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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

500 Writers Call for Limits on Surveillance

The petition appears here in The Guardian.  It begins:

In recent months, the extent of mass surveillance has become common knowledge. With a few clicks of the mouse the state can access your mobile device, your email, your social networking and internet searches. It can follow your political leanings and activities and, in partnership with internet corporations, it collects and stores your data, and thus can predict your consumption and behaviour.

One thing I am not entirely clear on is whether the petition here would apply to the government only, or also to private actors like advertisers.  This opening paragraph addresses corporations, but only insofar as they cooperate with the government's surveillance practices.  The rest of the petition mentions corporations several times, but it is always part of the conjunction, "States and corporations" making it unclear whether the petition applies to corporations as well as states, or to corporations only when they are participating with states.

Advertising corporations have come under some fire for their in-depth tracking of personal information for purposes of targeting advertisements.  And many websites sell information on their users to advertisers in order to obtain revenue.  Privacy advocates tend to criticize overbroad private information gathering in addition to information gathering by the government, and the petition strikes me as vague regarding its position on collection of user information for private gain.

There may be some clarification in the portion of the petition that I find most interesting.  It reads:

* Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property: it belongs to us. When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else: the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty. 
WE DEMAND THE RIGHT for all people to determine, as democratic citizens, to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed, and by whom; to obtain information on where their data is stored and how it is being used; to obtain the deletion of their data if it has been illegally collected and stored.
If personal data is personal property, then there would be problems if private websites took that information and used it for their profit without their users' knowledge or consent.  Websites may argue that users agree to this through their acceptance of website terms of service, but users often protest that people who visit websites don't read the terms of service, and often are not aware that those terms even exist.

I find this portion of the petition because it is broaching the subject of online profiles as personal property, which is a subject I am exploring in one of my current projects and which I mention here in the context of Fourth Amendment standing.  I am particularly interested in whether there is a trend towards online profiles being viewed as personal property, and that is something I will likely blog about after my exam tomorrow.

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