Altering Prisoners’ Sense of Time: The Moral Regression of a Futuristic Technology

By Caroline Thiriot

What if you could give a prisoner a pill that changed their perception of time? A 10-year sentence could feel like millennia. Or a person could experience a 10-year sentence in two years.

Science has already brought us to the brink of this technology. In a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the nature of time perception is outlined and science seems to conclude in favor of Kant’s “subjective” and “ideal” view of the matter. Indeed, “[o]ur perception of time constrains our experience of the world and exerts a pivotal influence over a myriad array of cognitive and motor functions.” (emphasis in the original). The result of the study demonstrated “anatomical, neurochemical, and task specificity, which suggested that a neurotransmitter called GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid) contributes to individual differences in time perception”. With this increased understanding of how we perceive time, perception altering medications may follow.

Psychoactive drugs could be used to distort the prisoners’ perception of time and make them feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence, which is legally available in the United States. As detailed in Slate and Aeon, philosopher Rebecca Roache is undertaking a thought experiment to explore the ethical issues involved in using perception altering drugs and life extension technologies in the corrections context.

Medical and scientific advance could change the way prisoners serve time and dramatically alter our prison system. As for an economic purpose we could imagine that prisoners would physically spend one day in prison while they would psychologically experience it as lasting x years. Considering the high costs of prisons, psychoactive drugs could thus be a solution to save money. However, the risk benefit ratio does not seem to be favorable at all.

There already are cases where perceptual distortions such as “disorientation in time” can occur, we can relate to the practice of solitary confinement. “There is long history of using the prison environment itself to affect prisoners’ subjective experience,” highlights Rebecca Roache. On October 18, 2011, Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez presented his thematic report on solitary confinement to the United Nations General Assembly. He called on all countries “to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.” He stressed as well that “Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”

Two points made in the statement above are worth being further discussed. First, we will address the issue of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Then, we will focus on a more philosophical controversy: the aim of the penitentiary system.

Torture is universally condemned. The prohibition against torture is well established under customary international law as jus cogens as well as under various international treaties such as the Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ratified by 136 countries (including the United States in 1994). Even if the effects of perception altering drugs have not been studied yet, we can relate to those of solitary confinement to some extent. Indeed, one can picture the subject whose time perception is altered as experiencing another reality than the one commonly experienced. Thus, as the physically isolated prisoner, it seems to be reasonable to conclude that this subject will be deprived of normal human interaction and may eventually suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression. In addition to the mental health risks, there exist physical health risks as well because the needs for sleep or food may be perceived differently.

As for the aim of the penitentiary system, several questions arise, especially concerning rehabilitation and recidivism. Some authors argue that prisons should be abolished and replaced by “anti-prisons,” that is, locked, secure residential colleges, therapeutic communities, and centers for human development. Indeed, nowadays it makes no doubt that punishment fails and rehabilitation works. From such perspective, altering prisoners’ time perception in order to make them feel like they spend more time in jails could thus be seen as a step backwards instead of a progress. According to the American Correctional Association (ACA) 1986 Study of prison industry, there are three categories of contemporary prison institution goals. Those are offender-based (good work habits, real work experience, vocational training, life management experience), institution-oriented (reducing idleness, structuring daily activities, reducing the net cost of corrections) or societal (repayment to society, dependent support, victim restitution). If such technology was implemented, most of these goals would not be completed. On the opposite, it appears we would instead go back to an era when solitary confinement was thought to foster penitence and to encourage reformation, but in a rather extreme form causing more harm to the individual possibly to the extent of mental illness.

The Eighth Amendment states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Professor Richard S. Frase has analyzed constitutional proportionality requirements. He noticed that since 1980, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the prisoner only once out of the six cases in which the duration of a prison sentence was attacked on Eighth Amendment grounds. Even if “The Court has never made clear what it means by proportionality in the context of prison sentences. Justice Scalia believes (and perhaps so does Justice Thomas) that this concept only has meaning in relation to retributive sentencing goals,” he concludes. When it comes to sentencing goals, one should thus distinguish retributive goals from non-retributive. While the first theory considers only the defendant’s past actions and focuses on the punishment itself, the second one (also considered as “utilitarian”) takes the future effects of the punishment into account. On the basis of such distinction, one must conclude that the possibility of making prisoners feel like they were spending a very long time in jails would only serve a retributive purpose and would absolutely fail at addressing the non-retributive ones.

Also, we live in a society in which, if individualism seems to be the supreme rule, interdependence remains a governing concept. To the question “What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?” Robert Nozick asks in this famous “Experience Machine,” he concludes that, dealing with pleasure, we would rather choose the everyday reality rather than an apparently preferable simulated reality. Despite the fact his thought experiment deals with a notion that is opposite to punishment, we can rely on the conclusion that the reality we commonly experience matters more than our subjective experience of it. As a consequence, one should not forget that the victim’s subjective perception of justice matters as well. Therefore, it may appear difficult for them to know that a criminal is out of jail after having spent a little time there and is able to enjoy the rest of their life free. Even if we only focus on retributive goals, such technology seems to have subjective limitations.

In the end, there seems to be no argument but the economic advantage for allowing the use of such psychoactive drugs able to distort the prisoners’ perception of time. On the contrary, it can be seen as torture and does not serve any rehabilitation aim, which is the main focus of prison sentences nowadays. The use of such technology would therefore appear to be regressive rather than progressive.

