Analysis and Commentary on Privacy

Facebook Messenger Kids—Good for Whom?

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University of Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on Facebook’s recently announced messenger app for kids. Ramasastry describes the key features of Facebook’s new program and explores the privacy and safety concerns that arise with this business model. She calls upon policymakers or advocacy groups to weigh in, as well, anticipating that this will not be the only business model aimed at kids in this manner.

Supreme Court of India Protects a Right to Privacy

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Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a recent decision by the Supreme Court of India in which that court ruled that the Constitution of India protects a right of privacy. Dorf explains the significance of the decision not only for the largest democracy in the world, but also for people in other constitutional democracies, including the United States.

Out in the Open: The Alt-Right Learns About Privacy in the Modern World

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Joanna L. Grossman, SMU Dedman School of Law professor, and Lawrence M. Friedman, a Stanford Law professor, comment on the decreased privacy of the modern world, as recently illustrated by the very public identification of some of the alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, from photos and videos of the rally. Grossman and Friedman point out that technology is making anonymity a thing of the past and that only affirmative legislative changes, such as recognition of a “right to be forgotten,” can alter that course.

Indiana Court Rules in Favor of Cell Phone History Privacy

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Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb comments on a recent decision by the Court of Appeals of Indiana, holding that police violated their suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights by acquiring, without a warrant, the suspect’s cell site information from his cell phone provider. Colb explains the Indiana court’s reasoning and discusses the evolving law regarding people’s privacy expectations in information their cell phones store and transmit.

Anger Management: Charlie Sheen’s Ex-Fiancée Sues Over Sheen’s Failure to Disclose HIV Status

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Hofstra University law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent lawsuit by Charlie Sheen’s ex-fiancée seeking damages for Sheen’s failure to disclose his HIV status. Grossman discusses the nature of the complaint filed and describes how civil and criminal laws must balance the right of individuals to sexual privacy against interests such as public health.

Education Department Faults Illinois School District for Excluding Transgender Girl from Locker Room Changing Area

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Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a finding by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that an Illinois school district had violated anti-discrimination laws by barring a transgender girl from showering and changing in the girls’ locker room without restrictions. Colb argues that perhaps the best solution for everyone may be to have individual showers for everyone, rather than singling out a single person or disregarding the privacy concerns of everyone.

The Sixth Circuit Says No to “Butt Dial” Privacy

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Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb analyzes a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit holding that when a person with a cellphone inadvertently calls a third party, thereby exposing personal communications, the caller retains no reasonable expectation of privacy in the matters disclosed for purposes of the federal Wiretap Act.

Personalized Pricing in the Air? Why Consumers Should Be Wary of a New Airline Pricing Proposal

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University of Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses a proposal tentatively approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation that would allow airlines to collect consumers’ personal data for the purpose of personalizing fare quotes. Ramasastry cautions that the proposal has significant privacy and discrimination risks and that we need more information, more transparency, and better safeguards before proceeding with it.

The Power and Peril of the Internet: How Should “Revenge Porn” Be Handled?

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Hofstra University law professor Joanna Grossman and Stanford University law professor Lawrence Friedman discuss the ways in which legislation can (and cannot) address the phenomenon of “revenge porn.” Grossman and Friedman point out that while the similar offense of blackmail has existed for many years, only recently, with the aid of the Internet, has this new form of harassment become a serious issue for lawmakers to consider.

Click Away: A Texas Law on “Improper Photography” Bites the Dust

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Hofstra University law professor Joanna Grossman and Stanford University law professor Lawrence Friedman comment on a recent decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals striking down that state’s law against “improper photography.” Grossman and Friedman describe other similar laws in other states and discuss the challenges legislatures have faced in crafting such laws to include highly inappropriate violations of privacy without running afoul of the First Amendment.

Video-Recording Police–Citizen Encounters Is Necessary but Not Enough

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In light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Cornell University law professor Michael Dorf weighs the benefits and costs of equipping police officers with wearable cameras to record encounters with citizens. Dorf concludes that while there are some risks inherent in the practice, it would be a good first step toward reducing the frequency of tragedies resulting from police–citizen confrontations.

Drones as the New Peeping Toms?

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University of Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses the growing personal use of unmanned aerial vehicles (colloquially known as drones) by individuals for spying and other nefarious reasons. She points out that most attention toward drones has focused on their use by the government, but their use by private citizens is increasingly becoming a concern. She discusses existing laws that might cover their use and proposes other ways the law can protect our privacy from individuals with high tech equipment like drones.

