24 year old student lights match: Europe versus Facebook

If you are interested in social networks, don't miss the slick video about Max Schrems’ David and Goliath struggle with Facebook over the way they are treating his personal information.  Click on the red “CC” in the lower right-hand corner to see the English subtitles.

Max is a 24 year old law student from Vienna with a flair for the interview and plenty of smarts about both technology and legal issues.  In Europe there is a requirement that entities with data about individuals make it available to them if they request it.  That's how Max ended up with a personalized CD from Facebook that he printed out on a stack of paper more than a thousand pages thick (see image below). Analysing it, he came to the conclusion that Facebook is engineered to break many of the requirements of European data protection.  He argues that the record Facebook provided him finds them to be in flagrante delicto.  

The logical next step was a series of 22 lucid and well-reasoned complaints that he submitted to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (Facebook states that European users have a relationship with the Irish Facebook subsidiary).  This was followed by another perfectly executed move:  setting up a web site called Europe versus Facebook that does everything right in terms using web technology to mount a campaign against a commercial enterprise that depends on its public relations to succeed.

Europe versus Facebook, which seems eventually to have become an organization, then opened its own YouTube channel.  As part of the documentation, they publicised the procedure Max used to get his personal CD.  Somehow this recipe found its way to reddit  where it ended up on a couple of top ten lists.  So many people applied for their own CDs that Facebook had to send out an email indicating it was unable to comply with the requirement that it provide the information within a 40 day period.

If that seems to be enough, it's not all.  As Max studied what had been revealed to him, he noticed that important information was missing and asked for the rest of it.  The response ratchets the battle up one more notch: 

Dear Mr. Schrems:

We refer to our previous correspondence and in particular your subject access request dated July 11, 2011 (the Request).

To date, we have disclosed all personal data to which you are entitled pursuant to Section 4 of the Irish Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 (the Acts).

Please note that certain categories of personal data are exempted from subject access requests.
Pursuant to Section 4(9) of the Acts, personal data which is impossible to furnish or which can only be furnished after disproportionate effort is exempt from the scope of a subject access request. We have not furnished personal data which cannot be extracted from our platform in the absence of is proportionate effort.

Section 4(12) of the Acts carves out an exception to subject access requests where the disclosures in response would adversely affect trade secrets or intellectual property. We have not provided any information to you which is a trade secret or intellectual property of Facebook Ireland Limited or its licensors.

Please be aware that we have complied with your subject access request, and that we are not required to comply with any future similar requests, unless, in our opinion, a reasonable period of time has elapsed.

Thanks for contacting Facebook,
Facebook User Operations Data Access Request Team

What a spotlight

This throws intense light on some amazingly important issues. 

For example, as I wrote here (and Max describes here), Facebook's “Like” button collects information every time an Internet user views a page containing the button, and a Facebook cookie associates that page with all the other pages with “Like” buttons visited by the user in the last 3 months. 

If you use Facebook, records of all these visits are linked, through cookies, to your Facebook profile – even if you never click the “like” button.  These long lists of pages visited, tied in Facebook's systems to your “Real Name identity”, were not included on Max's CD. 

Is Facebook prepared to argue that it need not reveal this stored information about your personal data because doing so would adversely affect its “intellectual property”? 

It will be absolutely amazing to watch how this issue plays out, and see just what someone with Max's media talent is able to do with the answers once they become public. 

The result may well impact the whole industry for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, students of these matters would do well to look at Max's many complaints:

no

date

topic

status

files

01

18-AUG-2011

Pokes.
Pokes are kept even after the user “removes” them.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

02

18-AUG-2011

Shadow Profiles.
Facebook is collecting data about people without their knowledge. This information is used to substitute existing profiles and to create profiles of non-users.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

03

18-AUG-2011

Tagging.
Tags are used without the specific consent of the user. Users have to “untag” themselves (opt-out).
Info: Facebook announced changes.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

04

18-AUG-2011

Synchronizing.
Facebook is gathering personal data e.g. via its iPhone-App or the “friend finder”. This data is used by Facebook without the consent of the data subjects.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

05

18-AUG-2011

Deleted Postings.
Postings that have been deleted showed up in the set of data that was received from Facebook.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

06

18-AUG-2011

Postings on other Users’ Pages.
Users cannot see the settings under which content is distributed that they post on other’s pages.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

