December 6, 2007

Data Snooping and its Discontents

The limits of data privacy are being tested in Western democracies, as governments and corporations push for greater access with sometimes unexpected results.

British authorities demanded that a group of about 30 animal rights activists hand over the keys to encrypted files stored on computers that had been seized by police.

The demand is the first of its kind under a recently enacted measure of the nation’s controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, reports BBC News.

The provision of the law that deals with decryption was written to combat pedophiles and terrorists, although many critics say it is flawed and possibly even unenforceable.

One of the animal rights activists, choosing to remain anonymous, told the BBC, “Even if they hate our guts my personal view is that this is a matter where there’s great issues of public interest that should be being talked about.”

The Crown Prosecution Service would not comment on the demand.

In Canada, new concerns surfaced about the safety of private information once it gets in the hands of government officials.

In Canada, a man using a government Web site to renew his passport found that he could access the personal information of other passport applicants — including social security numbers, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers — by changing one character in the Web site’s Internet address.

“I was expecting the site to tell me I couldn’t do that,” Jamie Laning told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “I’m just curious about these things so I tried it, and boom, there was somebody else’s name and somebody else’s data.”

Laning notified authorities about the lapse and the online passport renewal feature was temporarily suspended while officials worked to fix the problem.

In the United States, there was much attention paid to the decision by popular social networking site Facebook to end an advertising program that tracked users’ online purchases — but less reported was a court decision involving the personal privacy of the company’s founder.

A court ordered that a Web site need not take down an article that made public some personal information of Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

The article, on 02138, a Web site for Harvard alumni (it is not officially linked to the university) concerned some of Zuckerberg’s former classmates who are now suing him, saying that he stole the idea for Facebook from them.

The site also posted some documents that were part of that lawsuit, including Zuckerberg’s handwritten application to Harvard.

— Will Crain/Newsdesk.org

Sources:

“Campaigners hit by decryption law”
BBC News, November 20, 2007

“Passport applicant finds massive privacy breach”
Globe and Mail, December 4, 2007

“Facebook executive caught out in privacy row”
Times Online, December 3, 2007

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