Tag Archives: Privacy

Canine Cop in Constitutional Crisis

[There have been some interesting topics flitting about the blogosphere in the past weeks but I’ve been too busy with other stuff to comment. To eliminate some of the backlog, I’ve decided to try and do a few quick takes. First up: Franky the chocolate lab.]

There is a Florida legal case winding its way through the court system that pits the skills of a drug sniffing police dog named Franky against the Fourth Amendment rights of alleged marijuana grower Joelis Jardines. Back in 2006, Franky’s keen nose detected the smell of $700,000 in marijuana plants wafting out of a Dade County home while he and his handlers were standing on the front porch. Franky signaled the police who subsequently obtained a warrant, searched the home, found the pot, and arrested Jardines. The question is does a dog sniffing the air outside a privately-owned house represent an illegal search?

The variables make it interesting. Use of a thermal imaging device to look into the interior of someone’s home constitutes a search and is not legal without a warrant. However, the use of dogs in airports and other public places is allowed under the law because people in those locations do not necessarily have an expectation of privacy. (This is similar to recent arguments favoring the warrantless use of a GPS tracking device on a private vehicle.) Complicating matters is the fact that a dog is trained to detect only one thing (drugs) while a mechanical device like thermal imaging might show other things (like you sitting naked on the toilet).

All of this becomes more interesting if you start to think about the trends in miniaturization and computing power that could be applied to today’s surveillance drones. How soon before these things migrate from the skies of Afghanistan to the air space above your own neighborhood?

Other questions that spring to mind:

  • Does it matter that Franky’s talent is a natural one? Would the case be any different if this involved a drug sniffing machine?
  • What would happen if the police themselves were augmented in some way (genetically? cybernetically?) that would allow them to detect drugs without the aid of anything else? Will robocops get more legal leeway when it comes to searches just because of their “innate” talents?
  • How fast will police be able to get search warrants in the future? Will judges allow instantaneous decisions on these matters?
  • Does the fact that people are willing to provide detailed personal information to their social networks change our society’s expectations of privacy?

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case later in the year. Given the pace of development of modern technology, constitutional scholars could be reading about the exploits of Franky the dog for years to come.


They’re Coming for Your Data

Data privacy breaches seem to be the issue de jour for the tech sector. On October 18, 2010, it was revealed that several of the most popular Facebook applications had transmitted the personal information of tens of millions of users — including ID numbers, demographic data and names of friends — to various outside advertising and data companies. The next day [October 19, 2010], Canada’s privacy commissioner concluded that Google had violated that country’s privacy laws by harvesting personal information from unsecured wireless networks using it’s Street View system. In each case, it appears that the transmission of personal data violated the company’s own stated privacy policies. This means one of two things. Either these two companies didn’t know what their own technology was doing or they did know and are covering up this fact with denials and fingerpointing.

For all appearances, Google seems to be on the side of the angels on this one. When they first learned of the issue back in April/May, the company immediately ceased data collection and notified the authorities of what had happened. I’m not so sure about Facebook, though. Recent history suggests that the social networking giant has shifted its stand on privacy to better support its business model, which depends on open sharing of user information. Back in December 2009, the company changed the default privacy settings of its software so that users had to opt-out of the public availability of their information. Then, in an interview with Mike Arrington at the January 2010 Crunchies event, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg brushed aside privacy concerns by saying that these changes simply reflect the new “social norm” regarding the disclosure of personal information.

The problem is that, instead of letting people decide for themselves what these new social norms should be, Facebook has made a unilateral decision to nudge their users toward a more open information environment. This is pretty condescending approach. In reality, the company should just make it easier for any user to decided exactly how much personal information they want to share and with whom. The fact that Facebook can’t or won’t give their users the ability to fine tune their own privacy settings tells me that the company is betting its future on people’s willingness to give up their right to privacy for the convenience of talking to people they haven’t seen since Kindergarten.

Further reading: