
1) Last year, Target Stores figured out that a Minnesota teen was pregnant even before her father did. How? They monitored their web site for women who purchased:
- Scent-free lotion
- Certain vitamin supplements
- Larger sizes of cotton balls
- Hand sanitizers and washcloths
Do you want to really be creeped-out? They even monitored women researching certain kinds of infections.
How did dad find out that his high-school-aged daughter was pregnant? Target sent a postcard advertising baby products to his home; addressed to her!
2) A study performed by researchers at the University of Cambridge revealed that by examining your Facebook page, they can accurately predict whether you’re gay just shy of 90% of the time! How did they do it? Simple. They just looked at your “Likes”.
3) David Petraeus resigned as Director of the CIA because Google metadata (specifically from Gmail) lead the FBI to information confirming an affair between the now-retired General and author Paula Broadwell. The problem:
- The FBI wasn’t investigating Petraeus; they were investigating Broadwell,
- The FBI also wasn’t investigating an affair; they were investigating harassing emails sent by Broadwell.
My point? Petraeus was done in by metadata, all right. Someone else’s metadata!
Your takeaway from all of this should be that seemingly irrelevant snippets of electronic information may be accumulated and analyzed to reveal some very intimate details about you; starting with your name. After that, it’s kind of downhill from there…
So, what do we do? I could quote generic language from the latest horror film: “Be afraid. Be very afraid!” But, how does that help us?
Let’s try again, using more appropriate language: “Be aware. Be very aware.” The key is in the understanding that seemingly random and benign information isn’t quite so random; or benign.
I have a favorite story from the dawn of the invention of the automobile. At that time, in a fairly large American city, there were only four automobiles. Two of them collided at an intersection.
We can always do more to educate ourselves about mitigating risks. But, this doesn’t mean we will ever be able to mitigate every risk.
Our job is to do what’s necessary – within reason – to protect the confidentiality of ourselves and our clients. But if the government is listening in, there isn’t much we can do to prevent that.
All we can do is understand that our seemingly private conversations may not be so private after all. Plan accordingly.
Perry L. Segal
LPMT Section Chair
for more information on joining the LPMT Section.The article above is from a recent issue of the Law Practice Management & Technology Section's bi-monthly newsletter The Bottom Line
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