Caroline Thiriot, who has a Master’s in International Law and Human Rights from the Université Panthéon-Assas and an LL.M. in international and transnational law from Chicago-Kent College of Law, is currently a Master’s student in Bioethics at Université Paris Descartes.

Fake News: A Little White Lie or a Dangerous Crock?

Blog Photo CroppedBy Michael Goodyear

Since early November, press coverage on the problem of fake news stories has exploded.  These fake stories have included everything from the Pope endorsing Donald Trump to a woman stealing 24 dogs from an animal shelter. While they may seem harmless enough, the impact of people releasing such stories can range from simple confusion to active violence.

But what happens when the police create fake news? Even if it is well-intended, police dissemination of fake news can lead to a series of consequences, such as negative impact on neighborhoods, increased danger for citizens, violence, and distrust.

A few days ago, the Santa Maria Times uncovered a fictional news release in court documents, ten months after it had reported the same story as fact. The news release stated that two cousins, Jose Santos Melendez and Jose Marino Melendez, had been taken in for identity theft and were now in the custody of immigration authorities. It seemed like a simple report; in actually, it was part of an elaborate, but deceitful, plan—not by crooks, but by the police. .

The Santa Maria Police Department had been running Operation Matador for months at this point. The police had been eavesdropping on members of MS-13, a dangerous international gang, in the goal of eventually arresting gang members. Through wiretaps, they learned that MS-13 planned to murder the Melendez cousins. This raised a new issue: if they acted to save the two cousins, their operation would be exposed and the progress of the past months would be lost. A fake news story could solve this problem. The police took the Melendez cousins into hiding for their safety while the fake news story provided a cover, explaining the disappearance of the Melendez cousins without arousing suspicion and also protecting the cousins’ family, which might have been harmed by MS-13 if they believed the cousins were merely hiding.

In the following weeks, the police brought Operation Matador to a successful conclusion: 17 gang members were arrested on charges of murder and intent to kill in March. In July, a criminal grand jury indicted all 17 of them on a combined 50 felony counts. Lives were saved and gang members were successfully arrested, so what is the problem?

Whether well intentioned or not, fake news can have real consequences. By releasing false information about crime or police action, the police alter public perceptions of their community. If the police falsely report a crime in one neighborhood to divert attention from another, that reported neighborhood will seem more dangerous to the populace, even though in actuality the stated crime didn’t occur there.  This could lead to a downturn in local business and desire to live in that neighborhood. It would also make the neighborhood where the crime actually happened seem better in the eyes of the unwitting public, who might go to that neighborhood despite the dangers it could present.

Similarly, reporting that a crime has been solved, while in fact it has not, would also alter the public’s perceptions and possibly their actions. For example, the police could falsely report that they had solved crimes or reduced crime rates in a neighborhood in order to improve confidence in the police and intimidation of criminals. But it could also make people unreasonably more confident in the safety of an area, causing more people to go into what in actuality is still a dangerous neighborhood.

In addition, reporting that a crime has been solved when it has not could lead to greater violence or harm the police’s chances of actually solving the crime. For example, saying that the police have uncovered information about a crime or solved a crime when they haven’t could lead a perpetrator to harm those whom he thinks may have informed the police about him. It could also cause the perpetrator to flee the area to avoid arrest.

The police making it seem like crimes are being committed when they actually aren’t could also lead to harmful individual action. For example, earlier this week a fake conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring from Comet Ping Pong, a popular Washington, D.C., pizza parlor, led to a vigilante action. Edgar Maddison Welch decided to go investigate “Pizzagate.” Inside the restaurant, he fired a shotgun, damaging the interior of Comet Ping Pong but not injuring anyone inside. Although bloodshed was adverted in this case (Welch surrendered peacefully when he found no sign of the fabricated child sex ring), fake news undoubtedly put people’s lives at risk.

Although the Pizzagate example was not caused by the police, the police reporting fake crimes could lead to similar results: vigilantism and violence. As CNN aptly put it in regards to Pizzagate, “fake news, real violence.”

Fake news also harms our collective knowledge and our ability to tell truth from lie. While any piece of fake news has the potential to mislead and harm others, the police releasing such a story is especially harmful to our trust. We look to the police as honest defenders of justice; releasing fabricated stories undermines that, duping the public and the press as well as the suspect. As Louis Dekmar, vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, pointed out, such ruses create “a real distrust between the police and the folks we rely on.” Such a lack of trust undermines the relationship between police and the community, and, according to the Department of Justice, trust is one of the key factors in maintaining public safety and effective policing. Although fake lures are often used in sting operations, such as fake prizes, fake news on this scale is unprecedented.

Although police use of fake news may be rare, the police have a widely-used precedent for faking: fake Facebook profiles. Cops across the country have created fake Facebook profiles to uncover more information about suspects and even help track them down. For example, back in 2009 the police created a fake profile picture of an attractive young woman and friended Adam Bauer, a 19-year old college student, to access pictures of him drinking that were posted on his account, later ticketing him for underage drinking.

And even though Facebook officially bans the practice, a federal judge ruled back in 2014 that cops can create fake social network profiles for investigative purposes. The Department of Justice even said that police usage of fake Facebook profiles is ethical. Yet this is at odds with the Department of Justice stressing the importance of trust between police and the community. Bauer and other college students that were charged with underage drinking through photographic evidence from Facebook stated that the fake Facebook profiles undermined trust between college students and police.

