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Latest News - September 22, 2014

EPIC, Coalition Call for Transparency in Public Consumer Database

In comments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, EPIC and other public interest organizations urged the Bureau to publish consumer complaint narratives. The Bureau currently publishes limited complaint information on financial products and services, including debt collection and credit reports. The Bureau is now considering a plan to provide consumer perspectives on experiences with the financial industry. The consumer groups support this effort and also recommend obtaining consumer consent and removing personally identifiable information before posting the complaints. Last year, EPIC uncovered documents revealing that many student debt collection companies fail to meet legal privacy obligations. For more information, see EPIC: Comments on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and EPIC: The Fair Credit Reporting Act.

EPIC, Coalition Urge UN Human Rights Council to Review U.S. Spy Programs

In a joint submission to the United Nations, the Brennan Center, EPIC, and other public interest organizations urged the Human Rights Council to review U.S. surveillance programs. The Council regularly performs a Universal Periodic Review of the human rights record of UN Member States. As a result of the Council's last review, the U.S. Government committed to protect individual privacy and stop spying on citizens without judicial authorization. The coalition letter argues that U.S. has not honored this commitment and that U.S. "surveillance activities also violate the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and the freedom of peaceful assembly and association..." guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In January 2010, twenty-nine experts in privacy and technology affiliated with EPIC wrote to then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to urge that the United States ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Privacy. For more information, see EPIC: Council of Europe Privacy Convention.

FBI Says Biometric Database has Reached "Full Operational Capability"

The FBI announced that the Next Generation Identification system, one of the largest biometric databases in the world, has reached "full operational capability." In 2013, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit about the NGI program. EPIC obtained documents that revealed an acceptance of a 20% error rate in facial recognition searches. Earlier this year, EPIC joined a coalition of civil liberties groups to urge the Attorney General Eric Holder to release an updated Privacy Impact Assessment for the NGI. The NGI is tied to "Rap Back," the FBI's ongoing investigation of civilians in trusted positions. EPIC also obtained FOIA documents revealing FBI agreements with state DMVs to run facial recognition searches, linked to NGI, on DMV databases. EPIC's recent Spotlight on Surveillance concluded that NGI has "far-reaching implications for personal privacy and the risks of mass surveillance." For more information, see EPIC: EPIC v. FBI - Next Generation identification.

EPIC Files FOIA Lawsuit For Reports on Electronic Voting Reliability

EPIC has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain test reports about an online voting program promoted by the Department of Defense. The records sought relate to the functionality and security of electronic voting systems. The California Secretary of State, Members of Congress, and voting rights advocates have tried to obtain these documents, but DOD has kept them secret even after promising public disclosure in 2012. Computer scientists have long warned about the risks of electronic voting systems. In the complaint, EPIC states that "it is absolutely critical for the documents sought in this matter be disclosed prior to further deployment of e-voting systems in the United States." The case is EPIC v. Department of Defense, No 14-1555 (D.D.C. filed 9/11/2014). For more information, see EPIC: EPIC v. DOD - E-voting Security Tests.

EPIC, Legal Scholars, Technical Experts Urge Federal Appeals Court to Safeguard Telephone "Metadata"

EPIC has filed an amicus curiae brief, joined by 33 technical experts and legal scholars, in support of a challenge to the NSA telephone record collection program. The case Smith v. Obama will be heard by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit this fall. Earlier this year, a lower court ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not protect telephone call record information because of a 1979 case Smith v. Maryland. In the brief for the federal appeals court, EPIC wrote that "changes in technology and the Supreme Court's recent decision in Riley v. California favor a new legal rule that recognizes the privacy interest inherent in modern communications records." EPIC routinely participates as a friend of the court in cases raising novel privacy and civil liberties issues. For more information, see EPIC: Smith v. Obama, EPIC: Riley v. California, and EPIC Amicus Briefs.

FTC To Explore "Big Data" and Discrimination

The Federal Trade Commission will host a workshop entitled "Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?" The FTC will explore the effects of "big data" analytics on low-income and other underserved communities. Several members of the EPIC Advisory Board will be participating. Earlier this year, the FTC published a report on data brokers, warning that, "collecting and storing large amounts of data not only increases the risk of a data breach or other unauthorized access but also increases the potential harm that could be caused." The White House also convened a task force and published a report on "big data" this year. At EPIC's urging, the White House included public participation in the review process. EPIC submitted extensive comments, warning about the enormous risk to Americans of current "big data" practices but also made clear that problems are not new, citing the Privacy Act of 1974. In 2009, EPIC testified in support of new legislation to regulate the data broker industry. For more information, see EPIC: Big Data and the Future of Privacy, and EPIC: FTC.

