Is Your TV Listening to You?

I’ve seen a bunch of stories on the wording of Samsung’s privacy statement for their SmartTV.

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition

— from Samsung’s SmartTV Privacy Policy

Sure, that’s awfully creepy sounding.   Many people have made the comparison to 1984’s Big Brother, always listening to you.   However, is what it’s actually doing any more creepy than Siri on the iPhone? Or Google Now?  Not really.   In all these cases, the machine, be it your TV or your smartphone, listens to your voice, sends that information to a server somewhere else, processes it on that server, and sends the response back your local device.

So, it’s probably good that they let you know that they’re listening.

According to CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk, Samsung doesn’t retain the information or sell it to third parties, but transfer it for processing purposes.  But Samsung doesn’t actually say that anywhere that a consumer could have seen.   They’ve made their privacy policy (like most) deliberately vague, not actually telling you much useful about how they do anything.

Companies do have good business reasons for doing this.   It’s certainly easier, and if they don’t make specific promises, they can’t get into trouble with the FTC for doing anything different from what is in the privacy policy.  And, if they decide six months from now that they want to sell your info, they can just do that.

What might companies tell you?

  • Are they retaining the information (rather than simply processing it and executing commands)?  If they do retain your information, for  how long?
  • D0 they transfer the info to third parties?  Do they sell it to third parties?
  • Is there any encryption? Or is it all transferred in the clear?
  • How are they monetizing your data?

Practically no company provides this level of information, at least not in their privacy policy.  Apple, for example, makes it hard to find  information on Siri.  Even Siri’s privacy policy is nearly impossible to find.   According to a Wired article from 2013, Apple keeps your Siri data for two years (six months where you’re identifiable plus another 18 months anonymized).

Apparently now Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) requested information from Samsung and LG about their privacy policies and what they do with the voice information they collect.   Franken does have a strong pro-privacy record, but I doubt any actual action will be forthcoming.   It’s up to consumers to press these companies to have clearer privacy policies that actually explain what they do.


Vaccines — Personal Belief vs. Religious Exemptions

First things first — there should be no exemptions. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t vaccinate your child you are guilty of child abuse and neglect(unless there is a medical reason not to do so). The government retains an important role in enforcing laws requiring vaccinations.  A state law like Mississippi’s (yes, that Mississippi) with only medical exemptions ensures that nearly all kids are vaccinated.

But in the United States, with our separation between church and state, why should only a religious person get special treatment?   If a state offers something to someone because a religious belief, shouldn’t someone with an equally sincere philosophical belief be entitled to the same benefit?  For example, as currently conceived, if called for military duty in the United States, one does not have to be religious to be a conscientious objector.   It would also include “moral or ethical beliefs.”

There actually is a related NJ case from 2014 that touches on this topic, Valent v. Board of Review, Department of Labor.  In this case, a nurse who refused to have a flu shot was dismissed from her job and denied unemployment benefits.   The court reversed this ruling and granted her the benefits, because to do otherwise would violate the First Amendment.

Under these circumstances, by denying appellant’s application to receive unemployment benefits based only on her unwillingness to submit to the employer’s religion-based policy, the Board violated appellant’s rights under the First Amendment.

On the issue of vaccines, the answer is, of course, easy — no exemptions.

Popular US Baby Names — BabyCenter versus Social Security Administration

I was listening to the latest episode of Slate’s “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” parenting podcast and one of the topics was baby names.  The guests was BabyCenter executive editor Janet Ozzard, who talked about the most popular baby names of 2014.  BabyCenter collects its information on baby names from those that have given their baby’s name to the site, which for 2014 included somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 names.   I thought it might be fun to see how similar this is to the Social Security Administration (SSA) list of baby names, which is essentially the entire population of babies in the US, rather than a self-selected group.

Now the Social Security Administration public list contains the names of about 3.6 million babies born in the United States in 2013.   This information comes from Social Security card applications and includes all babies born in the United States if the name has at least 2 letters, and information on state of birth, sex, and year are included.  They do exclude from the public list names that are given to 4 or fewer babies, for privacy reasons.

On the other hand, the BabyCenter list only contains the names of those that have been given to them by participating parents (usually the mother).   While 400,000 or 500,000 is a lot of people, these are clearly not representative of the US population.   First, it’s likely that those that have registered on BabyCenter are different in some significant ways from the overall US population, if for no other reason than they are on the Internet.   According to the Pew Research Internet Project, those not on the Internet are more likely to speak Spanish, have lower incomes, and have less than a high school education.  And, of course, not all BabyCenter visitors are from the US, perhaps only about 50%.

