The Magistrate’s Rebellion?

 Posted by on 13 May 2014 at 2:00 pm  Law, Privacy, Rights
May 132014
 

Judge denies Gmail search warrant, notes “Technorati are … everywhere”:

A federal judge in Silicon Valley took the unusual step last week of rejecting a routine email search request, and suggested that Google and the government take steps to halt the now-routine practice in which tech companies hand over the entirety of their customer’s cloud-based computer accounts.

“The Technorati are … everywhere,” wrote U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal. “And yet too few understand, or even suspect, the essential role played by many of these workers and their employers in facilitating most government access to private citizen’s data.”

Grewal’s ruling also includes a discreet swipe at Google:

“While Google has publicly declared that it challenges overbroad warrants, in three-plus years on the bench in the federal courthouse serving its headquarters, the undersigned has yet to see any such motion.”

Hear, hear! This is a tiny step, but I hope it leads to much more. Thank you, Judge Paul Grewal.

Tap It: The NSA Slow Jam

 Posted by on 19 June 2013 at 2:00 pm  Government, Privacy
Jun 192013
 

Tap It: The NSA Slow Jam is just plain brilliant:

 

Back in January, the internet was agog over the report that a pastor objected to the 18% gratuity added to her bill for being part of a large party by writing on the receipt, “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

The proper answer, of course, is provided by Grumpy Cat:

Your waitress offers you a genuine service, in exchange for your tip… God, not so much.

However, what I find particularly interesting about the story from an ethical perspective lie in the details of what happened at the restaurant and afterwards.

[Chelsea Welch's co-worker [at an Applebee's in the St. Louis area] had waited on a large party hosted by Pastor Alois Bell of the World Deliverance Ministries Church in Granite City, Ill. As is common at many restaurants, an 18 percent tip was automatically added to the bill.

Pastor Bell crossed out the automatic tip and wrote “0″ on the receipt, along with this message: “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

Welch, who did not wait on Pastor Bell’s table took a photo of the bill and uploaded it to Reddit where it soon went viral. “I thought the note was insulting, but it was also comical,” Welch told TheConsumerist. “I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining.”

Bell, who did not see the humor in this, complained to the restaurant’s manager. Bell told The Smoking Gun she did not expect her signature to be all over the Internet.

Applebee’s confirms that Welch was fired. In a statement, the company says:

“Our Guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests’ trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy. This individual is no longer employed by the franchisee.”

Pastor Bell told The Smoking Gun she is sorry for what happened and points out that she left a $6.29 cash tip on the table.

“My heart is really broken,” she told them. “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and my ministry.”

As this story makes clear, the waitress didn’t intend for anyone to be able to identify the pastor in question, and she took measures to prevent that identification. Alas, the power of the internet was too great. Also, the waitress reports that the pastor “contacted her Applebee’s location, demanding that everyone be fired, from the servers involved to the managers.” (That’s a quote from the article, not from the waitress.)

On the one hand, I understand why Applebee’s fired the server who posted the receipt. The restaurant wants its customers to feel secure in their privacy while on premises, particularly in their dealings with their employees, particularly in their financial transactions.

Nonetheless, in this age of social media, people’s expectations of privacy must change… or they will get burned. If you’re in public, your antics might be broadcast far and wide across the internet for other people’s amusement. Then, if you act petulant and bossy about that, as this pastor seemed to do, you’ll be lambasted even more.

Ultimately, a person needs to be responsible for his own privacy. That requires thinking in advance about what he wishes to keep private or not. That requires attention to what he says and does in view or earshot of other people. That requires being selective about what he emails or posts online. That requires providing appropriate context for public actions if he wants to avoid being misjudged.

A rational person does not broadcast his private activities to the world, then blame others for taking notice.

Mar 262013
 

I wrote this damn fine essay on why protecting your privacy doesn’t require dishonesty back in 2002 for an email list. I recently dug it up to include in the Philosophy in Action Newsletter, and I was so impressed with it that I thought I should blog it! So… here you are!

Privacy Lies

[Person X] wondered how to overcome the presumption of guilt that naturally emerges with “none of your business” responses to privacy-invading questions. For example, imagine that Lucy’s friend and co-worker asks her whether she is sleeping with the new boss. If Lucy has been willing to answer questions about her lovers in the past, then refusing to answer the question this time is in itself revealing. Replying “none of your business,” in such cases, will not protect privacy. In other words, there is no right against self-incrimination in everyday life, for refusal to answer is generally (and often reasonably) considered positive evidence of guilt.