This mostly likely will not be the last time the police fake a news story. In regards to the fake news story in Operation Matador, Ralph Martin, the Santa Maria police chief, defended the tactic, even saying he would not rule out releasing a fake news story again in order to protect lives. But given the risks with fake news, in general and especially when the police are behind it, such a tactic could have much more costly ramifications than predicted.

Michael Goodyear, who has a BA in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, is part of the ISLAT team.

The Need for Speed: When Apps Inspire Dangerous Behavior

Photo for ISLAT 1-croppedBy Nadia Daneshvar

Mobile apps may be designed with good intentions, but what happens when those aims lead to dangerous user behavior? This is the case for Strava, a popular cycling app whose promotion of speed led to deadly consequences and spurred new questions regarding the responsibilities of app developers.

Strava lets users record cycling data using a smartphone or GPS device and upload that information to track, analyze, and share with friends or the public. The app records where cyclists rode and how long and how fast they rode. It then compares a user’s times with personal records as well as the fastest times of other users.

The app also tracks a cyclist’s performance on “segments”—any stretch of road, path, or trail mapped out by a user for the purpose of a multiplayer competition of who can go the fastest, whether up a hill, down the street, or on a descent. Strava compares each user’s times on a particular segment to the times of everyone else who has ridden it before and uploaded the data to the app. The fastest riders are given the title “King of the Mountain” (“KOM”) or “Queen of the Mountain” (“QOM”).

Although the app may record data virtually, the cycling and decisions of users are very much in the real world. A Strava employee admitted that Strava does not account for safety, danger, stop signs, speed limits, or the fact that in order to beat certain KOM records, users would have to break the law. But, after at least three people have died in incidents related to the Strava app, perhaps we should expect Strava app developers to account for such factors, adjusting app design to comply with the realities—including the laws and regulations—of the real world.

On June 19, 2010, William “Kim” Flint, Jr., an avid Strava user, died after he hit an SUV while speeding downhill on a Strava segment on South Park Drive, the steepest road in the East Bay area of San Francisco. Flint had learned that his record was taken by another rider shortly before the accident, and Flint had set out to reclaim his KOM title when he hit the car. He was going too fast to stop.

Despite this incident, in 2012 Strava began fueling even more competition, sending alerts notifying users that their record was broken: “Uh oh! [another Strava user] just stole your KOM….Better get out there and show them who’s boss!” Since then, they changed the message to: “Uh oh! [another Strava user] just stole your KOM….Get out there, be safe and have fun!”

On March 29, 2012, Chris Bucchere was tracking himself using Strava while riding a segment known as the “Castro Bomb” when he hit and killed a pedestrian, 71-year-old Sutchi Hui, who was crossing the street with his wife. According to Bucchere, as he entered the intersection where he hit Hui, he was “way too committed to stop.” According to a witness, “he crouched down to push his body weight forward and intentionally accelerated,” milliseconds before hitting Hui. Bucchere was charged with a felony for vehicular manslaughter. He later pled guilty.

On September 18, 2014, Jason Marshall, an avid Strava user, hit and killed a pedestrian, Jill Tarlov, in Central Park as he was illegally speeding downhill in lanes reserved for pedestrians and child cyclists. According to a witness, Marshall did not stop or slow down at all, but instead yelled to Tarlov to “Get out of the way!” Hours before the accident, Marshall had recorded 32.2 miles of cycling in Central Park, with his highest speed at 35.6 MPH, which is over the 25 MPH speed limit for bikes in Central Park. Marshall had fastidiously recorded every one of his previous rides that year—yet there was no Strava record of his ride that fateful afternoon.

What can be done to avert such tragedies?

Education

Educating the general public about these tragic examples of light-hearted biking gone wrong could help reduce them. The day after Tarlov’s death, Bike Snob NYC launched a “#noStrava” hashtag on Twitter as a “gesture of respect” to Tarlov’s family, arguing that Strava shamelessly capitalizes on cyclists’ competitive inclinations.

Take away the leader board

Strava’s leaderboard is what gives rise to the spirit of competition that has arguably contributed to all of these tragedies. Furthermore, Strava’s arrangement of the cycling data on the leaderboards is problematic. As Suffolk University’s Professor Michael Rustad noted: “[I]t’s like Strava is creating a drag race. [Strava is] not just posting what third parties do—they’re organizing it…. Its [undifferentiated-skill-level] leaderboards are comparable to taking people from the bunny slopes up to the black-diamond run. Even ski trails are marked by degrees of difficulty.”

Legal action against the rider

Some might also consider taking legal action against the rider. As noted, Bucchere was charged with a vehicular manslaughter felony. Additionally, the Huis brought a civil suit against him (which was later dismissed). This approach might make riders think twice before risky riding, nudging them to consider the legal and moral consequences of their actions.

Legal action against the developer

The parents of Kim Flint filed a wrongful death suit, deciding that “enough is enough.” In the complaint, they claimed Strava was negligent, and “breached their duty of care by: (1) failing to warn cyclists competing in KOM challenge that the road conditions were not suited for racing and that it was unreasonably dangerous given those conditions; (2) failing to take adequate measures to ensure the KOM challenges took place on safe courses, and (3) encouraging dangerous behavior.” The complaint went on, “It was foreseeable that the failure to warn of dangerous conditions, take safety measures, and encourage dangerous behavior would cause Kim Flint Jr. to die since Kim Flint Jr. justifiably relied on [Strava] to host a safe challenge. Had [Strava] done the aforementioned acts, Kim Flint Jr. would not have died as he did.”

