Welcome to this week’s edition of Liberty Nation TecWeek, a weekly column that will catch you up on all things tech related –- specially designed for those who do not consider themselves tech savvy. TecWeek focuses on news stories and topics that affect you, like digital security, government and corporate surveillance, privacy, and much more.
In this week’s column:
- Police are abusing Stingray cell-tower simulators, and Congress wants it to stop
- Virginia has a license plate database; have you been scanned lately?
- Federal investigators wanted to force-fingerprint everyone in a building, judge says no
- Is your Alexa Echo spying on you? More importantly, where does the data go?
There are some disturbing stories on the wire this week, and they all seem to have a common theme — the government is violating your privacy. That’s not news; the level of creativity that they are reaching to try and achieve their surveillance goals, however, is mind-blowing.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was part of a recent report on the use of Stingrays, or cell-tower simulators. Stingrays pretend to be a cell phone tower; as you drive or walk into its area, your phone sees it as a tower, and connects to it. Your phone’s unique identifier ID, location, and even the content of your conversations and texts are all collected by the Stingray — and whoever owns it.
While this device sounds like a great tool for law enforcement to use against violent criminals they are trying to find or track — and have a warrant to do so — the problem with Stingrays is that they don’t just pick up the target’s information; they pick up everyone in the area, and then narrow it down. What happens to all of the data they collect on you, Mr. and Ms. Innocent Citizen, as you pass through their net? They look at it, of course. You might be committing a crime the authorities don’t know about yet. They collect and view your information without a warrant, or probable cause, or Constitutional authority.
The worst part is that this capability can be deployed anywhere, which means a stingray may be collecting your information and your communications while you are sitting in the privacy of your own home. Stingrays have also been used to track people at a political protest, various rallies and events, and anything that the government deems worthy. The House Oversight Committee says this is unacceptable, and made a series of recommendations, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Will those recommendations make it into law? We certainly hope so.
Speaking of warrantless collection, the state of Virginia has a license plate database, as EFF points out — and not just the one at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Created by license plate readers that scan you as you drive, the database not only collects who you are, but it matches date, time and location as well. Over time, a pattern emerges, and the government can predict where a driver will be at a given time and date, as well as make deductions about why someone is at a particular place at that time. Is your car seen passing the same license plate reader every Tuesday evening, a block away from a building that holds an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Tuesday nights? What about pulling into a hotel at lunch time every other week? Regardless of where you’re going, it’s your business, and the government has no right to intrude upon it without a warrant and probable cause that you’ve committed a crime.
The VA Supreme Court may hear a lawsuit about this very database, as one man decided to sue the state over the invasion of his privacy. The appeal reached the Court February 23; there is no word yet on whether the Court will accept the case.
A federal magistrate judge in Chicago recently denied another government request, this time to force everyone in one building to give up their fingerprints, so that agents could use those fingerprints to open any Apple devices seized in the course of their investigation. In other words, let us have all of their prints, and then we will see which phones match those fingerprints. As the judge explained in his ruling, that’s not how it works, but thanks for playing.
Finally, a concerning story out of Arkansas. Amazon is currently fighting a search warrant that demands data collected from an Echo, the voice-driven device that allows users to ask “Alexa,” the device’s name, to play songs, order merchandise on Amazon, or perform other tasks. The warrant demands all recordings and/or transcripts for a specific device over a forty-eight-hour period; the device was streaming music near the hot tub where a former police officer died. Investigators suspect a struggle and foul play; they claim that the Echo may have recorded the incident.
Amazon says that complying with the subpoena will violate the First Amendment rights of the owner — now a defendant in the murder case. From Ars Technica:
In addition to the recordings of user requests for information, Alexa’s responses are also protected by the First Amendment. First, as noted above, the responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user. Second, the response itself constitutes Amazon’s First Amendment-protected speech. In a similar context, courts have recognized that “the First Amendment protects as speech the results produced by an Internet search engine.”
The underlying problem, however, isn’t just that the government is trying to tap into that data; it’s the confirmation that the Amazon Echo does collect, record, and store that data. It’s also not the first time that the government has tried to use Alexa as a surveillance helper. When Gizmodo asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation for documents regarding potential wiretapping of Echo devices, the FBI responded that they could “neither confirm nor deny,” even though Gizmodo had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. Apparently the old adage that “someone’s always listening” is not as paranoid as it sounds.
That’s it for this week! Tune in next Friday for more tech news that matters.