Analysis and Commentary on Privacy

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

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

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.

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

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?

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

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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?

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.

The Promise of May, the Betrayal of June, and the Larger Lesson of Manning and Snowden

Justia guest columnist and Northwestern law professor Joseph Margulies offers an interesting perspective on the controversies raised by the classified information leaked by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Margulies asks what it reveals about ourselves and our life and times that Manning and Snowden, two anonymous functionaries in the vast machinery of the American military complex, have—within three years of each other—committed both the largest and apparently most important unauthorized releases of classified material in American history?

Shopping Under Surveillance: Why We Should Think Twice About Letting Retailers Track Us in Stores

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses the ways in which retailers at brick-and-mortar stores are profiling us. She notes that most of us realize that online stores can easily profile us, but many of us may not know that brick-and-mortar stores do the same thing in a different context. Ramasastry describes how these stores may track what we look at, where we browse and linger, what we might pick up and examine but then not ultimately buy. What department or section do we head for? How long do we spend in the sections of the store that we visit? Retailers now have access to this data due to our cellphones, but Ramasastry notes that we can thwart the surveillance by turning off the Wi-Fi feature of your phone, or putting it on airplane mode. In addition, Ramasastry urges, we ought to know when we are being monitored.

The Petition for Immediate Supreme Court Review of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Order Raises Thorny Procedural Issues

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf builds on a recent column by fellow Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean, discussing the substantive privacy issues raised by a recent petition to the Supreme Court seeking review of a top-secret order by a federal judge sitting in his capacity as a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, who ordered Verizon to turn over call logs of all calls in which at least one party was in the United States; and forbade Verizon from informing its customers that their phone activity (though not the content of their conversations) would be shared with the government in this way. The order, notably, came to light only because Edward Snowden disclosed it. How will the legal arguments that the controversy has raised strike the Supreme Court's Justices? Dorf emphasizes that before we can know the answer, the Court must, of course, decide to accept the case for review, and as Dorf notes, there are serious procedural obstacles to its doing so.

Why the Snowden Leak(s) Should Result in a Supreme Court Review of the FISA Court’s Verizon Order

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean calls on the Supreme Court to act now, after Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the top secret order signed by a Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA) court Judge directing Verizon to turn over to the FBI and NSA all call detail records or telephony metadata created by Verizon for communications that occurred wholly within the United States, including even local telephone calls. Dean points out that Snowden’s information has energized those who are committed to protecting our privacy, and that they now are using this new information to head to various courts in order to try to place some controls, via a number of varied lawsuits, on what has been, Dean notes, a time of NSA surveillance gone wild.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a Professor of Law at The George Washington Univ... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.  Bef... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the leading church/state scholars in the United States, a Fox Distinguis... more

David S. Kemp
David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney, writer, and editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at... more