In isolation, these sorts of examples certainly do give the impression that dishonesty is often necessary to protect privacy. But there is no need to choose between honesty and privacy if we take a long-term, full-context approach to these apparent dilemmas. First and foremost, the majority of these examples are compelling only because the individual has done little or nothing in the past to protect privacy — in which case, privacy is not likely the real value at stake.

Looking back at Lucy’s dilemma, she was perfectly willing to reveal information about her love life to this friend and co-worker in the past, so her problem is not in revealing private information in answering honestly. Rather, her problem is that an honest answer might reveal her wrongdoing of an inappropriate relationship with the boss. So for Lucy, like in so many of these alleged dilemmas, the goal a lie would not be the preservation of privacy but rather the concealment of wrongdoing. Lies to conceal wrongdoing have rather pernicious effects upon moral character, as I discussed in my paper False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth.

Of course, people do face legitimate dilemmas about how to effectively protect privacy without lying. For example: Parents of multiples are often queried by total strangers as to how their children were conceived. Neighbors might ask how much you paid for your house or how much you make. Relatives might press an infertile couple about when they are doing to have children. Co-workers might ask what the boss said to you in your yearly evaluation meeting. A competitor in business might inquire as to the status of a client’s account. And so on. Such situations do not require dishonesty in order to protect privacy. Rather, they require a bit of forethought and some simple skills of etiquette.

First, we need to invest a bit of thought into what information we wish to keep private from whom. And then we need to consistently refuse to answer questions we consider to be invasive, whatever our answer would be. So if Lucy genuinely wanted to keep her love life private, she ought to have refused to answer any questions about the identity of her lovers, rather than trying only to weasel out the unpleasant question about the boss. In other words, we need to create and enforce our own zones of privacy. We need to take responsibility for our privacy preferences before we get stuck on the horns of a privacy-honesty dilemma.

Second, we need to cultivate the etiquette skills of deflecting inappropriate and invasive questions. After all, there are many more ways of refusing to answer a question than simply saying “None of your business.” We might just casually say “Oh, I don’t answer questions about that” or perhaps exclaim in shock “Oh dear! That’s private!” or jokingly reply “Now why would I tell you that?!?” In egregious cases of strangers asking personal questions, glaring and walking away is a good option.

In her excellent book The Right Thing to Say, Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) discusses a wide variety of methods of deflecting inappropriate questions. These are skills of etiquette that no person should be without. Interestingly enough, we can quickly develop these skills of deflection into easy habits by fully committing to honesty, but we lose that opportunity if we allow ourselves to slide into lies when the going gets rough.

So we can protect our privacy without sacrificing our honesty. Additionally, by being honest, we avoid all the usual risks of lying: the slippery slope of lies, the distractions of creating and maintaining lies, and the risk of damaging trust in our relationships and reputation within the community. Those risks are substantial.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the way in which openly refusing to answer privacy-invading questions serves an important positive function in our relationships. In our relationships, we communicate in a background way all the time through what we choose to reveal to and conceal from the other person. For example, a woman might be willing to tell co-workers that her dog died, but be unwilling to discuss the painful details or the emotional upheaval. By revealing some information and concealing other information, she is implicitly communicating that her relationships with her co-workers are moderately intimate.

So when someone asks a privacy-invading question, honestly refusing to answer implicitly communicates “Hey wait, the relationship isn’t that close!” Lying, of course, provides no such information. So speaking abstractly, honesty about private matters is an important means of indirect communication about the intimacy of a relationship. Speaking practically, if we don’t want people to ask privacy-invading questions, then we need to let them know what constitutes an invasion of privacy for us. Again, we do this by honestly refusing to answer invasive questions, not by lying. So we can dramatically reduce the frequency of these apparent privacy versus honesty dilemmas by honestly communicating and upholding our preferences for privacy.

In short, adopting a policy of lying to protect privacy can too easily turn into vicious circle, where a person doesn’t have a clear understanding of his preferences for privacy, doesn’t have the skills to effectively and benevolently deflect questions, and doesn’t communicate his preferences to privacy to others. That’s not a good situation for anyone to be in.

Speaking more personally, I wouldn’t jump down a person’s throat for lying to protect legitimate privacy. But I would recommend that the person reflect in a deep way upon the situation to see if honest alternatives were available. If so, then the next step is to train the brain to serve up those honesty alternatives before the dishonest ones, particularly when time is tight. I have yet to find a genuine, irresolvable privacy versus honesty dilemma.

