Category Archives: Privacy

Family Prison

The Risk of Strong Government

The Risk of Strong Government

Should family members be imprisoned for the crimes of their relatives? Of course not! That kind of crap happens in North Korea and other dictatorships, but not in the good old USA.

Should family members be forced to pay fees or have their property seized for the crimes of a family member, or even when nobody is charged with a crime? Of course not! What if it helped to win the War on Drugs? Not even then. Most Americans oppose the seizure of property without a conviction, but I’m sorry to tell you that is exactly what has been happening. Oh, and by the way, many Americans also believe that the war on drugs has been a failure that has done nothing but cost us $1 trillion, resulted in 45 million drug-related arrests, and left 2.3 million citizens in prison.

Failure of War on Drugs

Failure of War on Drugs

For years, the families of prison inmates have had to pay exorbitant rates for phone calls with their loved ones in jail. I can hear some of you now—tough luck. “If you do the crime, you have to do the time.” Sure, but this isn’t about crime and punishment. This is about the people who didn’t do the crime, but are still paying a needless price for that crime. It is about mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands and wives, among others. In other words, it is about ordinary Americans who did nothing wrong and just want to have some kind of contact with their incarcerated relative. But our government has treated this as an opportunity to generate a profit.

For years, phone companies were allowed to charge over a dollar a minute in a country where the cost of phone calls has plummeted to nearly nothing. In the case of Internet phone calls, the cost really is nothing. Finally, in early 2014, the FCC imposed rate caps of $.25 per minute for debit calls and $.21 for collect calls. It is still probably too much, but is a huge victory for what was, in essence, a financial penalty imposed on the families of prisoners.

Why did these rates ever exist in the first place? I’m sure you can guess the answer. The correctional institutions chose telephone service providers that offered commissions, aka kickbacks. Yes, they shared in the profit and used it as part of their budget. So, the prison system helped to finance itself by charging the families of the inmates. Sounds like a minor issue, but it isn’t to the families involved, who often cannot afford the phone calls. But it is more than just the cost that bothers me. It’s the principle of how we treat our citizens, whether they are in jail or not.

The phone companies and the prison system colluded to make this happen, over years of objections from the families. Why didn’t Congress do anything to stop this? What politician wants to stick up for the rights of prisoners? Apparently, few to none. Sure, our founding fathers thought enough about the issue of crime and punishment to include a prohibition on excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, but apparently no current politician was willing to face this issue. So, my hat is off to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the unelected Chair of the FCC, for listening to the families and finally changing the regulations, even though they had to fight the telecommunications companies in court when they tried to block the new rules. Congress should be ashamed of itself, once again, for ignoring an issue affecting some of our most vulnerable citizens. This case shows that Congress cannot be relied upon to stand up for the rights of all citizens.

Asset Forfeiture

Asset Forfeiture

But there’s more. In just two years, Philadelphia law enforcement authorities have seized the homes or cars of almost 500 families. The law allows them to seize property that is connected to the sale of illegal drugs. If anyone within the house is charged with the sale of illegal drugs, including a child or a visitor, the government is legally able to seize the house, even if the owners had no knowledge of the illegal activity. They can even seize a car that a person drove away in after committing the crime of shoplifting.

In some states, the property owner has to be convicted of a crime before the assets can be seized, but this is not the case in all states. Pennsylvania has been very aggressive when it comes to seizing the assets of innocent citizens.

A 2014 Washington Post investigation has found that thousands of motorists and others have also had property seized. Some have even had property seized even though they were not charged with crimes, and have been forced to go to fight in court to get it back.

The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing civil asset forfeiture program allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired. That’s right, it sounds a lot like a complete disregard of our Fifth Amendment rights. It is like search and seizure of property without due process of law.

Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights):

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Cost of War on Drugs

Cost of War on Drugs

As you might imagine, most Americans strongly believe that someone needs to be convicted of a crime before their property can be seized. They also don’t like to pay taxes to fund an unwinnable war that is partly being financed by violations of our constitutional rights.

I’m afraid I don’t have any good news to end this post. The government can seize your stuff even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Sounds like another reason to try and roll back the growth of government and end the war on drugs.

Who Wants to End the War on Drugs?

Who Wants to End the War on Drugs?

NOTE: This post was originally a guest post on the Nonsense & Shenanigans blog. I’m including this copy so that it can be edited, as needed, in the future.

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Privacy For Sale

Paparazzi for You

Paparazzi for You

Would you pay to have paparazzi follow you around all day? Maybe if you are a complete diva, but for most people, I suspect the answer is no. However, something like this already seems to be happening. People are willingly surrendering their privacy for financial rewards or convenience. No, I’m not just talking about giving away your name and contact information to companies in return for special deals or lotteries. We’ve already lost most of our privacy when it comes to purchasing anything with a credit card, rewards card, or an online account. In most cases, our privacy isn’t being taken, it is being sold like candy to a baby.

Progressive Snapshot Tracker

Progressive Snapshot Tracker

Progressive Insurance and other auto insurance companies now offer the potential for lower rates based on a unique way of measuring risk based on actual driving habits. Unfortunately, it involves placing a tracking device inside your car to track how you drive. The three most common measurements that we know of are the number of times you brake hard, how often you drive between midnight and 4AM, and how many miles you drive. Sounds reasonable, right?