The Flints’ lawyer argued: “The danger and harm alleged in this case originates out of Strava’s own actions in…manipulating it through its designed software into leaderboards, and then using those leaderboards to encourage cyclists to race at increasingly faster speeds for awards and titles.”

Strava’s attorneys based their argument for the case’s dismissal on the principle that Flint explicitly assumed the risks implied in cycling by agreeing to Strava’s terms and conditions when he joined the network. Strava’s terms and conditions stated: “In no event shall Strava be liable to you or any third party for any direct, indirect, punitive, incidental, special or consequential damages arising out of or in any way connected with… your use of the site.” The case was eventually dismissed on these same grounds.

All three of these deaths received attention from news sources across the country, with writers and the public wondering how this could have happened. Even those changes that Strava made since the deaths in 2010 and 2012 did not fix the problem. Although the Flint case may have been dismissed, Strava has played a role in the promotion of risky and illegal behavior. But where exactly the line lies between user agency and developer responsibility remains to be determined.

Nadia Daneshvar is a former ISLAT Fellow, and is currently a second-year student at The George Washington University Law School.

Poképrivacy: Privacy and Legal Issues in Pokémon GO

Blog Photo CroppedBy Michael Goodyear

When Pokémon GO was released in the United States on July 6 it garnered 15 million downloads in just the first week. Pokémon GO has rapidly become one of the biggest apps ever. Its daily active user total has now outstripped Twitter and on current installs it has beat most other popular mobile app games. But despite its quick rise to fame, Pokémon GO has raised a series of concerns about privacy, from what permissions and personal information the app itself accesses to how the app potentially infringes on personal residences.

Pokémon GO is an augmented reality game that inserts virtual imaginary creatures, Pokémon, onto the physical world via your phone. They can appear anywhere, even on your wife’s hospital bed as she is giving birth. The goal is to catch and train Pokémon as part of one of three teams.

Privacy concerns abound with Pokémon GO, even attracting the attention of Senator Al Franken, the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. The chief initial concern with Pokémon GO was that iOS users had granted “full access” to their Google accounts. While technically this could include being able to see the contents of Gmail and all other Google programs, in reality Niantic, the company that developed Pokémon GO, only accessed basic account information, such as the name of the user and their Gmail address. More than anything it was a combination of Niantic using an out-of-date version of the Google sign-in process and poor wording that led to this seemingly alarming concern. Niantic has since made an update that fixed this problem, with the app now only requesting access to basic information.

Although this problem has received by far the most press, there are other legitimate concerns about how Pokémon GO handles privacy. The app itself has access to your IP address and the most recent webpage you visited, providing some indicators about your location and habits. In addition, the app tracks your GPS location and has control over your camera. While these are essential to using the app, just consider the possible implications if some third party acquired this data. Unless Niantic’s security is ironclad, there is always the possibility that hackers could get this information and have access to your phone. And with an app as huge as Pokémon GO, hackers will definitely be on the lookout.

Others with malicious intent have already started taking advantage of the app’s security shortcomings. A function of the app is that you can create a beacon, which attracts more players and Pokémon to an area. This has been a hotbed for muggers taking advantage of unsuspecting players. Muggers have used the beacons to lure in players and rob them. Police departments from O’Fallon, Missouri to Australia have expressed their concern over the security risks the app creates, especially when players are paying so much attention to the virtual surroundings on their phone that they are not aware of their physical surroundings.

In addition to beacons created by the players, Niantic itself has created virtual Pokémon gyms, basically battle hubs for players to come and play against other teams for control over the gym and win the accompanying prestige, across the globe. Naturally this makes them fairly popular spots. For this reason, Niantic generally locates the gyms at popular sites, although this occasionally goes awry, from the controversial (Trump Tower and the Westboro Baptist Church) to the just plain dangerous (on the South Korea-North Korea border). And sometimes it even registers people’s homes as gyms. Now, it is not as though Niantic asked the permission of Donald Trump or Boon Sheridan to put a gym on their property, but of course the gym itself is a virtual entity, albeit one with very real consequences. As major draws to players, gyms can attract dozens to hundreds of people, infringing on the privacy and peace and quiet of individuals and businesses. And this brings up a host of legal trespassing issues and questions of attractive nuisances that are bound to be raised, all for the benefit of trying to catch a rare Pokémon.

So while players are battling with their captured Pokémon, they also have to be on the defensive. Mind property laws and don’t infringe on real estate, and protect your privacy and safety, or else it might be your information being captured instead of the Pokémon.

Michael Goodyear, who has a BA in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, is part of the ISLAT team.

Privacy Concerns Influence Consumer Purchases

Blog Photo CroppedBy Michael Goodyear

Back in 2011 just 54% of U.S. consumers, a slim majority, stated that they decided not to purchase a product due to concerns about their personal information’s confidentiality. But that number has been on the rise. Today that figure has grown to 82%, the vast majority of U.S. consumers. Of course many potentially privacy-invading products are not bought on a yearly basis, such as computers or cell phones. Yet even in the past 12 months 35% of consumers still decided not to purchase goods from a specific company due to privacy concerns.

