Mobile Phones and the Right to Search (and Privacy)

cnn.police

Earlier this year I wrote an article about whether the police had the right to search your laptop when you are passing immigration into the USA. The discussion has moved on however, and this week there is a Supreme Court case about whether the police have to right to search an individual’s mobile phone when they are stopped upon suspicion of having committed a crime.

Given the UK governments discussion about the stop and search powers currently in use, there are some serious questions to address here. We now carry our lives with us on our mobile devices. To call them phones is to do them an injustice, they are computers with the possibility of making phone calls. They have our medical, personal, business, banking and emotional data, and the question is whether this is public or private information if the police stop you.

Here in the USA the law has allowed police to search these devices without a warrant, although they could not search your computer in your house without a judge’s permission, and this seems to be an anomaly given changes in how we carry our lives with us.

The case before the court involves David Riley, who was pulled over for driving with expired license plates in 2009. When his car was impounded and inventoried, police found guns in the boot and decided to investigate further.

They looked into his phone and found evidence that he might be in a gang, they downloaded videos, contacts etc and some of this information was used to convict him.

Here in the US the case has been followed by journalist Nina Totenberg, and she has a fantastic account on her blog. You can either listen to her radio report or read a transcript of it. I have taken some of it below to give you an idea of how the debate is unfolding. The question is of whether a warrant should be required, but the following snippets give an idea of how wide the implications for the debate really are:

“It’s not just what can be looked at,” it’s the fact that information from cellphones can be downloaded and kept in “ever-growing databases.”

A person can be arrested “for anything,” including driving without a seat belt, and the police could search that person’s cellphone and “look at every single email” — including “very intimate communications” — as well as medical data, calendar and GPS information to learn everyplace the person has recently been.

People “choose” when they carry their cellphones with them — and thus they should have “no expectation of privacy” if they are arrested.

So some of the questions could be, when the police stop and search you, what do they have the right to look at? If you are then arrested should they need a warrant to search your mobile devices? Do you have the right to privately carry digital information?

Vehicle Reversing cameras, a real safety improvement?

Congratulations on a beach

Congratulations Jonny! You have the honour of posting Technology Bloggers 500th article – which is also your 125th! It is also the first post of Technology Bloggers fourth year. (Image Credit)

A car reversing cameraImage Credit
At the end of last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (USA) finalized long-delayed rules that will require automakers to install back-up cameras in all vehicles by May 2018. This was a long fought battle, the auto makers not wanting to be forced to adapt such measures.

And we must consider the costs, possibly between $500 and $900 million a year, to be borne by the purchaser, manufacturer and of course the state. The legislation is aimed at avoiding death or injury caused when drivers reverse over their own children or the elderly (the main victims in such accidents).

All well and good I say, maybe the rules will save some lives, and we should bear in mind that they did take 10 years to pass. But how many lives will they save?

A Typical view in reverse

We have to bear in mind that auto-mobile manufacturers estimate that upwards of 60% of all cars would have had the technology as standard by 2018, we are talking about the remaining 40%, so an incremental improvement on an already rolling ball. But how many people are killed each year in the USA in accidents of this type?

According to this article, fittingly enough from the Detroit News, 60 to 70 lives a year would be saved if all the fleet had rear view cameras, but of course as stated above 60% would have already had the cameras, so the legislation itself would save about 15 lives a year and save 1300 injuries. But how many injuries and deaths are there a year in the USA?

On average in recently in the USA there have been about 35 000 deaths and more than 2 million injured in motor accidents. According to the US Census Bureau most of those were caused by speeding and alcohol.

Now I would question the rationale of spending the amounts of money required to install cameras in all cars when the number of lives saved is going to be so small. We are talking about between 15 and 25 million dollars per life, when there may be better ways of spending this money and saving more lives.

If we look at the legislation in context, I think there are other questions that need to be asked too. The US government Distracted Driving website offers another bewildering array of statistics and related information, with mobile technology use once more taking the blame for accidents. But we might imagine that it is illegal to text and drive, but it is not in all states. Several states still allow you to send a text message while driving. Texas for example bans texting for bus drivers and novice drivers, and in school areas for everyone, but I can drive and text in Texas perfectly legally. Arizona only bans bus drivers from texting, and in south Carolina there are no rules about using mobile technology while driving.

Although road deaths have come down dramatically in the USA, those related to driver distraction have gone up. This could be related to changes in how the statistics are reported, or might be related to increased usage of mobile devices, I cannot tell that from the data provided in the census.

A table is available here that summarizes the current situation.

As a quick comparison in the UK you can be charged with reckless driving if you are involved in any accident, and texting and hand held telephone use is against the law. If you are eating or drinking however this can also be taken into account, and there is research that suggests that eating and drinking while driving can dramatically slow down reaction time. Check out this article in the Telegraph newspaper.

So I want to ask a serious question about this US legislation that we could ask about a lot of other legislation. Do these new rules really make driving safer, or do they make us feel that we are safer, or do they just make us feel that we are doing the right thing?