07

18-AUG-2011

Messages.
Messages (incl. Chat-Messages) are stored by Facebook even after the user “deleted” them. This means that all direct communication on Facebook can never be deleted.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

08

18-AUG-2011

Privacy Policy and Consent.
The privacy policy is vague, unclear and contradictory. If European and Irish standards are applied, the consent to the privacy policy is not valid.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

09

18-AUG-2011

Face Recognition.
The new face recognition feature is an inproportionate violation of the users right to privacy. Proper information and an unambiguous consent of the users is missing.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

10

18-AUG-2011

Access Request.
Access Requests have not been answered fully. Many categories of information are missing.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

11

18-AUG-2011

Deleted Tags.
Tags that were “removed” by the user, are only deactivated but saved by Facebook.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

12

18-AUG-2011

Data Security.
In its terms, Facebook says that it does not guarantee any level of data security.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

13

18-AUG-2011

Applications.
Applications of “friends” can access data of the user. There is no guarantee that these applications are following European privacy standards.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

14

18-AUG-2011

Deleted Friends.
All removed friends are stored by Facebook.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

15

18-AUG-2011

Excessive processing of Data.
Facebook is hosting enormous amounts of personal data and it is processing all data for its own purposes.
It seems Facebook is a prime example of illegal “excessive processing”.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

16

18-AUG-2011

Opt-Out.
Facebook is running an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system, which is required by European law.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

 

24-AUG-2011

Letter from the Irish DPC.

 

Letter (PDF)

 

15-SEPT-2011

Letter to the Irish DPC concerning the new privacy policy and new settings on Facebook.

 

Letter (PDF)

17

19-SEPT-2011

Like Button.
The Like Button is creating extended user data that can be used to track users all over the internet. There is no legitimate purpose for the creation of the data. Users have not consented to the use.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

18

19-SEPT-2011

Obligations as Processor.
Facebook has certain obligations as a provider of a “cloud service” (e.g. not using third party data for its own purposes or only processing data when instructed to do so by the user).

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

19

19-SEPT-2011

Picture Privacy Settings.
The privacy settings only regulate who can see the link to a picture. The picture itself is “public” on the internet. This makes it easy to circumvent the settings.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

20

19-SEPT-2011

Deleted Pictures.
Facebook is only deleting the link to pictures. The pictures are still public on the internet for a certain period of time (more than 32 hours).

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

21

19-SEPT-2011

Groups.
Users can be added to groups without their consent. Users may end up in groups that lead other to false impressions about a person.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

22

19-SEPT-2011

New Policies.
The policies are changed very frequently, users do not get properly informed, they are not asked to consent to new policies.

Filed with the Irish DPC

Complaint (PDF)
Attachments (ZIP)

 

Google opposing the “Right to be forgotten”

In Europe there has been a lot of discussion about “the Right to be Forgotten” (see, for example, Le droit à l’oubli sur Internet).  The notion is that after some time, information should simply fade away (counteracting digital eternity).    

In America, the authors of the Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights have called their variant of this the “Right to Withdraw”.  

Whatever words we use, the right, if recognized, would be a far-reaching game-changer – and as I wrote here, represent a “cure as important as the introduction of antibiotics was in the world of medicine”.

Against this backdrop, the following report by CIARAN GILES of the Associated Press gives us much to think about. It appears Google is fighting head-on against the “the Right to be Forgotten”.  It seems to be willing to take on any individual or government who dares to challenge the immutable right of its database and algorithms to define you through something that has been written – forever, and whether it's true or not.

MADRID – Their ranks include a plastic surgeon, a prison guard and a high school principal. All are Spanish, but have little else in common except this: They want old Internet references about them that pop up in Google searches wiped away.

In a case that Google Inc. and privacy experts call a first of its kind, Spain's Data Protection Agency has ordered the search engine giant to remove links to material on about 90 people. The information was published years or even decades ago but is available to anyone via simple searches.

Scores of Spaniards lay claim to a “Right to be Forgotten” because public information once hard to get is now so easy to find on the Internet. Google has decided to challenge the orders and has appealed five cases so far this year to the National Court.

Some of the information is embarrassing, some seems downright banal. A few cases involve lawsuits that found life online through news reports, but whose dismissals were ignored by media and never appeared on the Internet. Others concern administrative decisions published in official regional gazettes.