Federal Judge Turns Back Hunt for Gays in the Department of Justice

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Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a federal lawsuit by a conservative group seeking to “expose” the U.S. Department of Justice as having been taken over by gay and lesbian employees. Grossman compares the attempt to 1950s-era McCarthyism and the largely successful effort to purge the federal government of gays and communists at that time. She argues that the district court in this case correctly found that the DOJ was justified in refusing to release sensitive documents pertaining to the sexual orientations of its employees.

Stalking Us as We Shop: HP’s New Smartshopper App

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Hewlett Packard (HP) has unveiled a new mobile app that retailers can use to stalk people as they shop, to send them targeted ads and promotions. Called SmartShopper, it was unveiled at the Interop conference in Las Vegas at the end of March. It has the ability to send location-based smartphone offers to customers’ iPhones in real time. Promoted by Meg Whitman, CEO of HP, as a way for retailers to monetize their networks and build “tighter relationships with their customers,” this is not the first time that so-called stalker apps have been in the news as being intrusive of consumer privacy. Here, Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry looks at two recent examples of so-called stalker-shopper apps, and legislative attempts to address these new ways of tracking our movements and behavior.

OfficeMax’s Deceased Daughter Mail Blunder and the Limits of Privacy Law

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Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a situation involving Mike Seay and his wife, who have been mourning the loss of their daughter, Ashley, for just under a year. Last week, the Seays received an unwelcome reminder of Ashley’s untimely passing in the mail: It came in the form of a flier from the office supply store OfficeMax, addressed to Ashley’s father, in these words: ”Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash.” In addition to that egregious incident, Ramasastry also discusses the growing phenomenon of data aggregation, and the fact that the large-scale collection of data leads to harmful consequences for consumers when companies keep tabs on us in ways that are unrelated to our ordinary commercial transactions, as the Seays painfully learned.

The Legal Story of the Year, and Next Year Too: Edward Snowden

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Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the ongoing importance of Edward Snowden, whose spectacular leaking of National Security Agency (NSA) secrets continues to have profound implications, in a set of specific ways that Dean describes. Accordingly, Dean argues that Snowden’s should be deemed the key legal story of 2013 and very likely that of 2014, too. Dean also compares what Snowden should do now, with what Daniel Ellsberg did after revealing the Pentagon Papers.

GAO Report Highlights Compelling Reasons for New Federal Privacy Law

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Justia columnist and U.Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the world of big data, in which, as our data gets resold, recombined, and repurposed, we often have little idea what companies have data about us, where a given company may have initially obtained that data, and what that data will be used for in the future. Ramasastry argues that regulation in this area is sorely needed, and discusses the recent GAO report on the issue.

Teens and Online “Eraser” Laws: Good Intentions, but the Wrong Approach?

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Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a Utah bill that, if passed, would allow teens to erase their social-media footprints permanently. Ramasastry notes that teens can have their juvenile criminal records sealed, and can repudiate contracts they have signed. Thus, she notes, there are precedents under which minors are treated differently from adults under the law. Ramasastry also covers related events in California, and notes that we should focus, too, on how social-media postings can, and cannot, be able to be legally used in the future, especially when jobs and credit are concerned.

Should Schools Stalk Students Online to Prevent Cyberbullying?

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Justia columnist and University of Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a Southern California school district’s decision to retain a private firm to search the Web and look for public posts, photos, tweets, and other communications made by its students. The district’s stated purpose for retaining the firm is to prevent students from harming others—and, in particular, to stop cyberbullying. But Ramasastry notes that the company that does the monitoring also finds out a lot of other information about students, as well.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately prior to taking the position at Illinois, Amar served as the Senior Assoc... more

Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington University. He teaches tax law and tax policy, and he has taught contract law, law and economics, and... more

Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in constitutional criminal procedure, evidence, and animal rights. She has published a... more

John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Before becoming White House counsel at age thirty-one, he was the chief minority counsel to the Judiciar... more

Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has written hundreds of popular essays, dozens of scholarly articles, and four books on constitutional la... more

Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of Law.  She is an expert in sex discrimination law. Her most recent book,  more

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Practice and Fox Family Pavilion Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion in the... more

David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Rice University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall)... more

Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in more

Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Developmen... more

Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at Chapman University, Fowler School of Law. He joined the faculty in 2008. Before that, he was Univ... more