The new police search battlefield: your cell phone
Feb 22nd, 2010 by scaredpoet

One thing that really annoys me about the tattered state of civil rights in the US is how technology is being used by law enforcement as a means to short-circuit basic privacy protections. Flying under the banner of things like “Homeland Security,” the common excuse seems to be made these newfangled desktop and mobile computer-machines don’t operate like the old, analog, physical things that used to replace them, and so somehow, this means the existing laws don’t apply. Sadly, it also seems like lawmakers are in no rush at all to make it clear that our Fourth Amendment Rights apply whether or not our belongings are stashed in a physical box, or whether they’re accessible via a keyboard or touch screen.

The latest arena for the battle for your privacy is your cell phone, and so far, law enforcement is on the offensive here.

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School laptop users beware!
Feb 20th, 2010 by scaredpoet

Quite a lot of school districts are experimenting with the idea of issuing laptops to their students to enhance learning initiatives.  On the face of it, this seems all fine and good: parents don’t have to buy hardware for their kids, and the schools all know that their students have the technology they need to do their homework.

There’s just one little problem: naturally, kids – and even adults – will do a little more on their computers than just academics and serious work.  It’s just a fact of life.

So, if you have a school or work-issued laptop, and haven’t figured this out already, let me warn you: you MIGHT be under surveillance.  And if your school or work-issued laptop has a webcam?  Consider investing in some electrical tape, and covering that bad boy up when you’re not actively using it.

The web is totally abuzz this weekend, after some kid in Pennsylvania recently found out the hard way that maybe the school-issued laptop program isn’t totally altruistic:

On November 11, an assistant principal at Harriton High School told the plaintiffs’ son that he was caught engaging in “improper behavior” in his home and it was captured in an image via the webcam.

According to the Robbinses’ complaint, neither they nor their son, Blake, were informed of the school’s ability to access the webcam remotely at any time. It is unclear what the boy was doing in his room when the webcam was activated or if any punishment was given out.

Now, let’s just let this sink in for a moment. It isn’t specified what kind of “improper behavior” the kid was engaging in, but it does leave one open to wonder.  There’s a LOT of things teens will do in their rooms thinking no one else is watching (though granted, in the age of MySpace and Youtube, sometimes they do things totally knowing that people are watching, but let’s set that aside for a minute).  In fact, if you really think about it, there’s lot of opportunities for very inappropriate things to be captured on a webcam that some creepy assistant principal in a high school is accessing without the kid’s knowledge.  Voyeuristic tendencies, anyone?

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Guess who’s peeking in your hard drive?
May 11th, 2009 by scaredpoet


After the RIAA broke their “promise” not to sue additional people for allegedly illegal file sharing, details are coming out regarding some “restrictions” being placed on one particular lawsuit, in which the RIAA has decided to play Homeland Security and is seeking to search the contents of a defendant’s hard drive for evidence of dirty deeds. Bending like a wet noodle to the RIAA’s demands, a judge has issued a “protective order” (PDF file) permitting the search, but with limitations and restrictions on who can see the contents, and exactly what contents supposedly can be seen.

As if the idea of a private lobbying group who only thinks it’s a law enforcement agency prying into your hard drive isn’t chilling enough, the restrictions (in digest form) are a bit absurd.

In a nutshell, the RIAA gets to pick a forensics expert, and the defendant gets to cart their computer to the the RIAA’s lawyers’ offices. There, the expert makes a “mirror image” of the hard drive, where they will look for evidence of file sharing, or evidence that the drive has been wiped. Because, you know, if you wipe your hard drive of any data whatsoever, that automatically makes you guilty of file sharing, right?

There are certain restrictions to this order meant to “protect” the defendant. For instance, the forensics expert must sign a confidentiality agreement, must agree not to look at a bunch of “non-relevant” videos, documents and web page files or history, and the plaintiffs themselves are prohibited from accessing the hard disk or mirror image. But really, c’mon! Once you have a mirror image of your hard drive out there, what control really does the defendant have over that data once it leaves their sight?

There are other questions, too. For instance: what constitutes a “non-relevant” file? If a “forensic expert” wants to determine if a certain file is “relevant,” wouldn’t they have to examine it?

I work with confidential work documents all the time. If I delete them from my computer, I do so securely merely because I don’t want to take the chance my machine could get hacked, stolen, whatever, and confidential data belonging to others exposed. But that doesn’t mean I’m file sharing, nor does it mean I’m even eliminating potential incriminating “evidence.” It would seem, however, that the recording industry would immediately assume the worst.

It’s easy for someone who’s not under the microscope to sit back and say “I don’t care. I’m doing nothing illegal.” But it isn’t necessarily about that. There are perfectly legitimate actions – securely erasing files, legally ripping your CD collection to MP3s for personal use only, even using bittorrent software and legally torrenting certain files – which, when taken out of context, can be made to falsely imply impropriety.

Besides, let’s be practical here. Everyone, and I mean, everyone has something on their computer they’d rather not have other people see. Maybe it isn’t something juicy like, naughty pics or videos, but it could be those embarrassing flirty letters to someone in the office, e-mails to family members about that nasty medical problem, or even just your bank passwords. If someone rifles through your stuff, do you ever really feel comfortable again?

The RIAA is clearly going on a fishing expedition. And the courts, sadly, are sitting back and letting them.

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