Jul 252012
 

I’ve often said that closets are hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable places to live. That doesn’t just apply to gay closets, but to atheist closets, Objectivist closets, and pretty much any other kind of closet. For a person to hide who he is, pretending to be something more socially acceptable, is deeply self-destructive. How so?

To hide who you are creates feelings of shame, often wholly unwarranted. It causes massive anxiety about being found out. It trains you to cowardice, betraying your values rather than standing up for them. It encourages you to focus on how others see your values, rather than why they’re your values. It creates strong incentives to lie, by implication or explicitly, to preserve the secret. It assumes the worst about other people, namely that they’d condemn or even disown you if they knew who you really were.

Closets, in essence, erode a person’s moral character, trust in others, and emotional well-being.

In a blog post for the Harvard Business ReviewCome Out of the Closet at Work, Whether You’re Gay or Not — Dorie Clark makes some interesting remarks about how social media destroys the pretense of closets. Basically, the connections forged by social media mean that “the boundaries are breaking down, privacy is a shimmering mirage, and we’re stuck in a world where you’re expected, and required, to be yourself.”

That isn’t merely good for a person’s integrity. It can help a person succeed:

While it’s not always easy to share personal news at work, it can have an unexpected payoff. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Karen Sumberg reported last year in the Harvard Business Review, it actually pays for GLBT employees to come out of the closet. They’re more likely to be promoted because they spend less time worrying about secrecy and hiding and more time focused on their jobs.

That’s hardly not surprising. The mental energy, effort, and anxiety required to keep yourself a secret from people that you’re interacting with on a daily basis can be overwhelming.

Does that mean that a person should share everything? Are people wrong to value their own privacy? No, of course not! A person being reserved is very different from a person stuffing himself into a closet. The reserved person will not share his thoughts, feelings, values, and activities with strangers at the drop of a hat, but he will share relevant information with people in his life. Moreover, he doesn’t quake in fear at the prospect others knowing him, nor actively work to hide himself from others. The closeted person does not share relevant information, does quake in fear of others knowing him, and does actively conceal himself.

Yet even for the reserved person, to be more open might be of benefit. Dorie Clark writes:

Many people still argue there’s a fundamental right to privacy. But post-Zuckerberg, that illusion has evaporated — and, as I wrote in a previous HBR post, that’s a good thing: closing the gap between one’s public and private images results in more people being honest about themselves and their lives.

Whether you’re gay or not, it’s likely that you’ve faced complicated privacy issues: should you friend your co-workers on Facebook? How about your boss? How should you present — some would even say “curate” — your social media persona? As [Anderson] Cooper’s example reminds us, the best answer may be simply to open up and erase the division between public and private. You certainly don’t have to share everything, but it makes for a better world if you share the most important things.

In my experience, my sharing more about myself and my values means that I’m much better able to find and connect with people that I like — and that’s a huge win for me.

Strip Searches for Everyone!

 Posted by on 4 April 2012 at 7:00 am  Constitution, Crime, Law, Privacy
Apr 042012
 

Oh my:

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jails even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.

Here’s the case that was brought to the Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court case arose from the arrest of Albert W. Florence in New Jersey in 2005. Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife, April, over for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant based on an unpaid fine. (The information was wrong; the fine had been paid.)

Mr. Florence was held for a week in jails in two counties, and he was strip-searched twice. There is some dispute about the details but general agreement that he was made to stand naked in front of a guard who required him to move intimate parts of his body. The guards did not touch him.

“Turn around,” Mr. Florence, in an interview last year, recalled being told by jail officials. “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.”

“I consider myself a man’s man,” said Mr. Florence, a finance executive for a car dealership. “Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man.”

The question before the courts was whether routine strip searches of all inmates — as opposed to strip searches just in cases of suspected contraband — constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Alas, the court decided that the routine searches were fine and dandy… and yes, that means strip searches for people merely accused of petty offenses.

I wonder: If it’s “reasonable” to be repeatedly forced to expose your private orifices to corrections officers, even before you’re ever convicted of the most petty of offenses, then what would possibly count as “unreasonable”? Nothing, I suspect.

(Hat Tip: The Agitator.)

P.S. That’s damn depressing news, so if you want to go crawl back into bed, go read this awesome satire from the Borowitz Report.

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