Recent events, such as the U.S. House bill to restrict NSA data collection, Facebook's decision to make it easier for users to share less personal information and Europe's top court ruling that EU citizens have the "right to be forgotten" by online search engines like Google, highlight the question: What exactly is our right to privacy on the Internet?
The right to privacy is one of the hallmarks of America's civil liberties, but in today's increasingly technological age, this right is failing to keep up with a growing number of online threats. From Google Search's exhaustive indexing of personal information, to revenge porn sites and surveillance cameras, is personal privacy still relevant?
In the last year, people have become more aware of how they're being monitored and commoditized by technology companies -- and the Edward Snowden revelations last summer also drew attention to the government's role in this as well. But there are many aspects of our online rights that might still surprise many people.
Here are six things you may not know about your online rights (or lack thereof):
- Unflattering Search Results -- If you're a European, you now have the 'right to be forgotten' from search engines if you meet certain criteria -- but that's not the case in the U.S. There are no U.S. laws that require Google or any other "data controlling" company (like Yahoo, Bing, etc.) to remove Internet search results about you -- with the exception of minors. This is further complicated by the fact that most negative events a person might encounter in his or her life -- such as a divorce, home foreclosure, wage garnishment, lawsuits, etc. -- are public records, registered by the government, so getting those removed, like the Spanish plaintiff in the Google Search EU lawsuit, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. There are many sites that sell or provide personal information, such as ZabaSearch.com and Spokeo.com.
House Hunters -- Websites like Trulia.com, Zillow.com and even county tax assessor websites will provide anyone with an Internet connection the value of a home and information on who owns it, and what they paid for it. When used with Google Street View, which takes panoramic photographs of private homes and neighborhoods, you can build an all-too-close view of someone's home life. The right to make public a person's home, street and neighborhood has never been successfully challenged. In fact, the only part of Google's Street View project that has faced significant challenge is its collection of unencrypted WiFi signals from people's homes. A class action lawsuit claiming Google violated the federal Wiretap Act is currently awaiting review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Revenge Porn -- If someone posts or distributes naked images of you without your permission, they will go to jail, right? Nope! In many U.S. states, so-called "revenge porn" is still perfectly legal -- as long as the victim is 18 or older and the perpetrator didn't hack your computer, tablet or smartphone to get it. So far, there are only 10 states that have passed laws against revenge porn: Arizona, Alaska, California, Georgia, Idaho, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. But just because your state has a revenge porn law, doesn't mean it will always help. There are numerous loopholes in these laws that can make online reputation management hard to enforce -- for instance, it may not cover distributors of revenge porn photos/videos, "selfies" might be excluded and it can be hard to prove the perpetrator intended to cause emotional distress, which is key to this being a crime. Additionally, only Arizona and Idaho make revenge porn a felony -- in the other states that have laws, it's just a misdemeanor.
Selling Your Personal Information -- Everything you do online, with your credit card and your in-store rewards cards is tracked, packaged and sold to marketing agencies by data brokers. There is currently no real federal regulation of this multi-billion dollar industry. When you think of online tracking, you probably think first of companies like Facebook and Google -- but actually, the real data brokers are companies you've never heard of: Acxiom, Corelogic, Intelius, Datalogix, etc. Credit bureaus like Experian also trade your information. And those in-store rewards cards? They're now also making deals with Facebook and other online companies to link your online ad viewing to in-store purchase activity. The Federal Trade Commission proposed a Do No Track cookie back in 2010 that would allow consumers to universally opt-out of online tracking -- but that has yet to be codified into law. However, most browsers today (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer) do offer a do-not-track plugin -- the only problem is, there's no law requiring advertising companies to abide by it. You can also opt-out of targeted ads directly with some providers, like Google and Verizon; and other browser plugins like Disconnect (which blocks some tracking) and Ghostery (which lets you monitor it) can also help.
Online Criticism -- Is what you write online protected free speech? Not always! Obviously, if you make threats online, that's not protected -- but you might also be surprised to know that writing a bad review of a business can land you in hot legal water. A growing number of consumers are now being sued by businesses because of negative reviews posted on Yelp, Amazon, Angie's List, RipOffReport and other online forums. In one case, a Virginia woman was found guilty of defaming a contractor who did work on her home -- and the only reason she dodged $750,000 in damages is because the jury also found the contractor had defamed her on the same forum. In Arizona, a woman was found liable for $12 million in damages for setting up a website to criticize two surgeons. Yelp is also fighting another case in Virginia in which the plaintiff wants to identify anonymous posters on the site who gave his business negative reviews. While you may think it's your right to complain about a bad experience online, you have to be careful. Even if you're found not guilty of defamation, you could still have to pay lawyer's fees and court costs to win the case. The general rule of thumb is, if you post opinions, it's not libelous -- but if you make factual statements that can be proven to be untrue and harmful, you could be liable.
Video Surveillance -- Does the government have the right to monitor you whenever you're outside of your home? Basically, yes. While recording a person's conversations without permission is regulated under various laws like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), this same protection doesn't apply to video recordings without sound. In fact, US courts have routinely upheld the right of government video surveillance against claims that it infringes upon the First and Fourth Amendments. Municipalities, law enforcement agencies, and other government agencies are allowed to use video surveillance in any public place where there isn't an expectation of privacy -- such as in a private residence, public bathroom and the like. City surveillance networks have grown considerably over the last 10 years, and received a new sense of urgency after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. According to one report, the U.S. video surveillance market is expected to reach $37.5 billion by 2015 -- that's over three times what it was in 2008. There are also new technologies, such as Google Glass, that allow wearers to surreptitiously record and broadcast private conversations.
In addition to these six online threats, there are several new risks coming down the line that will soon endanger personal privacy even further. These include the use of big data analytics, artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, biometrics, drones and the Internet of Things (IoT). As an example, Google has announced it may start tracking and sending ads to Nest thermostats, refrigerators and Android car displays. In the next 10 years, these technologies will become increasingly common and invasive for average people.
The right to privacy is a fundamental liberty to most Americans -- but our legal system hasn't yet caught up to the revolutionary changes in technology that have imperiled this basic right. At some point, Congress must try to create a modern privacy framework to protect individuals in what is becoming an increasingly surveillance-oriented state.