Different groups of consumers considered privacy concerns differently in regards to making a purchase. The portion of the American population that reacts most to privacy factors is that with a higher income and also that with a higher level of education (consumers with a college or post-graduate degree). Although respondents noted several chief concerns about privacy, 52% of U.S. consumers identified identity theft as their greatest concern. This was a sharp increase from 2011, when identity theft constituted only 24% of respondents’ chief privacy concerns. In addition, the next highest figure was the greatest privacy concern of only 10% of consumers, compared to the 52% on identity theft.

These findings are from a November 2015 online survey of 900 consumers, undertaken by the law firm Morrison & Foerster to gather quantitative data on the emerging trend of privacy presenting real threats to business. The results confirm the increasing role of privacy in our lives. In this case, privacy concerns influence our decisions as consumers,
but what other aspects of our lives have privacy concerns also come to influence? What about our privacy when downloading a mobile app or entering our social security number into an online application? With advances in technology and the increasing amount of personal information that ends up online, privacy concerns are here to stay. It is up to each individual to decide how he will engage with his personal privacy concerns and to what degree those concerns might influence his decisions and his life.

Michael Goodyear, who has a BA in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, is part of the ISLAT team.

I Can Do All Things Through Technology, Which Enables Me: Churches, Facial Recognition and Spiritual Dynamics

Alex FrancoBy Alexandra Franco, JD

In my work as a privacy lawyer, I’ve become slightly desensitized to the pervasive privacy invasions that we have learned to live with—the fact that Facebook is well-aware of my love of makeup and will constantly remind me of “cool new eyeshadows to try” is something I don’t even think about anymore. However, there is a new technology threatening privacy that struck me as particularly appalling.

A company called Churchix provides churches with facial recognition software “designed for Church administrators and event managers who want to save the pain of manually tracking their members attendance to their events.” The software allows users to “receive demographic data of people attending [their] event (Gender, Age),” and “receive identification reports for a specific event, group of events and attendance of a specific member.” To get the facial recognition software going, churches must first take photos of their faithful to “register and enroll into the data base of Churchix.” After this, the churches will have access to streamlined, automatic attendance data—and won’t have to go through what Churchix calls the “pain” of personal interaction with their attendees.

The number of churches currently using this technology is as high as 40. Speaking at a conference at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, privacy attorney and partner at Edelson PC, Ari Scharg, mentioned that this technology is being used to track people’s church attendance patterns, such as how often they attend and how early they arrive, and that the churches can use this information to understand how much money church goers can be asked to donate.

Churchix claims that despite “honest concerns over privacy” and people’s “‘Big BrotChurch 4her’ mentality” about what the technology entails, it “think[s] that [such beliefs] are mostly a bad feeling derived from a possible abuse of the technology rather than actual threats.” The company website explains that “on the contrary, face recognition software helps catching the bad guys… .” But even the company’s own PR efforts on its website include articles that criticize Churchix for the serious privacy concerns that its technology raises.

As Michael Casey from CBS News says, “the growth of this [facial recognition] technology has far outpaced any efforts to regulate it… .” and if it keeps going the way it is going, it will be very difficult for regulatory bodies to take a stand fast enough to make a difference. The technology is already being used by advertisers in shopping malls to analyze what you are looking at on a store shelf, analyze your demographic information based on your facial characteristics and later show you a targeted advertisement with another item that you may be interested in based on all of this information. Churchix is a branch of Face-Six, the facial recognition business that offers the technology to shopping malls. In addition to offering its services to churches (through Churchix) and shopping malls, Face-Six offers its services to airports, border control, law enforcement, casinos and also for home security purposes.

When a single company is behind all of the different applications of the technology—from shopping malls and targeted advertisements to church attendance—how do we know that  people’s images uploaded to the Churchix database will not end up being used to sell them religious books later when they visit a mall that uses the same technology? What if you have been missing church for a few weeks, would you like to see an advertisement for a book about “regaining your faith?”

A few states—such as Illinois—have enacted laws protecting people’s biometric information. The Illinois statute protects people’s biometric identifiers, such as “a retina or iris scan, fingerprint, voiceprint, or scan of hand or face geometry,” among other things, by requiring that entities planning to collect such data inform the person in writing before collecting it, tell the person for how long and for what purpose they are collecting the data and have the person sign a written release. It also prohibits entities from selling or profiting from someone’s biometric data and requires that entities in possession of such data develop policies and procedures for its destruction.  However, Illinois is one of a few states currently taking steps to protect people’s biometric information and we are still far away from a comprehensive national regulatory regime.

Let’s instead think about this for a moment from the perspective of individual church members and the church community as a whole. Faith is a deeply personal thing which should be between the person and that which he or she believes in, something out of the human realm and out of the reach of human hands. It is a sacred communication between the person and something that transcends the physically human. Is it okay for a third eye in the sky to observe that person’s movements in and out of his or her place of worship? What are the deeper connotations of a pervasive intervention between a person and his or her faith? If church goers become aware that their movements in and out of the church are constantly being tracked, this may alter their church-going habits (as they may dislike being observed and tracked without having control over it) and may decide to stop attending church altogether. On the other hand, those who refuse to give up going to church will always have to think about that third eye who knows whether he or she went to church last week or not.

And what happens if we were to replace the word “church” in the last paragraph with the word “mosque”? It is not hard to imagine the potential for profiling and even more invasive targeting this technology—which works across different settings through the photo database—can bring.

