Tagged: cloud computing

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More on government access to private sector data

Last week I blogged here about a comprehensive survey on systematic government access to private sector data, which will be published in the next issue of International Data Privacy Law, an Oxford University Press law journal edited by Christopher Kuner. Several readers have asked whether the results of the survey are available online. Well, now they are – even before publication of the special issue. The project, which was organized by Fred Cate and Jim Dempsey and supported by The Privacy Projects, covered government access laws in AustraliaCanadaChinaGermanyIsraelJapanUnited Kingdom and United States.

Peter Swire’s thought provoking piece on the increased importance of government access to the cloud in an age of encrypted communications appears here. Also see the special issue’s editorial, by Fred, Jim and Ira Rubinstein.

 

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On systematic government access to private sector data

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has recently decided in United States v. Skinner that police does not need a warrant to obtain GPS location data for mobile phones. The decision, based on the holding of the Supreme Court in US v. Jones, highlights the need for a comprehensive reform of rules on government access to communications non-contents information (“communications data”). Once consisting of only a list of phone numbers dialed by a customer (a “pen register”), communications data have become rife with personal information, including location, clickstream, social contacts and more.

To a non-American, the US v. Jones ruling is truly astounding in its narrow scope. Clearly, the Justices aimed to sidestep the obvious question of expectation of privacy in public spaces. The Court did hold that the attachment of a GPS tracking device to a vehicle and its use to monitor the vehicle’s movements constitutes a Fourth Amendment “search”. But it based its holding not on the persistent surveillance of the suspect’s movements but rather on a “trespass to chattels” inflicted when a government agent ever-so-slightly touched the suspect’s vehicle to attach the tracking device. In the opinion of the Court, it was the clearly insignificant “occupation of property” (touching a car!) rather than the obviously weighty location tracking that triggered constitutional protection.

Suffice it to say, that to an outside observer, the property infringement appears to have been a side issue in both Jones and Skinner. The main issue of course is government power to remotely access information about an individual’s life, which is increasingly stored by third parties in the cloud. In most cases past – and certainly present and future – there is little need to trespass on an individual’s property in order to monitor her every move. Our lives are increasingly mediated by technology. Numerous third parties possess volumes of information about our finances, health, online endeavors, geographical movements, etc. For effective surveillance, the government typically just needs to ask.

This is why an upcoming issue of International Data Privacy Law (IDPL) (an Oxford University Press law journal), which is devoted to systematic government access to private sector data, is so timely and important. The special issue covers rules on government access in multiple jurisdictions, including the US, UK, Germany, Israel, Japan, China, India, Australia and Canada.

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New Developments in Cryptography and Privacy

ofb_encryptionAccording to Help Net Security, Craig Gentry, a researcher at IBM, appears to have found a way to allow “the deep and unlimited analysis of encrypted information – data that has been intentionally scrambled – without sacrificing confidentiality.” The solution involves a an “ideal lattice.” I’ll leave the explanation of all the math to the math/computer science folks. As the Help Net article notes, the solution seems to enable some great advantages for anyone providing cloud computing for:

computer vendors storing the confidential, electronic data of others will be able to fully analyze data on their clients’ behalf without expensive interaction with the client, and without seeing any of the private data. With Gentry’s technique, the analysis of encrypted information can yield the same detailed results as if the original data was fully visible to all.

It all sounds wonderful. One could have encrypted data and let others data mine while maintaining anonymity or privacy. Yet, something seemed odd to me. So I did what lawyers do, I called someone who knew more about computer science and asked for some help. That person explained that yes this could mean one could query an encrypted database without decrypting the data. The example to consider is a database of book purchases. One could ask how many people bought both book A and book B and see that result without ever seeing what a specific person purchased. Great, right? Not so fast.

As this person reminded me, with other sources of information one can figure out what a specific person did. That reminded me of the AOL debacle. With a little work, people were able to figure out who the anonymous subjects were.

All of which highlights that privacy is not binary. The cluster of information and the ability to analyze it seems often, if not always, to lead to problems about the use of information. So if this breakthrough allows a company or the government to claim that we should remain calm and all is well, we may want to remain clam but show how all may not be well. A few regulations about the use of the data even if supposedly anonymous, might allow the beneficial aspects of the solution to thrive while limiting the harms that can occur.

Image: WikiCommons
By: Gwenda; License: Public Domain
(My apologies to CS folks if the image does not match the breakthrough’s area of encryption)