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On back-to-back days this week, residents in Texas and Washington received some extra legal protection for the contents of their cell phones. These decisions, while only binding on law enforcement within each respective state, could play an important role on the ongoing debate on cell phone privacy specifically, and applying legal protections against unreasonable searches and seizures to new technologies generally.
Texas: a cellphone is not like a pair of pants or shoes
First, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in State v. Granville that an inmate locked in jail maintained an expectation of privacy in the contents of his cell phone even when the phone was out of his custody and in the control of the jail guards. A Huntsville police officer arrested high-school student Anthony Granville on a misdemeanor charge, and he was locked up in jail. Three hours after his arrest, a different officer than the one who arrested him retrieved Granville's phone from the evidence locker and, without a warrant, looked through the contents of the phone for evidence of an unrelated crime.
The government attempted to justify the search by claiming that, similar to clothing worn by an inmate, once the phone was in the control of the jail officials, Granville no longer had any expectation of privacy in its contents. We filed an amicus brief explaining that a cell phone really isn't anything like a pair of pants given the immense amount of data stored on the phone, meaning that police needed to get a warrant to search it. The high court agreed with us, with Judge Cathy Cochran writing unequivocally:
[W]e conclude, as did the court of appeals, that a cell phone is not like a pair of pants or a shoe. Given modern technology and the incredible amount of personal information stored and accessible on a cell phone, we hold that a citizen does not lose his reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his cell phone merely because that cell phone is being stored in a jail property room.
Washington: A text message is like a phone call or letter
Months of Electronic Espionage Put American Citizen and Family at RiskWashington, D.C. - An American citizen living in Maryland sued the Ethiopian government today for infecting his computer with secret spyware, wiretapping his private Skype calls, and monitoring his entire family's every use of the computer for a period of months. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is representing the plaintiff in this case, who has asked the court to allow him to use the pseudonym Mr. Kidane – which he uses within the Ethiopian community – in order to protect the safety and wellbeing of his family both in the United States and in Ethiopia.
"We have clear evidence of a foreign government secretly infiltrating an American's computer in America, listening to his calls, and obtaining access to a wide swath of his private life," said EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo. "The current Ethiopian government has a well-documented history of human rights violations against anyone it sees as political opponents. Here, it wiretapped a United States citizen on United States soil in an apparent attempt to obtain information about members of the Ethiopian diaspora who have been critical of their former government. U.S. laws protect Americans from this type of unauthorized electronic spying, regardless of who is responsible."
A forensic examination of Mr. Kidane's computer showed that the device had been infected when he opened a Microsoft Word document that contained hidden malware. The document had been an attachment to an email message sent by agents of the Ethiopian government and forwarded to Mr. Kidane. The spyware contained in the attachment was a program called FinSpy, a suite of surveillance software marketed exclusively to governments by the Gamma Group of Companies. In the several months FinSpy was on Mr. Kidane's computer, it recorded a vast array of activities conducted by users of the machine. Traces of the spyware inadvertently left on his computer show that information – including recordings of dozens of Skype phone calls – was surreptitiously sent to a secret control server located in Ethiopia and controlled by the Ethiopian government.
According to a wide range of reports released by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice, local governments throughout the country have locked up a growing number of people for failing to pay minor debts. The most recent report, takes a look at the emergence of what is known as “debtors prisons” […]
A giant storm of snow, sleet and freezing rain on the East Coast has resulted in 21 deaths. The storm, which struck states on Wednesday night, brought 9 inches of snow in Washington, 10 inches in New York and Maine tallied to more than a foot. From U.S. News & World Report: In New York […]
Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the 44 U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations—George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children's books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies' gowns and White House furnishings.Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House. For this reason, there is little doubt that the first person of African descent to enter the White House—or the presidential homes used in New York (1788–90) and Philadelphia (1790–1800) before construction of the White House was complete—was an enslaved person.The White House itself, the home of presidents and quintessential symbol of the U.S. presidency, was built with slave labor, just like most other major building projects had been in the 18th-century United States, including many of our most famous buildings like Philadelphia's Independence Hall, Boston's Faneuil Hall, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, and James Madison's Montpellier. President Washington initially wanted to hire foreign labor to build the White House, but when he realized how costly it would be to pay people fairly, he resorted to slave labor.Constructed in part by black slave labor, the home and office of the President of the United States has embodied different principles for different people. For whites, whose social privileges and political rights have always been protected by the laws of the land, the White House has symbolized the power of freedom and democracy over monarchy.
In the span of a few weeks, all of DC seems to be abuzz with the prospect that our elected officials may actually try to ensure greater racial and socioeconomic equity in the city’s public schools — apple carts be damned. First, there was the Op-Ed two colleagues and I published in the Washington Post, […]Continue reading…
In the President’s NSA reform speech last week, he called for a study of how to re-architect the NSA’s phone call data program, to change where the data is stored. This raises a bunch of interesting computer science questions, which I’m planning to explore in a series of posts here. Here is the relevant part [...]