For the most part, places of worship are still the heart and soul of their respective communities. They are groups of families and individuals who look out for each other and have each other’s back. When a congregation member is absent for a long time, other members will express their concern and reach out. If such interactions are interrupted by an automated attendance tracker, will it interfere with the community’s spiritual dynamics? To what extent will we allow technologies to alter human dynamics in their most essential manifestations? Only time will tell.

This isn’t about makeup. This is one of the most personal and private aspects of a person’s life, and we should not become desensitized to technologies which invade it.

Alexandra Franco is a Research Associate at the Institute for Science, Law and Technology at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.  The title of this essay is based on Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

When Your Car Spies on You

Lori Head Shot 2014 v.2 small

By Lori Andrews

Cars are getting smarter.  Some can show you a video of what is behind you to help you park in a tight spot.  Others can automatically apply the brakes if you are about to run into the car in front of you.

Now cars have a new power.  They can snitch to an insurance company about your driving.   A tracking device can be installed in your car to monitor how and when and how far you drive.  Progressive and other insurers offer discounts on car insurance to drivers based on data from such devices.

Do you accelerate sharply, corner too closely, travel at night or drive great distances?   Those traits can be used against you and prevent you from getting a discount.  But many of those factors are beyond your control.  If your job requires you to work in the evening, why should you be penalized by your insurer?

Most insurers’ devices are installed in the data port of car, under the drivers’ side of the dashboard, which limits their use to cars sold after 1998.  But the Canadian insurer Desjardins uses a mobile phone app, Ajusto, that doesn’t even need to be installed in the car.  But phone apps raise additional issues.  Nothing prevents an insurer from matching data from the phone driving app with other information.  Nearly two-thirds of smartphone owners look up health information on their devices.  What if you’ve done a Google search for the side effects of an allergy medication?  The insurer might take that to mean you are using the medication while driving, despite the drug’s warnings about drowsiness.

Who else will ultimately get the driving information?   Will the police want to know who is driving faster than the speed limit?   As a phone app, Ajusto can tap into location information.  Will spouses and employers want to know where the driver has been?  Already, information from toll passes has been used as evidence in criminal cases and divorce cases.  If you get into an accident while using Progressive’s Snapshot device, Progressive will turn over their information about your driving style and history to the court.

These programs to reward safe drivers might actually lead to more accidents.  A friend who used the Progressive device heard a series of beeps from his car if he braked too quickly.  The only way to avoid the beeps was to stay four car lengths behind the car in front of him, but that meant other cars were constantly swerving in front of him.  It also greatly increased the chance of his being rear-ended.

The tracking devices for cars are touted as a way to save you money.  But the data they collect can be used against you.  Progressive announced that it will start charging higher rates to drivers who volunteer to use its Snapshot device, but whose driving does not measure up.  Courts can order that you turn over your driving information to someone who sues you.   Tracking devices have real risks. What you might save in premiums, you’ll lose in privacy.

Is Your TV Watching You?

Adam-Rouseby Adam Rouse

In Star Trek space explorers of the future talk to their spaceship’s computer to easily control nearly every function on the ship. Now, you can control your TV simply by talking to it.  Smart TV manufacturers are now integrating voice control and motion sensing controls into their products.  Simply tell your TV what you want to watch and the TV will tune in for you; make a downward motion with your hand and the TV will mute the sound.  Smart TVs can even learn your tastes and recommend shows when asked: “What should I watch tonight?”  With nearly 30% of American households projected to have a smart, internet connected, TV by the end of 2015, the ability for your home entertainment products to listen to you may raise some concerns: How is your TV able to listen to you? Can you tell when it is listening and not listening? And, most importantly, what does your TV do with all the information it hears that is not relevant to helping you find entertainment to watch?

As to the how, there are small sensitive microphones located in a smart TV and its remote control.  Presumably these devices are only listening to you when the TV is on, however there is no way to really determine when these devices turn on the microphones and eavesdrop on their users.  Samsung states that there is a microphone icon that appears on the TV screen when the device is set to a listening mode.  Samsung, in their global privacy policy, also warns: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.”

Many media outlets have reported smart TV’s transmission of voice data to a third party is unsettling and intrusive.  Voice recognition is a computationally heavy task that is usually best performed by specialized computing devices.  The computer inside of the TV simply does not have the required capabilities to perform speech to text translation without offloading the processing to a more powerful computer, usually in a data center.  Because smart TV manufacturers do not have the necessary computers needed for voice recognition, the transmission of a user’s spoken words to a third-party is essential to convert spoken words to commands the smart TV understands.  Anyone who has used Apple’s Siri digital assistant or Android’s “OK Google” voice features has had their voice samples transmitted over the internet for processing in a specialized data center.  While Google chose to keep its voice processing in house, Apple transmits voice queues spoken to Siri to Nuance – the same company that Samsung has chosen to use to process voice commands spoken to its TVs.  Samsung has released a statement expressing that it adheres to industry standard encryption and data protection standards to protect its customers.  Even so, it is probably best to avoid discussing finances, medical conditions, or other highly personal data while a smart TV is listening for a voice command.

