Analysis and Commentary on Privacy

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.

Was the Recording of Senator Mitch McConnell’s Campaign a Watergate-like Event, and Was It Illegal?

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the recent controversy over the recording of Senator Mitch McConnell's campaign. Though some have compared the incident to Watergate, and suggested that the recording was illegal, Dean contends that neither the Watergate comparison nor the suggestion of illegality is accurate, and explains exactly why.

Teens and Tiaras: Virtual Beauty Contests on Instagram, and Why the Company Should Do Something About Them

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses Instragram’s issue with users’ rating the appearance of young girls in beauty pageants online, and leaving comments both positive and negative. Ramasastry notes that such pageants may raise legal issues and privacy concerns and may trigger issues under COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Do People Under Arrest Have a Privacy Right in Their DNA? The U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument in Maryland v. King Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two of a two-part series of columns on the Supreme Court case of Maryland v. King, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of the case, which raises questions about the Fourth Amendment significance of DNA collection from arrestees, in light of the government interests and privacy entitlements that are at stake when a person is taken into custody. Part One of this series appeared on March 20, here on Justia’s Verdict.

Do People Under Arrest Have a Privacy Right in Their DNA? The U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument in Maryland v. King Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns relating to the pending Supreme Court case Maryland v. King, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb considers the Fourth Amendment significance of DNA collection from arrestees, in light of the government interests and privacy entitlements that are at stake when a person is taken into custody. Part Two of this series will appear next Wednesday, March 27.

The Federal Trade Commission Takes Aim at Mobile App Privacy: Why It’s About Time

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the FTC’s recent focus on privacy protections for mobile applications, and how key players in the rapidly-expanding mobile marketplace can better inform consumers about their data collection and use practices. Ramasastry also discusses the recent FTC enforcement action that led to a settlement with Path, a mobile social network, relating to its mobile privacy practices. Path lets users keep online journals that can be shared with a limited group of family and friends. The FTC fined Path $800,000, charging the company with violating federal statutory privacy protections for children by collecting personal information on underage users. Ramasastry deems the FTC’s scrutiny of mobile apps to be appropriate and timely right now, as more and more Americans rely heavily on mobile devices.

Revenge Porn Returns, with Home Addresses: Why the Site Is Legal and What Legislators Might Do to Fix That

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses the way in which Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) has unintentionally offered a safe harbor to websites on which people’s exes post nude or other intimate photos that were taken during the course of a relationship, and that were intended by the subject of the photo to be forever kept private. Ramasastry notes how adding additional information to the photo, such as a home address, could be a crime, as it aids cyberstalking. In addition, she urges that Congress ought to amend Section 230 in order to prevent unintended negative consequences like these.

Senator Franken Wants Us to Know When Our Apps Are Tracking Us: Why This Is a Sensible Thing for Congress to Require

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on Senator Al Franken’s proposed legislation that would regulate cyberstalking and geolocation apps—some of which are installed in a given device without notice of their presence being provided to the user. As Ramasastry explains, some of the chief concerns in this area of law include the possible stalking of domestic violence victims, and the safety of children. As Ramasastry explains, this topic not only sparked Franken’s interest, but also is of interest to the FTC, and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Facebook’s Mandatory Couples Pages: The Site’s Creating Them May Be Legal, But Is It Wise?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the new couples pages feature on Facebook, which aggregates a Facebook user’s information with that of his or her self-designated significant other. Ramasastry notes that the feature has been controversial, and explains why some users have been upset by it. She notes, too, that Facebook is entering a privacy gray area with the couples pages feature, under which Facebook relies on its privacy policies, but users feel they have lost control. Moreover, Ramasastry suggests that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which previously criticized Facebook’s Timeline feature, may want to scrutinize Facebook’s couples pages feature as well. Finally, Ramasastry questions whether Facebook’s couples pages are permissible under Facebook’s recent settlement with the FTC.

Was Justice Scalia Right That Many Contentious Constitutional Issues Are “Easy” to Resolve?

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram Amar takes strong issue with Justice Scalia’s recent remark that certain constitutional questions are “easy”—including questions relating to the constitutionality of the death penalty, laws restricting abortions, and limits on the rights of gays and lesbians to engage in homosexual activity. Amar argues that even if one uses Scalia’s own interpretive method of originalism, the answers to such constitutional questions are far less easy than Scalia claims them to be; and Amar cites a number of interesting examples to prove his case. Amar also contends that a full approach of originalism would go much further than the examples Scalia gives, would destroy important and basic contemporary Court precedents, and thus would seriously disrupt constitutional law as we know it. Finally, Amar contends that the counterarguments that Scalia might make to the objections that could be raised regarding his views would only get him into deeper trouble analytically.

Is Cellphone Tracking Okay If There’s No Trespass? A Sixth Circuit Panel Says Yes: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns on an interesting set of Fourth Amendment issues, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues to address the question whether law enforcement may constitutionally, without a warrant or probable cause, use global positioning technology to track a suspect’s whereabouts through his cellular phone. Specifically, here in Part Two, Colb considers the two possible ways in which the Supreme Court uses the phrase “reasonable expectations of privacy” in practice in Fourth Amendment cases. In the phrase, Colb notes, “reasonable” may mean “empirically realistic,” but it also may mean “morally justifiable.” Colb gives examples of Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit cases in which the phrase is used in these two different ways. In addition, she examines the exclusionary rule’s role here—noting that the rule, which forbids evidence from being admitted in court if it was obtained unconstitutionally, may in concrete cases seem to simply help out criminals, but at a more abstract theoretical level, protects us all from police misconduct. Colb also predicts that the Supreme Court will need to revisit these issues sooner, rather than later, to ensure that the law is clear.