In all cases, the plaintiffs petitioned the agency individually to get information about them taken down.

And while Spain is backing the individuals suing to get links taken down, experts say a victory for the plaintiffs could create a troubling precedent by restricting access to public information.

The issue isn't a new one for Google, whose search engine has become a widely used tool for learning about the backgrounds about potential mates, neighbors and co-workers. What it shows can affect romantic relationships, friendships and careers.

For that reason, Google regularly receives pleas asking that it remove links to embarrassing information from its search index or least ensure the material is buried in the back pages of its results. The company, based in Mountain View, Calif., almost always refuses in order to preserve the integrity of its index.

A final decision on Spain's case could take months or even years because appeals can be made to higher courts. Still, the ongoing fight in Spain is likely to gain more prominence because the European Commission this year is expected to craft controversial legislation to give people more power to delete personal information they previously posted online.

“This is just the beginning, this right to be forgotten, but it's going to be much more important in the future,” said Artemi Rallo, director of the Spanish Data Protection Agency. “Google is just 15 years old, the Internet is barely a generation old and they are beginning to detect problems that affect privacy. More and more people are going to see things on the Internet that they don't want to be there.”

Many details about the Spaniards taking on Google via the government are shrouded in secrecy to protect the privacy of the plaintiffs. But the case of plastic surgeon Hugo Guidotti vividly illustrates the debate.

In Google searches, the first link that pops up is his clinic, complete with pictures of a bare-breasted women and a muscular man as evidence of what plastic surgery can do for clients. But the second link takes readers to a 1991 story in Spain's leading El Pais newspaper about a woman who sued him for the equivalent of euro5 million for a breast job that she said went bad.

By the way, if it really is true that the nothing should ever interfere with the automated pronouncements of the search engine - even truth – does that mean robots have the right to pronounce any libel they want, even though we don't?

Netflix stung with privacy lawsuits

Via Archie Reed, this story by Greg Sandoval of ZDnet:

Netflix, the web's top video-rental service, has been accused of violating US privacy laws in five separate lawsuits filed during the past two months, records show.

Each of the five plaintiffs allege that Netflix hangs onto customer information, such as credit card numbers and rental histories, long after subscribers cancel their membership. They claim this violates the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA).

Netflix declined to comment.

In a four-page suit filed on Friday, Michael Sevy, a former Netflix subscriber who lives in Michigan, accuses Netflix of violating the VPPA by “collecting, storing and maintaining for an indefinite period of time, the video rental histories of every customer that has ever rented a DVD from Netflix”. Netflix also retains information that “identifies the customer as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services”, according to Sevy's suit.

In a complaint filed 22 February, plaintiff Jason Bernal, a resident of Texas, claimed “Netflix has assumed the role of Big Brother and trampled the privacy rights of its former customers”.

Jeff Milans from Virginia filed the first of the five suits on 26 January. One of his attorneys, Bill Gray, told ZDNet Australia‘s sister site CNET yesterday that the way he knows Netflix is preserving information belonging to customers who have left the company is from Netflix emails. According to Gray, in messages to former subscribers, Netflix writes something similar to “We'd love to have you come back. We've retained all of your video choices”.

Gray said that Netflix uses the customer data to market the rental service, but this is done while risking its customers’ privacy. Someone's choice in rental movies could prove embarrassing, according to Gray, and should hackers ever get access to Netflix's database, that information could be made publicly available.

“We want Netflix to operate in compliance of the law and delete all of this information,” Gray said.

All the plaintiffs filed their complaints in US District Court for the Northern District of California. Each has asked the court for class action status. [More here].

In Europe there has been a lot of discussion about “the Right to be Forgotten” (see, for example,
Le droit à l’oubli sur Internet).  The notion is that after some time, information should simply fade away (counteracting digital eternity).  The Right to be Forgotten has to be one of the most important digital rights – not only for social networks, but for the Internet as a whole.  

The authors of the Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights have called some variant of this the “Right to Withdraw”.  Whatever words we use, the Right is a far-reaching game-changer – a cure as important as the introduction of antibiotics was in the world of medicine.

I say “cure” because it helps heal problems that shouldn't have been created in the first place. 

