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EFF Press Release Archives

Press Releases: August 2010

August 10, 2010

Over-Collection of Personal Data Invades Employees' Privacy

Washington, D.C. - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the United States Supreme Court Monday to uphold an appeals court decision that blocks invasive and unnecessary background checks at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), arguing that the over-collection of personal data puts employees' privacy at risk.

The case was originally filed by federal contract employees working at CalTech's Jet Propulsion Lab, which houses NASA's robotic spacecraft laboratory. The workers were low-risk, by NASA's own admission, and did not work on classified projects. Yet the government instituted sweeping background checks, including a requirement to list three references who were then questioned about the employees' general behavior. NASA said it needed the information to assess "suitability" for government employment, and would check factors like "carnal knowledge," "homosexuality," "cohabitation," and "illegitimate children."

"Many of these CalTech employees have worked at the JPL for decades, but now NASA is asking their references open-ended questions in search of derogatory information," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien. "This technique is sadly familiar -- in the McCarthy era, federal employees had to disclose personal facts via personnel forms as part of loyalty programs -- and has no place in the United States today."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the employees, enjoining NASA from collecting any more personal data, but the government appealed. In an amicus brief filed Monday, EFF argues that the Supreme Court should uphold the 9th Circuit's decision in order to protect workers' constitutional rights.

"These background checks capture all sorts of sensitive personal information that's totally unnecessary for low-level employees who don't work on national security matters," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "Meanwhile, there are gaping loopholes in the legal safeguards in place to protect this very sensitive information. As technology makes it easier to collect and aggregate vast amounts of data, we must be particularly cautious to prevent government misuse."

For the full amicus brief:
http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/nasa_v_nelson/nasavnelsonamicus.pdf

Contacts:

Lee Tien
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
tien@eff.org

Jennifer Stisa Granick
Civil Liberties Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
jennifer@eff.org

Related Issues:
August 6, 2010

EFF Asks Appeals Court to Block Attempt to Turn Misdemeanors into Felonies

San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asked a federal appeals court Thursday to block the government's attempt to wrongly expand federal computer crime law, turning misdemeanor charges into felonies.

In an amicus brief filed in U.S. v. Cioni, EFF argues that federal prosecutors abused computer crime law when they brought felony charges against Elaine Cioni for accessing others' email. Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a first-time unauthorized access offense is a typically a misdemeanor. But in Cioni's trial, the government pushed for felony convictions, claiming that the CFAA violations were in furtherance of violations of the Stored Communications Act (SCA). However, the acts that they claimed violated the SCA were identical to acts that violated the CFAA.

"The government has piggybacked computer crime violations to punish misdemeanor conduct as two felonies," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "This misreading of the law would let the government charge anyone who accesses someone else's email with a felony. That was not Congress's intent when it created these statutes."

The CFAA is increasingly recognized as an overbroad statute that could be used to improperly criminalize a wide variety of online activities. Last month, for example, EFF filed an amicus brief in U.S. v. Lowson, arguing against a government attempt to use the CFAA to turn a violation of the terms of service on Ticketmaster's website into a criminal act.

"We're asking the appeals court to reject this attempt to broaden the CFAA and reduce the charges against Ms. Cioni back to misdemeanors," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "Congress decided that certain computer crimes should be punished as misdemeanors. Courts shouldn't let any prosecutor make an offense more severe than Congress intended."

For the full amicus brief:
http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/us_v_cioni/cioni_aug5_final.pdf

Contacts:

Jennifer Stisa Granick
Civil Liberties Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
jennifer@eff.org

Marcia Hofmann
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
marcia@eff.org

August 6, 2010

EFF-ACLU Arguments Against Always-On Surveillance Win The Day

Washington, D.C. - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit today firmly rejected government claims that federal agents have an unfettered right to install Global Positioning System (GPS) location-tracking devices on anyone's car without a search warrant.

In United States v. Maynard, FBI agents planted a GPS device on a car while it was on private property and then used it to track the position of the automobile every ten seconds for a full month, all without securing a search warrant. In an amicus brief filed in the case, EFF and the ACLU of the Nation's Capital argued that unsupervised use of such tactics would open the door for police to abuse their power and continuously track anyone's physical location for any reason, without ever having to go to a judge to prove the surveillance is justified.