The genuinely alarming issue with smart TVs in the homes of consumers is the potential security risk involved in having an internet-connected device with a camera and microphone, capable of taking video and recording audio without the user’s consent.  Proof-of-concept hacks allowed security researchers to take over smart TVs and use them like a very expensive webcam.  CK Privacy has published a paper on the dangers of webcams and remote access technology.  The same dangers apply to smart TVs and other voice-controlled entertainment systems.  With most interconnected devices the end user has some control over the security of the device by being able to set a password, update the device with new security patches, or place them behind a home firewall.  Smart TVs were not designed to be accessed remotely by the home user thus there is no way to set passwords or increase security without reliance on the manufacturer who produced the device to provide an update.  Not only must the manufacturer produce an update, but the average consumer must know about and install the update for it to be of any use.  Consumers must give feedback to the smart TV manufacturers demanding they fix the smart systems to be secure and to also encrypt their voice recording data that is required to be transmitted to Nuance or another third party for processing.

You can help protect yourself by ensuring that you have the latest firmware for your device:

  • Samsung owners can find the latest firmware for their smart TV here.
  • LG owners can find information about firmware and software updates here.
  • Sharp owners can download firmware updates here.
  • Sony owners can find information regarding firmware updates from Sony Support here.

Of course, a Post-it note placed strategically and securely over the camera on the TV and a thick piece of masking tape with some felt or other audio-dampening material over the microphone works just as well to stop prying eyes and ears.  It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing solution, but it is a definitive way to control what the camera and microphone see and hear.  Blinding and deafening your smart TV may reduce your chances of being overheard, but then again, it also eliminates all the advantages of voice and motion control.  Once again, consumers are going to have to research the manufacturers and purchase wisely or disable many of the features that make their TV smart in the first place.


This post originally appeared on CKPrivacy.org (archived link)

Step Aside, States?

Erik Jonesby Erik Jones

In the fall of 2005, 44 state attorneys general came together to send a joint letter to Congress and share their concerns about a proposed federal law on data breach notification. Such letters are exceedingly rare, as state attorneys general come from competing political parties and states with varied interests. However, nothing brings state government officials together like a congressional effort to limit states’ power to assist their own residents. And that is just what Congress was doing.

At the time, a number of states had already passed their own data breach notification laws, or were in the process of doing so. The state laws were and are popular because they are based upon a simple but powerful argument. When a company suffers a data breach that includes consumers’ sensitive personal information, it should be required to inform the affected consumers so the consumers can quickly take steps to limit any potential fraud or identity theft stemming from the breached information.

In response to a growing number of data breaches in 2005, including an extensive and widely publicized breach suffered by a data broker named ChoicePoint, members of Congress were also pushing bills that would require companies to notify consumers when their sensitive personal information was subject to a data breach. The state attorneys general supported Congress’s effort, as many had championed the same law in their respective states. But to their disappointment, the legislation also included provisions that would nullify existing state laws on data breach notification and prevent states from passing additional laws on the matter in the future. When Congress does this, it’s known as pre-emption. The prospect of pre-emption alarmed the state attorneys general because of its potential negative impact for consumers.

I have now experienced both sides of this debate. I’ve worked at both the federal and state levels, and I’m currently an assistant attorney general for Illinois. And I share the concerns over pre-emption raised by those state attorneys general nearly a decade ago.

Thankfully, these fears have not yet been realized. Congress has failed to pass a data breach notification law, leaving state laws intact. This failure can be attributed, in part, to Congress’s own disagreement over pre-emption. But that may soon change, as the conditions might be right for data security legislation to move in this Congress. A rash of large, costly data breaches has galvanized public interest in the issue. One political party controls both the Senate and the House of Representatives. And President Obama has rightfully put the issue at the top of his agenda.

During a recent speech at the Federal Trade Commission, and again in the State of the Union this week, President Obama called on Congress to pass a national law on data breach notification. For Congress, the challenge will not be deciding whether to pursue such a law, which is widely supported. The difficult part will be determining the role states will play in data security moving forward.

In order to pass a national law on data breach notification, Congress will have to decide what to do about the 47 state laws on breach notification that have already been enacted—only Alabama, South Dakota, and New Mexico do not have laws requiring data breach notification. The president has argued for the need to end, in his wording, this “patchwork” of state laws. But such a move, if done incorrectly, could be a disaster for consumers.

The state laws on breach notification have been critical for consumers. They are the reason consumers were made aware of the significant data breaches that caught Congress’s attention in 2005. And they are the reason millions of consumers were notified of the payment card breaches that Target, Home Depot, and other large retailers suffered more recently. Without the state laws, companies would not have been legally obligated to notify their customers of the breaches.

In their letter to Congress in 2005, the state attorneys general made similar points, noting that “states have been able to respond more quickly to concerns about privacy and identity theft involving personal information, and have enacted laws in these areas years before the federal government.” The state attorneys general also looked to the future and predicted that pre-emption would interfere with “state legislatures’ democratic role as laboratories of innovation.” Time has validated their assertion.

Over the past decade, as states have developed expertise on the issue, they have also updated their laws to address problems and to adapt them to changes in technology. With the growth of cloud computing and e-commerce, Florida and California have included breaches of login information for online accounts as triggers for a notification requirement. In response to the increased use of fingerprint-reading software, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have mandated notification if a breach of biometric information occurs. More than 30 states have enacted laws requiring companies to dispose of sensitive data securely, and a number of states are now requiring companies that handle sensitive personal information to develop reasonable data security practices to protect it.

States have also passed laws that require companies suffering breaches to provide notice directly to the state attorney general. Such a requirement, for example, has enabled California to maintain awebsite of data breaches affecting California residents, which any state resident can access. There are thousands of data breaches on the list. Some are national in scope, but most are local or regional in nature and not covered by the national media. The list helps ensure California residents have the opportunity to learn about the data breaches that have affected them.

