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Whenever a new technology emerges that could help police officers or public safety workers do their job more effectively, it’s almost inevitable that privacy concerns will arise. And Google, being at the forefront of Internet and technology privacy issues, stated on its blog that it will take a three-pronged approach to technology privacy — one of which includes how the law currently views much of the content stored online. And this change could affect how officers of the law perform investigations.
Google will uphold its transparency policy and strict request for information process, but the company also stated it would advocate for updating laws such as the U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), “so the same protections that apply to your personal documents that you keep in your home also apply to your email and online documents.”
If implemented, this would likely require government investigators to obtain a search warrant when requesting access to old emails and messages stored online — something the ECPA doesn’t currently account for.
While there is a need for balance between the public’s rights and the needs of police, said Michael Palladino, president of the NYPD Detectives Endowment Association, he also said he would oppose legislation that would make it more difficult for police officers to investigate crimes and protect innocent people.
“I think we should be exploring ways to protect our people more than exploring ways to prevent law enforcement from getting their job done,” he said.
Changes to existing legislation are likely, Palladino said, adding that technology has been a great boon to police, opening new avenues for investigation where previously leads would have dried up.
“If they want to put legislation in to raise that bar a little bit, I’d have to see what the legislation says,” he said. “And if the legislation is unreasonable, we will lobby against it.”
While police departments are sometimes criticized for encroaching on personal privacy through the use of technology, they shouldn’t be, said Gartner analyst Andrew Walls. “They’re using the tools available to get their jobs done,” he said, adding that police officers are following the law.
Changing the Law
If the public wants to change how police officers do their job, Walls said legislation should be the mechanism by which change is created. And currently, Walls explained, the ECPA is a hodgepodge of rulings, laws and precedents that doesn’t reflect the public’s conception of how online privacy should work — the laws are not keeping pace with technology.
For instance, a password-protected Google (or Yahoo or Hotmail) email account is not protected by privacy laws because the user doesn’t possess the physical server that stores his or her information.
“If you have asserted some level of security over it to maintain some level of access control or confidentiality, then there is a perception on the part of the user that they are controlling it — that they own it, that it is their property to manage and they are simply employing this other agent to act as their repository and the mechanism they use for transport of those messages,” Walls said. “But the law doesn’t regard it that way. The law tends to be very technology-specific in terms of hardware.”
Digital privacy laws, Walls argues, should be changed so that technology is ignored to an extent. He recommends shifting the focus to emphasize the actions and perceptions of the user, rather than the specific technologies employed.
For instance, FTP file transfers use network port 20, while IMAP, the protocol that handles email retrieval, uses network port 143 — and legislators should not be concerned with such specifics, including where cloud-based information is stored, Walls said. They should instead look at what is happening from the user’s perspective. “The gray area is created by how the law itself is written,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of gray area in how society interprets concepts of ownership and concepts of privacy.”
While some would place responsibility on the user and emphasize the concept of a free market to determine which products are used, Walls said that often doesn’t work when it comes to technology. “Free markets depend on transparency,” he said. “Transparency is not provided in any of this.”
A company providing a mobile app or service can simply lie to its user base, touting a product as being secure, Walls said, adding that if there’s no law requiring the company to provide that security, there is no way for users to know if those promises are being upheld until it’s too late. “You cannot make an intelligent, informed decision until something blows up,” he said. “Depending on crisis and catastrophic failures is not a way to drive a market. Transparency is what is required, and the cloud is not known for its transparency, in terms of how things work.”
Emerging technology will find balance eventually, Walls said, and overall Google is doing the right thing by pushing for changes to the ECPA so that everyone will have an accepted set of standards to follow.
As kids approach adolescence, their need for privacy and insistence upon keeping parts of their life away from the prying eyes of a parent can make it difficult to monitor their activity. With the advent of smartphones that allow your child to carry the Internet around with him in his pocket, the need to make sure that he’s not getting into online trouble can feel even greater. While it’s usually more effective to attempt an open dialogue about what is and is not considered appropriate online behavior before resorting to spy-level surveillance, there may be times when snooping feels like the only choice.
Even less than tech-savvy parents can learn to navigate parental monitoring software, which is designed to run in the background and be undetectable by users. There are several varieties of monitoring programs, all with different features and levels of functionality. One thing that they all have in common is an ability to reveal all the things your child is doing online when you’re not there to look over his shoulder.
Limit Computer Use to Common Areas
If you’ve opted not to give your child a web-capable smartphone or a laptop, then you may find it easier to snoop while he’s online if the main computer is located in a high-traffic area of your home. When your child knows that a simple glance his way could reveal questionable web content he’s viewing, he’s more likely to think twice about what he looks up. Not only will you be able to keep an eye on what your child is looking at, but you’ll also be able to influence him into making better choices based solely on your nearby presence.
Check Your Browser History
Older kids with more advanced computer knowledge may be savvy enough to delete their browser history, but younger kids and tweens may not yet have the required know-how. After your child uses the computer, take a moment to scroll through the browser history. You’ll be able to access all of the pages your child has recently viewed, allowing you to get a good idea of what areas need to be addressed most.
Fake Social Networking Profiles
If your children haven’t deleted you from their Facebook friends list yet, there’s a strong possibility that they’ve learned to manipulate the safety and security settings so that they can block what you’re able to see. One way to make sure that you’re seeing everything posted on your child’s timeline and every interaction he has is to sign up for your own fake profile and use it to add your child. Unless he’s naturally suspicious of strangers, he probably won’t block the visibility of his posts to a new friend.
Keystroke Recording Software
Every email, every message and every web search can be recalled with a keystroke recorder, along with your child’s passwords. If you have a serious reason to believe that something is wrong and you’ll need to be able to confront your child with concrete evidence to make a difference, keystroke software may be the way to go. Be warned, however, that a child who’s not actually involved in questionable activities will almost certainly feel that she has no privacy or grounds for trusting her parents. In the event of an emergency, these programs can be quite valuable tools for parents.
There are ways to remotely view everything the webcam in your child’s computer sees, but it’s wise to think long and hard before resorting to such things. No invasion of privacy is as personal or as upsetting as being actively watched when you’re not aware of it. Furthermore, there are some sights a parent just doesn’t need to see.
Do you want to track your child’s movements with an online GPS service connected to his phone or block content he’s able to view with the device? There are a slew of kid-monitoring apps available for smartphones that can help you keep tabs on your child when he’s away from home.
These methods will help you track and monitor what your kids are doing online, but there is no app or program to replace the trust that is almost certain to be lost when your child discovers the depth of your investigation. Before resorting to underhanded means of finding out what your youngster is up to, you may want to attempt having an open, judgment-free conversation about boundaries, appropriate behavior and the implications of being careless on the Internet.