Data Sheet—How Reasonable Are Your Expectations of Privacy in the Internet Age?
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There was an important, close, widely watched Supreme Court decision last week that could have big implications for parts of the tech industry for decades to come. No, not the 5-4 ruling allowing states to require sales tax collection from e-commerce sites in the South Dakota v. Wayfair case. (Though if that’s your bag, The Economisthad a good analysis.)
Instead, it’s the 5-4 decision in Carpenter v. United States that’s also worth examining deeply.
Carpenter in this case is “Little Tim” Carpenter, who was convicted as the alleged organizer of a crime spree where a gang of crooks stole bags of brand new smartphones at gunpoint from more than half a dozen Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in and around Detroit. In 2011, Carpenter was nabbed, in part, because the police had subpoenaed records from his cellphone provider that included somewhat crude but voluminous realtime location data covering 127 days. And Carpenter was around the robbed stores at the times of the robberies, the records showed.
Typically, the Supreme Court has allowed police to collect almost any kind of information generated by third parties, such as bank records or a list of phone numbers called, with just a subpoena. It’s known as the third party doctrine. You knew the bank or the phone company was collecting that data, so you had no “reasonable expectation” of privacy. Something more like papers you kept in a locked drawer in your desk required a full search warrant, with a showing of probable cause that evidence of a crime might be found.
Maybe you can see where Chief Justice John Roberts took this analysis in Carpenter’s case. The level and amount of detail that companies are collecting about us has exploded. Where once the phone could simply tell the police who you called and for how long, now they have a precise and comprehensive map of everyplace you’ve been, not to mention every web site you visited. “This case is not about ‘using a phone’ or a person’s movement at a particular time,” Roberts wrote. “It is about a detailed chronicle of a person’s physical presence compiled every day, every moment, over several years.”
A bevy of tech companies, ranging from big players like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, to smaller cloud-related outfits such as Dropbox, Evernote, and Airbnb, had written a brief for the court arguing that the rules of the third party doctrine “make little sense” when applied to the new kinds of digital online data now being collected. Urging the court to rethink its view of when people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, they noted digital devices and apps unavoidably generate deeply personal data:
Short of forgoing all use of digital technologies, they are unavoidable. And this transmission of data will only grow as digital technologies continue to develop and become more integrated into our lives. Because the data that is transmitted can reveal a wealth of detail about people’s personal lives, however, users of digital technologies reasonably expect to retain significant privacy in that data, notwithstanding that technology companies may use or share the data in various ways to provide and improve their services for their customers.
That made sense to Roberts and a majority of the court. New Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented, but only because he thought the majority should go even further and practically dump the whole third party doctrine. Expect more knotty conflicts over digital data privacy, not just among Supreme Court justices, but with lawmakers, regulators and law enforcers across the country.
The better to track you with. Speaking of online data collection, AT&T officially announced its acquisition of adtech firm AppNexus on Monday, though without confirming the purchase price (which had been rumored to be almost $2 billion). The plan is to improve the AppNexus online ad network with all the ad inventory from recently-acquired Time Warner properties, while adding in some of the data from AT&T's wired and wireless Internet customers.
Fight for the future. The Westminster Magistrate’s Court on Monday begins hearing arguments over the suspension of Uber's license to operate in London. The case is only expected to take a few days, but regardless of the decision, appeals could stretch out for years. Uber is continuing to operate while its challenge to the suspension is ongoing.
Tokyo tango. After Japan imposed additional restrictions on digital currency exchanges, the price of bitcoin dropped below $5,900 over the weekend, its lowest point this year and 70% below its December 2017 peak. The cryptocurrency bounced back on Monday and was trading at about $6,230 on Monday morning.
Somebody does something about it. People have been complaining that the new keyboards Apple started using on its laptops in 2015 almost since they arrived. On Friday, Apple gave in to the pressure and announced a free program to service MacBook and MacBook Pro models with the controversial "butterfly" key design. Apple had been charging as much as $700 for repairing the keyboards not under warranty coverage. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Apple is readying a couple of cool, new audio products, including AirPods with longer range, noise cancellation and water resistance.
Can you hear me now? With hurricane season starting this month, telco giants Verizon and AT&T are preparing to restore service to storm-ravaged areas this year via drone, CNBC reports. The carriers have developed drones that can act in effect as flying wireless cellphone towers. "The ability to bring coverage to an area that had no coverage really quickly is something that emergency responders are all over," Verizon network vice president Michael Haberman says.
Twisted. Elon Musk and his engineers at Tesla have a weird sense of humor sometimes. The billionaire founder revealed that the autopilot controls in development for a new line of electric semi-trailer trucks have three settings for how aggressively to change lanes amid congested traffic: standard, aggressive, and "Mad Max" mode. Yikes.
Spendy skates. In other billionaire news, former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy has put his 28,000-square-foot, four-level house on 13 acres of property in Palo Alto, Calif., on the market. Now that his four sons are mostly grown, there's little need for the gym with climbing wall, pizza room with pizza oven, and 7,300 square foot indoor hockey rink. Asking price? Only $96.8 million.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
A surprising amount of key technology around artificial intelligence was developed by a trio of famous researchers in Canada, including Geoffrey Hinton at the University of Toronto, who has worked for Google, and Yann LeCun, who started in Hinton's lab and later worked with Facebook. But Yoshua Bengio at the University of Montreal stayed away from the big tech companies. Writer Vauhini Vara has a profile for Fortune of Bengio's alternative approach at his startup Element AI. He hopes to avoid some of the ethically questionable work undertaken by the big companies:
Look no further than Google’s employee revolt over its decision to provide A.I. to the Pentagon as evidence that tech companies’ stances on military use of A.I. have become an ethical litmus test. Bengio and his cofounders vowed early on to never build A.I. for offensive military purposes. But earlier this year, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, a research university, announced it would partner with the defense unit of the South Korean conglomerate Hanwha, a major Element investor, to build military systems. Despite Element’s ties with Hanwha, Bengio signed an open letter boycotting the Korean institute until it promised not to “develop autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control.” Gagné, more discreetly, wrote to Hanwha emphasizing that Element wouldn’t partner with companies building autonomous weapons. Soon Gagné and the scientists received assurances: The university and Hanwha wouldn’t be doing so.
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BEFORE YOU GO
I stayed with HBO's sci-fi series Westworld for the whole second season, despite a pretty uneven 10-episode run. But after Sunday night's conclusion to the season, I fear it may be time to move on from this unsatisfying, plot zig-zagging show with low emotional stakes. Other suggestions?