If Congress had succeeded in pre-empting state law in 2005, it is likely that none of these protections would exist. States would have been precluded from enacting them. And given the difficulty Congress has had passing a simple data breach notification law, Congress would also likely have had a difficult time updating or expanding the law.

For four years I served in various capacities for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, while my boss, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was working to pass consumer protection legislation on data security and legislation to protect our nation’s most critical infrastructure from cyberattacks. Throughout my time with the committee, I had a front-row seat for the debate over pre-emption.

On one side were the consumer advocates, who were concerned that a weak national law, combined with pre-emption, would mean fewer protections for consumers. On the other side was the business community, which complained that meeting the requirements of nearly 50 separate laws on breach notification was inefficient and burdensome. At the time, I thought I understood the costs and benefits of pre-emption. I now know that I did not.

In 2013 I took a position working for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Through it, I have experienced firsthand the important role states play for consumers. State attorneys general hear directly from the residents they serve on a daily basis. In Illinois, thousands of residents have asked our office for help with data security and identity theft. They have not asked that we step aside so that the federal government can handle it.

This year Attorney General Madigan will be proposing a number of updates to Illinois’ data breach notification law. These updates are based upon the lessons we have learned through our efforts to enforce our data breach notification law and consumer protection laws. It would be a shame if we were prevented from using these insights and pursuing these updates, which are designed to protect consumers, because of an overly broad pre-emption provision in federal law.

While a national law on data breach notification is long overdue and very much needed, a perverse outcome is possible, in which Congress pre-empts states and at the same time passes a weak notification law that provides consumers with notice of data breaches only when very specific conditions are met. If not narrowly tailored, a pre-emption provision could place a wedge between consumers and the very state agencies that serve them.

This piece originally appeared in Slate’s Future Tense section.

Erik C. Jones is the policy director and an assistant attorney general in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and an Adjunct Professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.


This post also appeared on CKPrivacy.org (archived version)

A White House Invitation to Launch Precision Medicine

By Lori Andrews

President Obama at the launch of the Initiative

Last Friday, I was a guest at the White House for President Obama’s launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative.  The goal of the Initiative is to sequence people’s genomes and read the nuances of their genes to determine how to prevent disease or more precisely treat it. The President illustrated how this would work by introducing Bill Elder, a 27 year old with cystic fibrosis. Bill has a rare mutation in his cystic fibrosis gene and a drug was fast-tracked at the FDA to target that mutation.  “And one night in 2012, Bill tried it for the first time,” explained President Obama. “Just a few hours later he woke up, knowing something was different, and finally he realized what it was:  He had never been able to breathe out of his nose before.  Think about that.”

When Bill was born, continued the President, “27 was the median age of survival for a cystic fibrosis patient.  Today, Bill is in his third year of medical school.”  Bill expects to live to see his grandchildren.

The Precision Medicine Initiative will involve sequencing the genomes of a million Americans.  Such a project would have been unimaginable if we hadn’t won the Supreme Court case challenging gene patents.  Prior to that victory, genetic sequencing cost up to $2,000 per gene due to patent royalties.  Now it will cost less than ten cents per gene.

Bill Elder at the White House event

The people who volunteer as research subjects for the project may expect cures for their own diseases.  But, even when genetic mutations are discovered, cures are a long way off.   “Medical breakthroughs take time, and this area of precision medicine will be no different,” said President Obama. And despite the fanfare surrounding genetics, researchers often find that environmental factors play a huge role in illness. At the same time the White House was preparing for the launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative, Stanford researchers and their colleagues across the globe were publishing a study in the January 15 issue of the prestigious journal Cell challenging the value of sequencing research.  Their study, “Variation in the Human Immune System is Largely Driven by Non-Heritable Influences,” tested sets of twins’ immune system markers.  The result: Nearly 60% of the immune system differences were based on the environment rather than genes.

Capturing environmental information about the million volunteers will involve invasions of their privacy as their health and behavior is categorized and quantified from every perspective.  Their genetic data will be combined with medical record data, environmental and lifestyle data, and personal device and sensor data.  If not handled properly, this data could be used to stigmatize the research participants or discriminate against them.  Will they be properly informed of the risks in advance?  Will sufficient protections be in place for their device and sensor data, which is often not covered by medical privacy laws such as HIPAA?

At the White House last Friday, President Obama said, “We’re going to make sure that protecting patient privacy is built into our efforts from day one. It’s not going to be an afterthought.” He promised that patient rights advocates “will help us design this initiative from the ground up, making sure that we harness new technologies and opportunities in a responsible way.”

Professor Andrews with Henrietta Lacks’ descendants at the White House

President Obama underscored that commitment by inviting members of Henrietta Lacks’ family to last Friday’s event. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was dying of cervical cancer.  A researcher at Johns Hopkins University undertook research on her cells without her knowledge or consent (or that of her family).  Her immortalized human cell lines provided the basis for generations of research in the biological sciences, as well as research by commercial companies.  When her husband learned about it years later, he said, “As far as them selling my wife’s cells without my knowledge and making a profit—I don’t like it at all.”

A former Constitutional Law professor, President Obama is aware of the importance of people’s rights.  Let’s hope that his aspiration of an Initiative that guards research subjects’ autonomy and privacy will be honored by the scientists who will actually operationalize the $215 million project.