EFF in the News
Warning of an FCC power grab, the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation says the commission lacks authority to impose regulations.
At a meeting last week in Mozilla's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., a few dozen attendees including representatives from the Federal Trade Commission began to sketch out how a standard for privacy icons would work. "They were thinking that you might have several icons in the address bar for each site," said Seth Schoen, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Maybe they would be showing things that were good about that site's privacy practices, and maybe they would be showing things that were bad about that site's privacy practices."
"Of course, they would never charge a guy from Channel 4 news, but they arrested this guy," said Attorney Jennifer Granick, the Civil Liberties Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Certainly under federal law, you are allowed to make recordings of things that happen in public places. The intent of the [two-party] law is meant to protect private communication,but not to insulate public occurrences from being recorded. Can you imagine if a news reporter was not allowed to record a fire?"
"This goes to show that there's a problem with due process in these kinds of situations," said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for Internet users and technology companies. "If you're going to kick somebody off the Internet, there's a lot of procedures that need to be put in place to protect the innocent. It doesn't look like those were in place here."
And many — including the former AT&T technician who produced the documents in the case and the EFF — believe the alleged dragnet surveillance program continues unabated today.
“Nothing has stopped the dragnet,” said Cindy Cohn, the EFF’s legal director, whose case had grown to include all of the nation’s leading internet service providers.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has created an on-line tool that details the wealth of information a Web browser reveals, which can pose privacy concerns when used to profile users.
The EFF's Panopticlick tool takes just a few seconds to pluck out information that a Web browser divulges when visiting a Web site, such as a user's operating system, version numbers for plug-ins, system fonts and even screen size, color and depth.
The first panel opened with a discussion of the little-known topic of Flash cookies, a type of software deposited on computers to gather information. It runs through Adobe's Flash multimedia player and isn't deleted when a user clears the standard cookies through their Internet browser.
The technology "clearly circumvents the intentions" of users, said Peter Eckersley, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
When it comes to Obama transparency, Electronic Frontier Foundation privacy attorney Kurt Opsahl points out that the chief executive told the American public one thing Wednesday night and a federal appeals court another just a few weeks ago...
“What they want to hide will not give some advantage to our adversaries,” Opsahl said in a telephone interview. “They want to protect the telecoms and themselves from the embarrassment to be involved in lobbying to deny millions of Americans their day in court.”
Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says on privacy: "There are dozens of companies that are making a garage living or maybe more. The problem is if you choose to do business with one of those companies, there's so little to guarantee you're actually getting real privacy." Online privacy is really hard to achieve, he says, and a programming error you don't know about could expose your personal data to the world.
And in fact it turns out that the privacy-protecting technologies that have prospered are noncommercial. There's Adblock Plus, for which the source code is available at no cost. The Tor network, which offers reasonably strong anonymity, is free software using a network run by volunteers.
"If you want privacy from a piece of software, you want to be able to see inside it and see how it works," Eckersley says. "You have that level of assurance with open source that you don't have with a Windows executable." He thinks that a for-profit privacy business could sell a service retroactively: "If there's a way you could fix privacy problems afterwards, there may be a very good business model."
Those with no technical knowledge generally believe that they are anonymous when simply browsing the Web. Those who know more might recognize that IP addresses can be used to do some rough targeting, while browser cookies can be used to track someone across sessions and across IP addresses. But what if your browser itself—even with cookies off and IP addresses out of the picture—was leaving a digital fingerprint at every site you visit?
That possibility lies behind a new experiment from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, something called "Panopticlick."