Last Christmas shoppers marched through shopping malls in search of bargains, as they have done since way back in the early 1970s. But something was different. “Malls were tracking shoppers through their cellphones as they walked from store to store,” says Grayson Barber, a Princeton-based attorney and privacy advocate.
While more and more of us see this big-brother-on-our-shoulder — or in our purse or pocket — as business as usual, Barber finds it “truly horrifying.”
Barber gives a talk on “Privacy and Technology: How Much Privacy Can We Expect?” on Sunday, October 28, at 9 a.m. at Temple Har Sinai in Pennington. Call 609-730-8100.
“They were originally calling the talk ‘The Death of Privacy,’” says Barber. But she was having none of it. Privacy certainly isn’t what it was back in the 1970s, when the phone stayed put on the hall table and the opposite sex was “ogled” rather than “Googled.” Still, Barber insists, we should expect — and demand — that our right to privacy be protected. “I think privacy is alive and we should have more of it,” she says.
Barber became interested in electronic privacy issues when she worked for the state on a project to merge its mainframe computers. She enrolled in Rutgers Law School (Class of 1991) to learn more about the issue. Originally from California, where her late parents were newspaper reporters, she attended Pomona University (Class of 1978) before moving to New Jersey to study psychology at the graduate level at Princeton University.
She now devotes her practice to working on privacy issues, mostly for non-profits, including the ACLU, the New Jersey Library Association, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
On Monday, October 22, Barber is presenting oral argument before the New Jersey Supreme Court in a criminal case involving the legality of police use of cellphone tracking. “The question,” she says, “is do they need a search warrant?”
She believes that a search warrant is absolutely necessary. As it is now, she says, “if police get it into their heads to follow us, they can do that.” But, in her view, “not everybody thinks we want the police to see everything. We’re supposed to have government limited powers.”
Barber points out that police need a search warrant to tap a landline phone, and she doesn’t see why a cellphone should be different. “If they suspect criminal activity,” she says, “they can get a search warrant.” The police argument for tracking people, she says, is that “the cellphone isn’t really a phone, it’s more of a glorified radio, and besides, the phone company is already tracking cellphones.”
While Barber believes that most people do indeed see their cellphones as telephones and expect privacy while using them, she says that the popular technology behind the devices illustrates the dichotomy of technology.
“Satellites track your cellphones and can tell 911 operators where you are,” she gives as an example of a positive use of this technology. Unauthorized snooping, whether by police or by mall operators, could be a negative use.
“Technology is wonderful!” Barber says. But she says that humans need to be vigilant and proactive in ensuring that it doesn’t impinge on privacy rights, or cause serious harm to their reputations, careers, finances, or ability to obtain health insurance or a car loan.
Think twice before filling out that online survey. It might be hard to find a more egregious, but seemingly innocuous, invasion of privacy than that perpetrated by website MyTrueAge.com.
The website offers to translate a user’s detailed health data into his “real” age, based on his physical state and habits. “They ask questions about how much you smoke and drink, your cholesterol,” says Barber. “They might tell you that you’re 75, but you have the body of a 62-year-old.”
Lots of people would be happy with this news, but they might be less happy to know that the website “is not a healthcare provider so HIPAA privacy laws don’t apply,” says Barber, who explains that this means the website is free to sell your data, “and it does.”
Likewise, Barber has worked on a project looking into how dating websites use the information that users freely supply, often intimate stuff, including sexual proclivities and drug use. Her conclusion: “They collect and sell information.”
In one case, she found that a dating website assured users that “we use data security. We keep data secure.” Users might easily assume, she says, that this means that their private information would not be sold, but no, that is not the case. “They mean that they don’t want people stealing their data,” she says. “They use software to keep their data secure.” Your data, they sell.
Assume all Facebook entries are public. Barber is on Facebook. She enjoys the social media site, but says emphatically that she does not trust any of its privacy guarantees. “Everything that I post is public,” she says. “I post nothing that would embarrass me.”
Facebook, she says, is a prime example of a website with privacy settings that change constantly, meant to confuse and frustrate users. At some point people are tempted to just give up.
Ardently in favor of a proactive approach to protecting privacy, Barber nonetheless sympathizes. In any case, despite any and all assurances, she says that where Facebook is concerned it is best to just assume that no posts are private.
“Take advantages of the good aspects of Facebook,” says Barber, “but don’t be bamboozled into thinking there is privacy.”
Google yourself. Employers, colleges, and mortgage brokers are all likely to investigate prospects on the Internet. Beat them to it, is Barber’s advice. “Google yourself. Clean up your Facebook page,” she says. Also, find out what credit agencies have in your files.
This is important not only because no one wants decision makers seeing their lost weekend photos, but also, Barber points out, because Internet files are often full of errors.
“People have this touching faith in computers,” she says. If a blog entry mentions that someone with your name is wanted for armed robbery, this accusation can be immediately believable. The same goes for Facebook comments. “Why would anyone believe Facebook over a resume?” asks Barber. She isn’t sure, but she knows that most people do.
Government records can also be a problem. “Some of them were entered in the days of punch cards. Some were hand typed. There are mistakes,” says Barber. But because they are seen as “computer records,” they are thought to be above error.
Make some noise. So many people feel helpless as more and more of their lives are stripped of privacy — and sold to the highest bidder. “We think there’s nothing we can do. We just give up,” says Barber. Don’t, she implores.
“We should have laws,” she says. “We should tell government how technology is used. Don’t throw your hands up in despair. It’s ridiculous.” Europe, she points out, has stricter privacy laws than we have in the United States, much to the dismay of companies like Google, which, she points out, was forced to stop mining data in Europe as it took pictures for its map application.
Illinois just passed a law that bans employers from asking for their employees’ and prospective employees’ Facebook passwords, which have been used to access the accounts, make hiring decisions, and even fire employees. Maryland has a similar law, and New Jersey, among other states, is considering one. Barber sees these laws as an example of a way that citizens need to stand up for their privacy.
Technology is good. Widespread information about just about everything — and everyone — can be good, too. But, says Barber, there needs to be transparency, accountability, and the rule of law.
Until all of this is in place, Barber says that it is the duty of every technology user to “practice good digital hygiene.”
“If you were walking in Central Park and someone stopped you to ask for your ID, your personal information, your papers, you would have the right to refuse,” says Barber. She has made a mission out of ensuring that the same “rights and dignity” exist in cyberspace.