However, I’m sure it will not be long before they are also tracking whether or not you are driving within the speed limit. This would require real-time GPS tracking, which some devices have built in. Is this a concern to you? If you trust your insurance company not to turn this over to the government, which may then cite you for speeding, then you may not care. But what about those who aren’t so trusting? Will their rates start to rise if they refuse to be tracked? If the people who agree to be tracked are proved or believed to be the safest drivers, then it follows that the pool of remaining drivers will have a higher average insurance risk. This inevitably will lead to higher rates.

Driver Monitoring

Driver Monitoring

Some have even proposed methods to track drunk driving and texting while driving. Again, it sounds cool, right? But to do this requires progressively more (forgive the pun) details of your behavior. To know if the driver is texting, the device would need to locate the exact source of the signal (to know if it being used by the driver) or the ability to tell if you are alone in the car rather than with a texting passenger. Some devices already work to alert sleepy drivers by watching them through an installed camera and using algorithms to detect inattentive behavior. What could be bad about having a camera and other sensors installed in your car and watching your every move? Will it be able to track blowjobs while driving?

People Tracking

People Tracking

What about a camera in your TV set-top box? Verizon has filed a patent to use a set-top box camera to look for behavior cues that would help them to serve you more relevant advertising. According to the patent, Verizon would install various detection sensors, such as a webcam or heat cam, to recognize “an ambient action performed by a user during the presentation of the media content program.” The sensors would then provide feedback to the Verizon box, which would air commercials that are supposedly relevant to what you are doing.

Here is an example that Verizon provided. If the box detects the users “cuddling” then they might show “a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, a commercial including a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie.” Now I think we’re getting a bit creepy and I can definitely see potential for abuse and even disaster here. The porn industry will probably be all over this one!

Spy Camera Software

Spy Camera Software

It is already far too easy to hack into private webcams and online industrial cameras. There are going to be plenty of techies, much like those who tore apart the Xbox 360, Wii and PS3 to learn how it works, who are willing and able to break through any kind of hardware digital rights or other encryption systems. Oh, and by the way, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect system already uses a camera to detect your motion and they have filed a patent application to also be able to recognize objects as well as individual faces or voices. What could possibly go wrong with that? Cameras and/or microphones in your home that are controlled by a third party are probably not in your best interest, especially if you are a celebrity who likes to take nude photos in the privacy of your home and upload them to the cloud.

I rarely watch commercials now that I have digital video recorders in every room, and was actually hoping we could finally get rid of commercials some day, except for the really funny or entertaining ones that are worth watching. The best Superbowl commercials come to mind. In fact, I would probably even watch a show that consists of nothing more than really good advertisements, but they would have to be entertaining.

Ad Blocking

Ad Blocking

Instead, however, we may find that companies expect us to pay for our entertainment with even greater intrusion into our personal lives. If you watch video online, you already know that you can’t skip through the advertising. Despite the advances of the DVR, we are losing our ability to skip through advertising as we watch more content online or streamed to our TV from a cloud-based server. Freedom to watch what we want will be increasingly limited or will come at a cost, unless of course we are willing to trade some more of our privacy.

You know those “smart” gas and electricity meters that have been installed in tens of millions of homes? They collect detailed information about your power usage and transmit it to the utility companies, which helps to reduce their monitoring and billing costs. One benefit to you is that you may be able to take advantage of lower rates for usage outside of peak electricity hours. However, there are also potential disadvantages.

Smart Meters

Smart Meters

These devices collect more than simple electricity usage. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the data can also be used to reconstruct a household’s activities: when people wake up, when they come home, when they go on vacation, and maybe even when they take a hot bath. Since the data is transmitted wirelessly, it can be intercepted by smart criminals who want to stake out the home. Security professionals know that smart meters and their communications networks are vulnerable to a variety of attacks.

Police in central Ohio have been filing at least 60 subpoenas every single month for the energy-use records of those that they suspect are growing pot in their homes because growers tend to use more electricity than normal. But sometimes, they mistakenly target homes that use more energy for other reasons, such as computer usage for Bitcoin mining.

Here are some other potential rewards we might be asked to accept for surrender of more privacy. Health insurance companies will offer lower rates if we wear monitors to measure blood sugar and fat levels and our activity throughout the day. They will also sell this information to companies offering diet and fitness products if you are not in the best health.

Auto insurance companies will offer lower rates by tracking where we live, work, and drive and correlating it with neighborhood crime statistics to assess our level of risk for violence or robbery. They will also sell this information to local businesses who might want to entice you to visit their store on your way by.

Consumer Tracking

Consumer Tracking

Online businesses and credit card companies will track our overall spending, whether or not we are repeat customers, how often we return products, how frequently we file chargeback claims, and how much trouble we are, in order to determine how good a customer we really are. It would be similar to a credit report except it would measure our value as a customer. They will sell this to businesses that might increase their prices just for those consumers who do not have the best ratings or a business may even refuse to do business with them if there is a high risk of loss. eBay has tried to accomplish this through user feedback and ratings, but most people seem afraid to leave a bad rating, since the other person will usually retaliate.

As a business owner myself, I understand that some customers are really just giant pains in the ass and not worth the business, but I usually don’t know this until it is too late. Other business owners have told me that they already sometimes increase their price quotes for certain ethnic groups simply because they are well known as hagglers who will never pay full price. I know this sounds discriminatory, but it seems to go on all the time as a way of dealing with cultural differences in buying behavior. With real data to back up whether or not someone is a good customer, it would now become legal to charge based on consumer value and risk ratings.

What do you think? How much is your privacy worth? How much privacy can you afford? Does the rise of cloud computing and big data mean our concept of privacy is over?