The court agreed that such round-the-clock surveillance required a search warrant based on probable cause. The court expressly rejected the government's argument that such extended, 24-hours-per-day surveillance without warrants was constitutional based on previous rulings about limited, point-to-point surveillance of public activities using radio-based tracking beepers. Recognizing that the Supreme Court had never considered location tracking of such length and scope, the court noted: "When it comes to privacy...the whole may be more revealing than its parts."

The court continued: "It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even to follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work. It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after that, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person's hitherto private routine."

"The court correctly recognized the important differences between limited surveillance of public activities possible through visual surveillance or traditional 'bumper beepers,' and the sort of extended, invasive, pervasive, always-on tracking that GPS devices allow," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "This same logic applies in cases of cell phone tracking, and we hope that this decision will be followed by courts that are currently grappling with the question of whether the government must obtain a warrant before using your cell phone as a tracking device."

"GPS tracking enables the police to know when you visit your doctor, your lawyer, your church, or your lover," said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU-NCA. "And if many people are tracked, GPS data will show when and where they cross paths. Judicial supervision of this powerful technology is essential if we are to preserve individual liberty. Today's decision helps brings the Fourth Amendment into the 21st Century."

Attorneys Daniel Prywes and Kip Wainscott of Bryan Cave LLP also volunteered their services to assist in preparing the EFF-ACLU brief.

For the full opinion:
http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/US_v_Jones/maynard_decision.pdf

For more information on the case, formerly known as U.S. v. Jones:
http://www.eff.org/cases/us-v-jones

Contacts:

Kevin Bankston
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
bankston@eff.org

Cindy Cohn
Legal Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
cindy@eff.org

August 4, 2010

Website Resources Explain Rights and Options for Those Caught in Movie-Downloading Shakedown

San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today published "U.S. Copyright Group v. the People," a comprehensive collection of resources designed to assist the thousands of individuals accused of online copyright infringement by a Washington, D.C., law firm calling itself the U.S. Copyright Group (USCG).

Earlier this year, the USCG filed "John Doe" lawsuits on behalf of seven filmmakers implicating well over 14,000 anonymous individuals in alleged unauthorized downloading of independent films, including "Far Cry" and "The Hurt Locker." USCG's strategy appears to be to threaten a judgment of up to $150,000 per downloaded movie -- the maximum penalty allowable by law in copyright suits and a very unlikely judgment in cases arising from a single, noncommercial infringement -- in order to pressure the alleged infringers to settle quickly for $1,500 - $2,500 per person.

EFF's new webpage at http://www.eff.org/uscg has important information for subpoena targets, including explanations of the claims made by USCG, discussions of possible responses, and resources to help people find legal counsel and assistance.

"The people targeted in these mass lawsuits need good information about this situation and their options," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry. "USCG vs. the People provides answers to the many of the questions faced by anyone who learns their identity is being sought in connection with USCG's campaign or receives an intimidating letter from USCG. It also includes a list of attorneys who are interested in assisting."

"EFF has been concerned about USCG's lawsuit campaign since it first came to light this past spring," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "USCG has ignored or sidestepped basic legal protections granted to all defendants. We believe it is misusing the lopsided nature of copyright law, which was written largely to target commercial infringers, to shake out settlements from ordinary people with few resources to defend themselves."

In June, EFF along with the ACLU and Public Citizen filed amicus briefs in these cases, arguing that USCG must comply with key legal rules that help protect individual rights. EFF and its co-amici explained that USCG had improperly joined together thousands of defendants, had sued those defendants in the wrong court, and had failed to meet the relevant First Amendment tests for requiring ISPs to identify anonymous customers. In response, a judge hearing some of the cases ordered that better notice be given to those who were targeted that outlined their rights and explained the legal process. The notice includes a link to some of the resources on EFF's website.

For USCG v. The People:
http://www.eff.org/uscg

For the court-ordered notice:
http://www.eff.org/files/filenode/uscg/40-2%20Exhibit%201.pdf

Contacts:

Corynne McSherry
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
corynne@eff.org

Cindy Cohn
Legal Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
cindy@eff.org

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