Listed below are the top 20 names for 2013 for boys and girls for both BabyCenter and the Social Security Administration.  I used 2013 data, as that’s the most recent year for which data is available for both the SSA and BabyCenter.  There are some interesting differences.   For girls, the first six are almost exactly the same (Mia and Ava switch places).  Then we get into some big differences.   Zoe is #8 on the BabyCenter list, but only #31 on the SSA list.  However, this is because BabyCenter combines similar names while SSA treats each unique spelling as a different name.  And if you add the number of girls named “Zoey” (#24) and “Zoe” (#31) on the SSA list, they would end up being #7.  However, Lily is #7 on BabyCenter, but only #27 for the SSA.  Similarly Madelyn is #13 on BabyCenter but #68 on the SSA list (although if you combine this with Madeline (#90) it would be #23.  Conversely, Elizabeth is #10 on the SSA list, but all the way down to #46 for BabyCenter.

For boys, initially the differences look greater, but again part of this occurs because BabyCenter combines similar names.  Jackson is #1 on the BabyCenter list, but only #16 on the SSA list.  However, if this is added to the number of boys named Jaxson (#46 on the SSA list), it would be number one too.  Still, the #2 name on BabyCenter list is Aiden, which isn’t even in the top 10 on the SSA list (#12).   And, in the other direction, William is #5 on the SSA list but only #20 for BabyCenter.

So, if you’re a BabyCenter user, and want to know what others like you are naming their kids, look at the BabyCenter list.  If you want to see what people in the US are naming their children, go to the SSA list.   And if you want a cool visualization of historical changes, go to the NameVoyager.

 Girls Boys
Social SecurityBabyCenterSocial SecurityBabyCenter

Drones for Law Enforcement — but with what privacy and fourth amendment protections?

Ars Technica reported yesterday on the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) acquisition of two drones.  Of course, use of drones still needs approval from the FAA.   According to the ACSO, “The reason for specifically acquiring this is search and rescue.”  However, according to the ACSO General Order supporting the drone use, search and rescue is the 4th out of 10 uses.   These includes two that are very broad — “post-incident crime scene preservation and documentation” and pretty much anything related to a felony.

Drones can be a good thing.  In fact, for the stated goal, search and rescue, drones can be great.   In comparison to other aerial surveillance options (e.g., helicopters or planes) they’re cheaper and easier to implement.   ACSO says they’re spending $97,000 on this, which is a very little compared to a helicopter.  And training is certainly a lot easier too.

So what should government agencies do when they want to use drones?  The Electronic Frontier Foundation lists three requirements for drone legislation.   While two of these deal with private and commercial use of drones, the third emphasizes the need for law enforcement to get a search warrant when using drones for investigative purposes.  The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office policy, as currently posted, does not require a warrant for any use of drones.  Similarly, the ACLU recommends that the following be included when government organizations implement a drone program.

  • USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
  • DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
  • POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
  • ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.
  • WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Note that one of these recommendations is that the public actively participates in the  decision to set up a drone program.   However, in Alameda County Sheriff’s Office situation, the Sheriff seems to have excluded critics from the process — EFF and the ACLU of Northern California only found out about the press conference from a story in the newspaper.  And I’d go even further here.   When a government agency sets up any program like this, including drones, surveillance cameras, automatic license plate readers, and so on, the public should be involved, there should be regular (e.g., annual) reviews of such programs, and independent evaluations conducted to determine if these programs are meeting the goals set for them.  This can help eliminate wasteful programs and reduce “mission creep.”

I also want to mention the “public” survey that Sheriff’s office has touted as support for their purchase (given that my day job is actually conducting surveys).  According to the reporting, they did get over three hundred responses.  But this survey clearly suffers from selection bias — the people who responded to the survey aren’t representative of Alameda County residents, but people who attended a “Cop Shop Barbecue” (and paid $12 to do so).

While I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if a significant number of people are okay with unfettered use of drones, the one poll I’m familiar with actually suggest the opposite.   A Monmouth University poll from 2013 (PDF) showed that three-quarters of respondents wanted law enforcement to have to get a search warrant from a judge before using drones versus only 14% think that law enforcement agencies should be able to decide on their own when to use them.



