Give Attention to Concerns About Privacy Close to Home, Author Suggests

Yes, the furor over data from millions of Facebook users being used for political purposes is important. But just driving down the street raises important privacy issues also. And whether you can make sense of the Facebook issues, you could and probably should give attention to high-tech monitoring of your daily life.

That was the thrust of an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Thursday in Eckstein Hall featuring Cyrus Farivar, author of a new book, Habeas Data: Privacy vs. the Rise of Surveillance Tech. Farivar is also a regular contributor to Ars Technica, which covers news related to technology.

Gousha introduced Farivar by saying that talking about technology and privacy is “a conversation that is perfect for our times.” In the week when great attention focused on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying at length before congressional committees, Farivar agreed.

Farivar said he would like to see more technology executives testify in “the halls of power” in hopes of shedding more light on issues. But Farivar said no one knows what the impact of the current Facebook controversy will be, and he expressed doubt about Congress or the US Supreme Court can reach policy decisions in ways that keep up with the rapidly changing tech world.

The issues that are arising need exploration, he said. There are two billion Facebook users in the world, he said, adding, “We’ve never had a situation like this before.”

Large numbers of people use social media such as Facebook because they like what they can do to connect with people or information. But people are conflicted about what their use is doing to their privacy, he said.

Farivar focused much of the “On the Issues” conversation on devices such as license plate readers that are used by law enforcement agencies all across the country. Many police vehicles have cameras in them that record the license plate of every car or truck that they pass, whether there is any reason to be suspicious. Any license plate can be checked later for information on locations and times where it was seen, he said.

Farivar lives in Oakland, Calif., and he said he once made a public records request for information on where his license plate had been spotted. It was not a difficult process and it yielded 18 records. He also asked Oakland police for all the license plate data they had stored and was given hundreds of thousands of records, searchable by each individual license plate.

Is it possible – and will it become easier in the future – for your boss to check if you’re parked at a baseball game when you’re supposed to be at work? Whether you were parked near a gay bar or overnight outside a home other than your own? Farivar raised such questions, saying the places he mentioned were all legal and there is no legal issue related to permissible searches when it comes to recording sightings of license plates.

What about phone records? Or drones? Or information transmitted routinely by smart phones? All raise privacy issues.

“If you are concerned with these issues, I think the first thing that you can do is try to understand what is in use in your own backyard, in the city where you live, in the county where you live, in the state where you live,”Farivar said.

He encouraged people to make public records requests for information about the that government agencies keep, and he spoke positively of a privacy advisory commission that Oakland has. It has been a good forum for discussion between government agencies and citizens, he said.

“Privacy is hard,” he said. “I say these things not because I’m, like, anti-police or anti-FBI or anti-government, I‘m just very concerned.”

Click here to watch video of the one-hour conversation.

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