Archive for 'Court Cases'

Google Fights Government Subpoena

Friday, January 20th, 2006

Two years ago, the Supreme Court upheld an injunction blocking the enforcement of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, a law allowing the operators of online pornography sites to be punished for making their content accessible to minors. The case was sent back to a district court, leaving the government responsible for proving that the law was needed and constitutional. As part of their effort to resurrect the law, the government sent subpoenas last year to three major search engines and one online provider: Google, Yahoo, MSN, and AOL. The subpoenas requested “all URLs that are available to be located through a search query on [company’s] search engine as of July 31, 2005”, as well as a week’s worth of recorded queries. The subpoena specifically requested that none of this information was to be linked to individuals. Yahoo, MSN, and AOL complied. Google did not.

The San Jose Mercury News reported yesterday that Google is fighting the injunction, claiming that “the demand for the information is overreaching” and threatened their users’ privacy as well as the company’s trade secrets. But wait, you might say, if the records weren’t supposed to contain any information that might identify a particular user, where does privacy come in to the equation?

From The New York Times:

“Google’s acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services,” it said in an October letter to the Justice Department. “This is not a perception Google can accept. And one can envision scenarios where queries alone could reveal identifying information about a specific Google user, which is another outcome that Google cannot accept.”

While this particular request does not ask for identifying information, the next one could, and there is a lot of identifying information to be had. (SearchEngineWatch has previously covered search engine privacy concerns.) Given the recent revelations of NSA domestic wiretapping and previous demands for information such as library records, it wouldn’t be surprising if they started asking for search engine user profiles as well. If Google ends up complying with the subpoena, they risk losing the public’s trust, and for a company that lives by the motto “Don’t be evil,” that’s a very grave risk indeed.

SearchEngineWatch also has some excellent posts on this story, including a summary of the court precedings as well as an ongoing commentary.

Privacy and Public Transportation

Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

On the 9th of December, 2005, a Denver woman is scheduled to be arraigned in a federal District court. Apparently, this 50 year old mother of four was taking a public bus to work when a security guard got on the bus and demanded to see everyone’s “papers.” Deborah Davis, knowing she had done nothing wrong, refused, and the security guard called federal officers to arrest her.

This situation raises some interesting concerns. Should we be required to identify ourselves whenever we take public transportation? Allowing this to stand in court may open the door to more disconcerting implications. At what point do we draw the line? In large cities, the government would be able to track the movement of the majority of its citizens at all times. This is already possible when a person purchases a monthly, electronic pass. However, this is currently optional and an individual may opt to pay cash for their transportation to avoid Big Brother knowing their location. If this case holds up, it seems to me that it could be used to justify a system where everyone can be tagged, identified, and located whenever they use public transportation.

In London, surveillance cameras provide the government means to visually track persons using their public transportation. This seems to be a less invasive way of tracking people who use public transportation without forcing them to identify themselves. It would also prove to be more useful to prove criminal offenses carried out in public areas. However, many feel this alternative also exploits the privacy rights of citizens. Read more here.

What you say (online) can be used against you

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

The allure of posting thoughts, feelings, and commentary online has generally been fueled by the freedom and (at least pseudo) anonymity that the Internet provides. A person can start a blog or post on numerous social networking sites without fear of reprisal, as he/she will generally use a pseudonym or simply leave an anonymous comment. However, as the Internet has become more mainstream, companies and organizations are increasingly trying to discover the identities of such posters and hold them accountable for their words, actions, or portrayed behavior. Two recent situations receiving news coverage illustrate this trend.

The first example involves an employee who posted an anonymous comment (which included a racial slur) to a Yahoo! message board discussing his company. The company, Alleghany Energy Service, discovered the post and sued to reveal the identity of this anonymous poster. The company eventually received a subpoena and compelled Yahoo! to reveal the poster’s identity, and then fired the poster for the racial slur. The employee is countersuing for wrongful termination, among other claims. GWU law professor Daniel Solove, in his blog Concurring Opinions, discusses this situation in greater detail, including analyzing the legal situation surrounding the original suit and the countersuit.

On a college level, many students are now members of a site called the Facebook, which describes itself as “an online directory that connects people through social networks at schools”. Students can post pictures and personal details, as well as engage in discussions about anything and join groups for common interests. However, not just students are taking note, and some students have found themselves held accountable for the pictures and words posted online. A student paper at Boston College, The Heights, covers in this article how students have been subject to disciplinary action and, in one case so far, expulsion at the hands of university officials. You can use the print feature to view all article text without having to register for the site, as clicking to view the next page will force you into a registration process. The article summarizes the situation with this statement: “Students at schools across the country have recently been charged with everything from alcohol related infractions to making threatening comments to a campus police officer – all from photos or information posted on the Facebook.”

Both of these stories show the difficulty of maintaining any sort of private online identity, separate and distinct from the real world. In both cases, the actions of the company/university are somewhat questionable, as they involve pursuing the employee/student outside of the work environment and into that individual’s actions at home. In the case of the university, though, the students’ homes may be university property, in which case different rules may apply.

Email scammer jailed for 5 years

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004

I believe that every one got emails from West African or Nigerian, claiming there is large amount of money for you to pick up, almost for free. The ABC reports that a Sydney man has been sentenced to more than five years in jail for defrauding millions of dollars in an international email scam. See full story here.