Jul 312012
 
 July 31, 2012  Posted by  Govt

GAO-12-961T, Jul 31, 2012

What GAO Found

Technological developments since the Privacy Act became law in 1974 have changed the way information is organized and shared among organizations and individuals. Such advances have rendered some of the provisions of the Privacy Act and the E-Government Act of 2002 inadequate to fully protect all personally identifiable information collected, used, and maintained by the federal government. For example, GAO has reported on challenges in protecting the privacy of personal information relative to agencies’ use of Web 2.0 and data- mining technologies.

While laws and guidance set minimum requirements for agencies, they may not protect personal information in all circumstances in which it is collected and used throughout the government and may not fully adhere to key privacy principles. GAO has identified issues in three major areas:

Applying privacy protections consistently to all federal collection and use of personal information. The Privacy Act’s protections only apply to personal information when it is considered part of a “system of records” as defined by the act. However, agencies routinely access such information in ways that may not fall under this definition.

Ensuring that use of personally identifiable information is limited to a stated purpose. Current law and guidance impose only modest requirements for describing the purposes for collecting personal information and how it will be used. This could allow for unnecessarily broad ranges of uses of the information.

Establishing effective mechanisms for informing the public about privacy protections. Agencies are required to provide notices in the Federal Register of information collected, categories of individuals about whom information is collected, and the intended use of the information, among other things. However, concerns have been raised whether this is an effective mechanism for informing the public.

The potential for data breaches at federal agencies also pose a serious risk to the privacy of individuals’ personal information. OMB has specified actions agencies should take to prevent and respond to such breaches. In addition, GAO has previously reported that agencies can take steps that include

• assessing the privacy implications of a planned information system or data collection prior to implementation;

• ensuring the implementation of a robust information security program; and • limiting the collection of personal information, the time it is retained, and who has access to it, as well as implementing encryption.

Read the full GAO testimony.

Jul 312012
 
 July 31, 2012  Posted by  Surveillance, U.S.

The ACLU’s Nationwide Public Records Request

In July 2012, American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in 38 states sent requests to local police departments and state agencies that demand information on how they use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to track and record Americans’ movements.

On the same day, the ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests with the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Transportation to learn how the federal government funds ALPR expansion nationwide and uses the technology itself.

Read more on ACLU’s blog.

Jul 302012
 
 July 30, 2012  Posted by  Featured News, Laws

Mike Masnick writes:

On Friday, we mentioned that this week is the week in which the Senate will wrangle over the new Cybersecurity bill. The current bill has some privacy safeguards, but not nearly enough. Senators Al Franken and Rand Paul have put together an amendment to strengthen the privacy safeguards even more — and over the weekend, Senator Chuck Schumer agreed to co-sponsor the Franken/Paul amendment after talking to various folks in the tech industry and the civil liberties community. That adds more weight to the amendment. Unfortunately, Senators John McCain and Kay Bailey Huchison and a few others, who have been carrying water for the NSA throughout this fight, are looking to move the bill very far in the other direction, wiping out tons of privacy protections. It’s really shameful.

Either way, this is the week to let your Senator know how you feel about all of this (and if you’re a constituent of McCain or Huchison, please ask why they’re so against protecting the privacy of the American public). The American Library Association has kindly set up a simple one-click tool to call your Senator and let them know how you feel.

The EFF has a page with some more info as well, noting that it’s basically too late to email your Senators, so please call. If you want some more info, check out Fred Wilson’s analysis of the situation, which matches almost exactly with mine. We still have not been given a compelling reason why any such legislation is needed.

Read more on TechDirt and then get busy dialing.

Jul 302012
 
 July 30, 2012  Posted by  Featured News, Online

Dark Money Political Groups Target Voters Based on Their Internet Habits

by Lois Beckett ProPublica, July 26, 2012, 2:13 p.m.

Lauren Berns was browsing Talking Points Memo when he saw an ad with President Obama’s face. “Stop the Reckless Spending,” the ad read, and in smaller print, Paid for by Crossroads GPS.    Berns was surprised. Why was Crossroads GPS, a group that powerful Republican strategist Karl Rove helped found,advertising on a liberal-leaning political website? Looking closely at the ad, Berns saw a small blue triangle in the upper-left hand corner. He knew what that meant: this ad wasn’t being shown to every person who read that page. It was being targeted to him in particular. Tax-exempt groups like Crossroads GPS have become among the biggest players in this year’s election.  They’re often called “dark money” groups, because they can raise accept unlimited amounts of money and never have to disclose their donors.

These groups are spending massively on television spots attacking different candidates. These ads are often highly publicized and get plenty of media attention.

But these same dark money groups are also quietly expanding their online advertising efforts, using sophisticated targeting tactics to send their ads to specific kinds of people.

Who they’re targeting, and what data they’re using, is secret.

Online advertising companies have amassed vast quantities of information on what individual people read, watch, and do on the Internet. They collect this data using small files called cookies, which allows them to track Internet users as they move from site to site.

These anonymous profiles of information are used to customize advertisements2014like sending casino ads to someone who just bought a plane ticket to Vegas.

But these profiles are also increasingly used by political groups, which can decide which people to target with a message2014and which people to avoid2014based on the kinds of articles they read and the kinds of sites they visit.

Many Internet users who see these ads may not be aware they’re being targeted.

As we’ve detailed, both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using advanced tracking and targeting tactics. Working with our readers, we found two examples of dark money groups using this kind of targeting, as well: one ad from Crossroads GPS and one ad from Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit linked to the politically influential Koch brothers.

How many of these ads are dark money groups sending out? It’s hard to say, because it’s not easy to track exactly how much Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, and similar groups are spending on different kinds of advertising.

But these politically influential organizations are moving more of their efforts online.

While Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said he couldn’t get into the specifics of their budget, “Crossroads will certainly spend more in the online space in 2012 than it did in 2010,” he said.

Americans for Prosperity did not return multiple requests for comment.

Even when Internet users are sophisticated enough to spot a targeted ad, as Lauren Berns did, it is almost impossible for them to find out why a certain organization is targeting them2014or what data about them is being used.

Berns, for instance, is a registered independent from St. Petersburg, Florida2014exactly the kind of voter whose opinion campaigns and political groups are trying to sway before November.  He’s a self-described “news junkie,” who reads both liberal and conservative news sites and posts articles to Facebook two to ten times a day. But it wasn’t clear what part of his Internet behavior ad triggered the Crossroads ad2014or whether information about his offline life was part of the targeting formula. Had he been shown the Crossroads ad because he had visited Mitt Romney’s site? Because he regularly reads the conservative sites of The Daily Caller and The Weekly Standard? Because he lives in a swing state? Did Berns fit the profile of a potential Crossroads supporter because he’s a 44-year-old who travels regularly? Or because he shares things with his friends, thus making him a potential “social influencer?”

A popup message accompanying the ad offered information about the targeting. But it only explained, “We select ads we believe might be more relevant to your interests.”

When we sent Crossroad’s Collegio a copy of the ad, he said he could not explain exactly how the ad had been targeted, saying, “it’s a matter of strategy that we would hold close to our chests.”

But he did offer one potential targeting factor. “We are looking for viewers who are more likely to engage their lawmakers in an issue advocacy campaign, and those are generally viewers who visit news and current affairs websites,” Collegio said. If Crossroads GPS was looking to target news junkies, then Berns was the kind of person they were trying to reach2014although, of course, that didn’t necessarily mean he was sympathetic to the ad’s message. Berns regularly reads conservative sites and says he is skeptical of both parties, but on policy issues, he says, he lines up more closely with the Democrats.

Because Crossroads wouldn’t disclose their targeting strategy, we can’t know how many other factors may have been involved. Collegio would not say whether the online ad was only sent to viewers in certain states.

Television ads from dark money groups often get significant media scrutiny.  When Crossroads GPS launched a television ad in early June attacking President Obama’s “reckless spending,” the group’s $7 million ad buy made headlines in papers across the country. The Washington Post fact-checked the ad’s claims, and concluded that the ad contained both exaggerations and omissions.

What didn’t get mentioned, by newspapers or by Crossroads’ own press release, was that an online version of the same ad2014the ad Berns saw2014would appear on the computer screens of select individuals, based on their Internet habits. Collegio said it was “likely an oversight” that the Crossroads press release didn’t include a description of the online part of the ad campaign.   But, he noted, “When we announce online buys, the media rarely report on it.”

By their nature, targeted online ads are harder for news organizations to track, since they are only shown to some users, and will never appear to others.

This makes targeted ads much less transparent than TV ads, and makes it harder to tell if politicians or political groups are using targeting to pander to certain groups of voters, or whether they’re sending out ads that are misleading, hypocritical, or just plain false.

As part of our campaign coverage, we’ve been asking readers to send in screenshots of any targeted political ads they see. Berns was one of the first to send in screenshots of a targeted ad.

Another targeted dark money ad came from a woman in Wisconsin, who asked that her name not be used. She sent screenshots of a targeted ad from the Koch-linked Americans for Prosperity attacking Wisconsin Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, who is now running for Senate.

The ad, which reads, “Tell Tammy Baldwin: Wisconsin can’t afford Washington’s wasteful spending!” asks viewers to “Click here to sign the petition.” The ad appeared on multiple sites the woman visited, including in a prominent place on the home page of the Washington Post. While Americans for Prosperity did not return requests for comment, a Washington Post spokeswoman said a broader Americans for Prosperity ad campaign had been taken down because it had not been approved by the Post’s advertising team. While many critics of targeting have been concerned that political groups might use targeting to send out controversial ads without attracting attention, that wasn’t the case with the two ads our readers spotted. The targeted ads from both groups sent the same message as their spots shown on TV.

Recent surveys suggest many American aren’t enthusiastic about political targeting online.

A survey of 1,503 adult Internet users released this week by the Annenberg School for Communications found that 86 percent of the respondents did not want “web sites to show you political ads tailored to your interests.” Most respondents also said they want to know what the campaigns know about them.

In general, Berns said, “I’m fine with targeted advertising. If I’m going to see ads on the Internet, I’d rather they be something I’m interested in.” But, he said, he draws the line at politics.

“I’d much prefer a world where candidates tried to equally hard to reach everyone, present their policies rationally, and let the chips fall where they may,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“Targeting by political viewpoint is 2018creepy,'” he wrote. “A little too close to propaganda techniques for my comfort.”

Have you seen a targeted political ad?

Help us find out how politicians are targeting you online.

  1. If you spot a small blue triangle icon on any online political ad, or the words “Ad Choices,” take a screenshot of the ad.
  2. Then click on the blue triangle or the words “Ad Choices” to find out which company showed you the ad. Take a screenshot of that, too.
  3. E-mail the screenshots to us at [email protected]. Please include the full URL of the page where you saw the ad.

If the ad asks you to “learn more,” visit a website, donate, or sign a petition, please send us a screenshot of that site or petition, as well. (The page where the ad sends you may also be targeted to what advertisers know about you.)

Not sure how to take a screenshot? Here are the instructions if you’re using a PCusing a Mac, or using a smartphone.

You can also check out our “Message Machine” project, which analyzes how campaigns are targeting voters with different e-mail messages.

Source: ProPublica

Thanks to Joe Cadillic who sent in this link.

Online tracking image credit: © Kheng Ho Toh | Dreamstime.com