For example, Netflix does not need to – and should not - associate our rental patterns with our natural identities (e.g. with us as recognizable citizens).  Nor should any other company that operates in the digital world. 

Instead, following the precepts of minimal disclosure, the patterns should simply be associated with entities who have accounts and the right to rent movies.  The details of billing should not be linked to the details of ordering (this is possible using the new privacy-enhancing technologies).  From our point of view as consumers of these services, there is no reason the linking should be visible to anyone but ourselves.

All this requires a wee bit of a paradigm shift, you will say.  And you're right.  Until that happens, we don't have a lot of alternatives other than the Right to be Forgotten.  Especially, as described in the law suits above, when we have “chosen to withdraw.”

All the help we can get

Now that the world is so thoroughly post-modern, how often do you come across information that qualifies as unexpected?  Well, I have to say that the following story , appearing in the The Australian, left me wide-eyed:

Yesterday, in the church of the City of London Corporation, (Canon Parrot)  presented an updated version of Plow Monday, an observance that dates from medieval times. On this day, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, farm labourers would bring a plough to the door of the church to be blessed.

“When I arrived a few months ago I looked at this service and thought, ‘Why do we have a Plow Monday?’,” Canon Parrott said. Men and women coming to his church no longer used ploughs; their tools were their laptops, their iPhones and their BlackBerries.

So he wrote a blessing and strode out to deliver it before a congregation of 80, the white heat of technology shining from his every pronouncement. “I invite you to have your mobile phone out … though I would like you to put it on silent,” he said.

This was Church 2.0. Behind him, the altar resembled a counter at PC World. Upon it, laid out like holy relics, were four smart phones, one Apple laptop and one Dell.

Then, after another hymn, came the blessing of the smart phones. The Lord Mayor of London offered his BlackBerry to Canon Parrott, which was received with due reverence and placed upon the altar.

The congregation held their phones in the air, and Canon Parrott addressed the Almighty. “By Your blessing, may these phones and computers, symbols of all the technology and communication in our daily lives, be a reminder to us that You are a God who communicates with us and who speaks by Your Word. Amen.”

It makes me wonder what Innis said to McLuhan when he read abut this.

Le Figaro carried a report of an additional prayer, “”May our tongues be gentle, our e-mails be simple and our websites be accessible”. 

Perhaps it is asking too much, but I would have really liked Father Parrott to add, “websites be accessible and secure.”  After all – it can't hurt.   Perhaps next time?

If you try sometimes – you can get what you need

I'll lose a few minutes less sleep each night worrying about Electronic Eternity – thanks to the serendipitous appearance of  John Markoff's recent piece on Vanish in the New York Times Science section:

A group of computer scientists at the University of Washington has developed a way to make electronic messages “self destruct” after a certain period of time, like messages in sand lost to the surf. The researchers said they think the new software, called Vanish, which requires encrypting messages, will be needed more and more as personal and business information is stored not on personal computers, but on centralized machines, or servers. In the term of the moment this is called cloud computing, and the cloud consists of the data — including e-mail and Web-based documents and calendars — stored on numerous servers.

The idea of developing technology to make digital data disappear after a specified period of time is not new. A number of services that perform this function exist on the World Wide Web, and some electronic devices like FLASH memory chips have added this capability for protecting stored data by automatically erasing it after a specified period of time.

But the researchers said they had struck upon a unique approach that relies on “shattering” an encryption key that is held by neither party in an e-mail exchange but is widely scattered across a peer-to-peer file sharing system…

The pieces of the key, small numbers, tend to “erode” over time as they gradually fall out of use. To make keys erode, or timeout, Vanish takes advantage of the structure of a peer-to-peer file system. Such networks are based on millions of personal computers whose Internet addresses change as they come and go from the network. This would make it exceedingly difficult for an eavesdropper or spy to reassemble the pieces of the key because the key is never held in a single location. The Vanish technology is applicable to more than just e-mail or other electronic messages. Tadayoshi Kohno, a University of Washington assistant professor who is one of Vanish’s designers, said Vanish makes it possible to control the “lifetime” of any type of data stored in the cloud, including information on Facebook, Google documents or blogs. In addition to Mr. Kohno, the authors of the paper, “Vanish: Increasing Data Privacy with Self-Destructing Data,” include Roxana Geambasu, Amit A. Levy and Henry M. Levy.

[More here]