I don’t honestly believe that this legislation will really make driving much safer for anyone, although this is of course my own opinion. I am not making light of accidents that involve reversing over children or old people, but there must be plenty of more efficient ways of cutting down road deaths than this (like taking action to deter mobile phone or texting use for example).

Technology in Food Production

Over the coming weeks I am going to write a series of posts about technology and food production. Food is a topic that I have been interested in from a sociological perspective for several years, and I have a few topics that I would like to address, from GM, to regulation, sustainability and organic alternatives.

Technology plays a huge part in food production. If we just think about GM products, transport issues, industrial farming techniques and globalization in generic terms, it becomes immediately apparent that this sector is the largest in the world. According to these statistics agriculture accounts for between 14 and 24% of all global emissions of CO2, and 19 to 29% of total greenhouse pollutant emissions. An interesting point here is that in the so-called developed countries post-farm emissions are very high, so in the UK for example 50% of these emissions are produced after the food has left the farm, presumably through processing and transport techniques.

But it seems to me that processing is where the money is. According to Forbes, Pepsi for example made almost $45 billion in 2009 and Nestle’ made $110 billion, and these profits only refer to US sales. This year the sector is one of the very few that is still growing.

If you look at vegetables though they make less money. Dole is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, but in the same year made only $6.8 billion, leading me to conclude that the profit is in the processing and not in the actual foodstuffs themselves.

And this leads on to the question of what goes into these products. The answer is, largely, genetically modified (GM) organisms.

Genetic Modification

Genetic Modification

Yes if we look at the statistics that the US Department of Agriculture publish, we find the following:

93% of soybeans grown in the USA are GM

90% of all corn produced in the US is GM

95% of US sugar beat is GM

40% of all cropland in the US is used for Monsanto (the largest GM seed producer) production

40% of all global GM crops are produced in the US

35% of all the corn grown in the world is GM

81% of all the soybeans grown in the world are GM

I take some of my information from here, the Organic Consumers Association website and the rest from US government sources.

So as you can see it is big business. It is estimated that 70% of all the foods in our supermarkets contains GM organisms. 16.5 million people work in the industry in the US and it accounts for more than 10% of GDP.

And it is not just plants, there is a request for FDA approval for GM salmon. It grows at twice the speed of regular salmon.

The GM salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies contains a gene from a Chinook salmon that produces a growth hormone, and a genetic “on-switch” from an ocean pout (an eel-like fish) that keeps the growth hormone pumping out year round. The company state that GM salmon will consume 25 percent less feed, half of which can be plant protein.

Oh and in the US none of this is labeled, although currently 64 other countries do require labeling.

GM organisms have been found in many countries that do not allow their production however, Mexico comes to mind as the closest example to the USA. Seeds have blown across the borders from the US, over the mountains, across the seas, possibly even from Brazil and Argentina and landed and grown. Not to mention imports of contaminated produce. Read the scientific report here.

Corn is socially extremely important in Mexico, its cultivation all started there, and this contamination has caused some serious soul searching. In a related issue GM companies are currently trying to get permission for huge plantations in Mexico, as this Reuters article explains. We await the court’s decision.

For now I stop here, I think that is enough food for thought for this week (groan). Next week I shall delve once more into the murky waters of the global food industry however, and who knows what we might find. Comments please below.

US Border Laptop Searches

This week in the US many news outlets are reporting a story that relates to how private the data on your computer, hard drive or mobile phone may be when passing national borders.

In a legal ruling a judge has in effect supported immigration officials’ rights to look inside your computer if you want to bring it in to the USA. The court ruling relates to an incident in 2010 when Pascal Abidor, a student crossing from Canada, had his laptop confiscated and searched.

A Laptop Search

A Laptop Search

The student claimed that this was unconstitutional as the 4th amendment states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….” The US has long held however that this amendment cannot be upheld when dealing with people entering the country.

The judge ruled however that “The agents certainly had reasonable suspicion supporting further inspection of Abidor’s electronic devices”. What is not widely reported is the circumstances that lead to this decision. Abidor has both French and US passports, and upon entering he chose to show the passport that did not contain Visas that demonstrated that he had visited Lebanon and Jordan,  giving officials the impression that he was trying to hide something.

Agents spent five hours searching his laptop and USB drives, and then demanded that he write down his passwords and hand over the laptop and storage media. The laptop was returned by post 11 days later.

There are rules about what the authorities must do with data seized in these cases. All data that is deemed innocent must be destroyed within 7 days of seizure unless permission is given to keep it for longer. Many blogs however cast doubt upon whether an unregulated and poorly reported system can actually enforce this however, an online search of the story gives many different perspectives. The Homeland securities News Wire has one of the most informative.

I presume that like me many of you keep a great deal of personal data on your laptops, from tax returns, bank details, love letters and personal photos, and all of these things may be accessed in a case like this. One issue that has come to the fore has been brought by researchers and reporters, who may not be able to reveal sources of information for ethical, security or legal reasons, but may unwittingly do so by leaving evidence of their informers’ identities on their computers.

The line is blurred here, as today smuggling must include information smuggling and authorities may need to search information media, but an individual must be aware that all information carried over an international border is open to search. This must have repercussions in terms of industrial as well as personal privacy.