Biometrics in the School Lunch Line: Why Parents Should Be Concerned About the Privacy Implications of This Trend

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the use of biometrics in school lunch lines and elsewhere in schools. More specifically, she notes, schools are using an infrared scanner that identifies children’s unique palm and hand vein patterns, and converts these patterns into an algorithm through which the child can be recognized quickly and uniquely by a hand scan. Ramasastry raises privacy concerns about this kind of scanning: Could it lead kids to see other compromises of their privacy as commonplace? Will the databases that contain the scans be used for other purposes—even when the kids become adults? Might law enforcement attempt to use the databases of the hand scans? And what about parents with religious objections to schools’ using the hand scans on their children? At the very least, Ramasastry suggests, the scanning system should be “opt in” and not “opt out,” so that parents can think carefully about allowing their children to become part of the scanning system, and thus part of the related database.

Is Cellphone Tracking Okay If There’s No Trespass? A Sixth Circuit Panel Says Yes: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns on an interesting set of Fourth Amendment issues, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb discusses the question whether law enforcement may constitutionally, without a warrant or probable cause, use global positioning technology to track a suspect’s whereabouts through his cellular phone. Previously, Colb explains, the U.S. Supreme Court held in United States v. Jones that police need a warrant and probable cause to attach a global positioning device to a vehicle and thereby track a suspect’s whereabouts. But now, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has held that police may, without a warrant or probable cause, use global positioning technology to track a suspect’s whereabouts through his cellular phone. Colb examines the legal concepts that the Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit decisions invoke, including those of trespass, and of privacy, and comments on the court’s analysis.

I See London, I See France: Upskirting and the Law

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman, and Justia guest columnist and Stanford law professor Lawrence Friedman comment on the law regarding the despicable practice of “upskirting.” As Grossman and Friedman explain, upskirting is the secret taking of photos or videos with a camera that is angled so as to look up a woman’s skirt. They begin by discussing expectations of privacy, and go on to consider the particular invasion of privacy that is perpetrated through upskirting. They then note that while one might assume that upskirting (and its counterpart, downblousing) in a public place would be illegal and penalized in every jurisdiction, in fact that is not the case. Grossman and Friedman explain the puzzling legal status of upskirting in many jurisdictions, and comment on why the current law in this area often defies our intuitions about privacy—though some recent state laws are now authorizing punishments for upskirters.

The Right to Be Untagged: As Facebook Disables Facial Recognition for EU Consumers, U.S. Consumers Are Left Wondering What’s Next for Them

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on regulatory responses in the EU and the U.S. regarding Facebook’s facial-recognition tool, which suggests the identities of registered Facebook users for possible tagging by other users in uploaded photos. As Ramasastry explains, the tool has sparked concern by EU regulators due to privacy worries, and even in the U.S., Facebook has voluntarily—but perhaps temporarily—suspended the tool. Ramasastry notes some reasons why Facebook users may have concerns about the tool, including its accompanying archive of tagged photos, which could in theory be used for law-enforcement, intelligence, or other purposes that users never authorized. In the EU, Facebook has agreed to soon stop using the tool, and to delete related data. But what will happen with the tool and the resulting database, here in the U.S.? With complaints from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a leading NGO, and a complaint filed with the FTC, the facial- recognition tool is now in hot water in the U.S. as well as the EU.

Can Celebrities Successfully Sue to Keep Their Stolen Wedding Photos Private? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Say Yes, in a Case Pitting Latin American Celebrities Against a Gossip Magazine

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a fair-use case that one judge on the Ninth Circuit panel compared to a telenovela. When a thief stole wedding and wedding-night photos from two Latin American celebrities that revealed that they were secretly married, and had been for several years, a gossip magazine published the photos. The two celebrities then registered their copyrights in the photos, and went to court to enforce them. The magazine, however, mounted a “fair use” defense, in order to try to avoid liability. Hilden describes and comments on the Ninth Circuit decision in the case, which sparked a dissent. Going through the four key fair-use factors one by one, the majority opinion suggests that the magazine has a steep uphill battle in proving fair use, as Hilden notes. Hilden also takes issue with the panel majority’s view that only “pictorial” photographs and those “factual” photographs that depict events should be protected, in this context. She argues that, to the contrary, even mechanical photo-booth photos ought to be protected in such situations.

Can the Government Require Doctors to Provide Misleading Information to Patients Seeking Abortions? A Federal Appeals Court Says No, but Means Yes

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. As Dorf explains, the decision upheld a provision of a South Dakota law mandating that women seeking an abortion be informed that, with the abortion procedure, comes “an increased risk of suicidal ideation and suicide.” Although the medical literature shows only a correlation, and not a causal relationship, between abortion and suicide, and although that correlation likely stems entirely from some of the underlying factors that lead women to seek abortions in the first place, the Eighth Circuit still upheld the law at issue. Although the Eighth Circuit’s decision was quite plainly the wrong one, Dorf notes, he also predicts that it’s very unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take the case. He then explains why the Court is likely to decline review and why, if it does grant review, it might uphold the law, even though it ought to be struck down.

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 and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... 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. Befo... 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 country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Pra... more

David S. Kemp
David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing 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