Jaikumar Vijayan, Computerworld US |
Verizon’s attempt — unsuccessful so far — to secure a patent for a so-called ‘snooping technology,’ which in this case would let television advertisers target individual viewers based on what they’re doing or saying in front of their sets, capped another challenging year for privacy advocates.
Verizon’s snooping technology and TV ads
The Verizon technology, which includes a sensor/camera housed in a set-top box, would determine the activities of individual viewers — eating, playing, cuddling, laughing, singing, fighting or gesturing — and then trigger personal advertisements based on the activities.
Overall, the technology would serve targeted ads based on what the user is doing, who the user is, his or her surroundings, and any other suitable personal information, according to Verizon.
The U.S. Patent Office delivered a “non-final” rejection of Verizon’s application in November.
But analysts say that because engineers are already working on such technology, it’s a cinch that some kind of similar technology will be included in TV set-top boxes in the not too distant future.
Here, in no particular order, are other developments in 2012 that could have a major long-term impact on privacy:
The U.S. drone law: Eye in the sky
The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law by President Barack Obama in February, was immediately slammed by rights groups, privacy advocates and lawmakers who contended that the law poses a major threat to the privacy of law-abiding citizens.
The bill, still largely unnoticed by the general public, opens up American airspace to commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones. Over the next few years, the FAA is expected to license the use of as many as 30,000 drones by border patrol agents, government agencies, state and local law enforcement agencies as well as businesses.
The powerful drone lobby has done much to highlight the benefits of drones in tracking fugitive criminals, managing traffic, monitoring crops, conducting land management activities, news reporting and filmmaking.
Numerous agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the FBI. the border patrol, and local police departments have secured licenses to operate drones in U.S. airspace.
Rights advocates argue that the law includes no meaningful guidelines for protecting privacy rights.
The advocates warn that drones equipped with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open WiFi sniffers, and other sensors could be used for general public safety surveillance.
The Center for Democracy and Technology earlier this year noted that static surveillance technology like closed circuit television cameras cannot track individuals beyond their fields of vision. But drones, the group contended, can peek into backyards and be used — without a warrant — to track individuals pervasively.
A drone flying at a height of 400 feet or more would likely be considered to be operating in a public space. So, the center argues, while police would need a warrant to peer over a private fence, they would not need one to use a drone to observe an individual in his or her backyard.
Warrantless cellphone location tracking: What Fourth Amendment?
Despite a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January on the constitutionality of GPS tracking by law enforcement agencies, the overall issue of location tracking of individuals remained as murky as ever in 2012.
Cellphones and other mobile devices offer criminal investigators a powerful tool for tracking suspects. Local police departments often use realtime cellphone data track individuals. In addition, historical cellphone data is often gathered — without a warrant — by police to track past activities of suspected criminals.
In a case now being heard by the U.S Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, federal prosecutors maintain that there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy in historical cell phone location data that is collected and maintained by phone companies.
According to prosecutors, the Stored Communications Act (SCA) of 1986 allows them to use a relatively easy-to-obtain court order to force a carrier to turn over a person’s historical cell-site location information.