Cool TED Talk on using surveillance to reveal government atrocities

Here’s a very cool TED talk on human rights activists turning surveillance on its head — using  tiny hidden cameras to document atrocities for the world to see, and for the oppressors to know that the world sees their actions.  It’s by Oren Yakobovich, head of the human rights organization Videre.

We should remember that in the US, we should have the right (except under very limited circumstances) to film or photograph government officials, including the police, while they are performing their duties.

A good resource for this is the Photography is not a Crime website.  The Washington Post also just had a decent article on this issue.  And here’s an ACLU post on it by Jay Stanley, which includes an incident that the ACLU-NJ handled where the police not only detained a student for filming them, they illegally searched her phone and deleted the video.

A related issue exists when citizen journalists and activists want to film local governmental meetings.   While a government agency can place reasonable restrictions (e.g., time, place, and manner), they (at least in NJ) can’t forbid video audio or video taping.  The ACLU-NJ has a PDF pamphlet on New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Do I have the right to record public meetings? Although the Sunshine Law does not address this topic, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in Tarus v. Pine Hill, 189 N.J. 497 (2007) that members of the public have a common law right to videotape public meetings, subject to only reasonable restrictions. You also have the right to audiotape public meetings as well. A public body may adopt written policies that reasonably restrict recording to ensure that the recording does not disrupt the meeting. The policies could require you to sign up in advance to record the meeting and may limit the number of people recording and the number of cameras, as well as their position, lighting and location.


Criticism from the Police used to stifle dissent

The latest major example of the police or government “expressing their opinion” in a way that stifles dissent happened after Sunday’s St. Louis Rams/Oakland Raiders football game. Five Rams players (Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt) entered the stadium in the now classic “hands up/don’t shoot” position, as many protestors are doing.  Following this, the St. Louis police association strongly expressed their disapproval and “… called for the Rams and the NFL to apologize and discipline the players involved.”

This is certainly not the first time government officials tried to use the power of their office or position to stifle the free speech of NFL players.   In 2012, when Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo expressed support for marriage equality, Maryland House of Delegates member Emmett C. Burns Jr called on the team owner to discipline Ayanbadejo and tell him to not talk about the issue.

In my home state of New Jersey, a similar incident happened in Trenton, also about the killing of Michael Brown. In this case, the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) authorized a mural, and the artist painted a picture of Michael Brown with the words “Sagging pants is not probable cause.”  However, after the Trenton Police and the TDA had “discussions” the city painted over the mural.   Fortunately, the ACLU of New Jersey and the Trenton NAACP have voiced their disapproval and made OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests to understand how this happened.

Should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Do the police and government officials really think they’re just using their first amendment rights to express their opinions?  I don’t think so. In most cases, they’re surely fully aware that people do what they say because of the power they have.  Their thoughts aren’t merely contributing to the marketplace of ideas, but they are using their power to accomplish what they want.

But it really doesn’t matter if government officials and the police think they are merely expressing their opinions.  We need to ensure that they don’t succeed in stifling free speech.

Non-profit micro-volunteering

Huffington Post has a short article on how to recruit non-profit board members who are concerned about the amount of time that it takes to be on a board.  Most of their suggestions are really ideas about how to run an efficient board (and letting potential board members that you do so).

However, sometimes being a board member isn’t the best use of time.  More and more I’m trying to think of “micro-volunteering” opportunities, both for my own service and for others who might work with the organizations I’m involved with.   Peggy Hoffman of Mariner Management and Marketing has written a lot about this concept.   Micro-volunteering can be as simple as asking people to be greeters at events, tweet about upcoming activities, or review papers for you.  These are short assignments, and often ones that can be done virtually.

This may require more oversight or thought (e.g., chunking volunteer efforts into discrete pieces), but the payoff can be worth it.  By engaging more volunteers, in roles that extend beyond your typical activities, you can expand your volunteer base and get more people with a greater connection to your organization.  This also can serve as a “feeder” to other, more long-term volunteer activities, including board service.


Cat blogging

It seems semi-obligatory for progressive blogs to post pictures of cats.  Here is mine.   Her name is Beast and she’s ten years old.   When she was found on the streets and taken to a foster home with her two siblings, she would stand in front and hiss at anyone who would approach, while the other two would hide in back.

However, she’s hardly beastly to me.   My wife has a different opinion however.


Continue reading Cat blogging