Pew Survey: Users Online Self-Censor Discussion of Government Surveillance

According to the Pew Research Report "Social Media and the 'Spiral of Silence,'" most users of social media are afraid to talk about government surveillance on Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms. Users were more willing to share their views on government surveillance if they thought others shared the same view. Those who thought they held minority views were more likely to self-censor—an effect known as the "spiral of silence." In 2012, EPIC obtained FOIA documents revealing that the Department of Homeland Security monitored social media for political dissent. A subsequent Congressional hearing led the DHS to cancel the program. For more information, see EPIC v. DHS: Media Monitoring and EPIC: Public Opinion on Privacy.

Education New York Urges Parents to Protect Student Privacy

Education New York, a leading student privacy rights organization, is urging students and parents to opt-out of the use of educational records for marketing purposes. The data typically includes name, address, telephone number, birth date, and other personal information in student records. Education New York’s founder Sheila Kaplan stated, "I'm thrilled that with greater awareness of the issues, more parents have been joining the fight for students’ privacy rights." EPIC has long supported stronger privacy protections for student records. In 2012, EPIC sued the Education Department concerning changes to the student privacy law. Earlier this year, EPIC a hosted panel in Washington DC with Senator Ed Markey, "Failing Grade: Education Records and Student Privacy." For more information, see EPIC v. the Department of Education and EPIC: Student Privacy.

EPIC (Finally) Obtains Memos on Warrantless Wiretapping Program

More than eight years after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for the legal justification behind the "Warrantless Wiretapping" program of President Bush, EPIC has now obtained a mostly unredacted version of two key memos (OLC54) and (OLC85) by former Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith. EPIC requested these memos just four hours after the New York Times broke the story about the program in December 2005. When the agency failed to release the documents, EPIC filed a lawsuit. The ACLU and the National Security Archive later joined the case. These two Office of Legal Counsel memos offer the fullest justification of the warrantless wiretapping program available to date, arguing that the president has inherent constitutional power to monitor American's communications without a warrant in a time of war. But some parts of the legal analysis, including possibly contrary authority, are still being withheld. The warrantless wiretapping program was part of "Stellar Wind," a broad program of email interception, phone record collection, and data collection undertaken by the NSA without the approval of Congress. For more information see EPIC: EPIC v. DOJ: Warrantless Wiretapping Program.

UPDATE-Army Backs Off Plan for DC Surveillance Blimp

According to the Washington Post, the Department of Army will not deploy video surveillance cameras over the nation's capital. The announcement follows the release of documents to EPIC in a Freedom Information Act lawsuit. The blimps provide radar-based aerial surveillance and targeting capabilities. A recent video by the contractor Raytheon revealed that 24/7 video surveillance feed is easily incorporated. An Army Spokesperson told the Post that the blimps will "absolutely, 100 percent" not include video capacity. A similar EPIC FOIA case against the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection revealed that drones are designed to incorporate advance video surveillance gear even when not initially deployed. For more information, see EPIC: EPIC v. Army - Surveillance Blimps, EPIC: Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Drones, and EPIC: Freedom of Information Act Litigation.

Federal Trade Commission Orders Google to Refund Parents $19 Million for Unauthorized Charges

The Federal Trade Commission has reached a settlement with Google over allegations that the company unfairly charged parents millions of dollars for their children's in-app purchases. The settlement mandates that Google provides full refunds for unauthorized purchases. The FTC agreement will be subject to public comments. Comments are due October 6, 2014. The Commission has previously settled charges with Apple and sued Amazon for charging parents for their kids unauthorized in-app purchases. Previously EPIC has urged the FTC to require companies subject to privacy consent orders to adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. For more information, see EPIC: Federal Trade Commission and EPIC: Search Engine Privacy.

Federal Communications Commission Fines Verizon $7.4 Million for Violating Consumer Privacy

Verizon will pay the Federal Communications Commission $7.4 million to settle claims that the company violated the privacy rights of nearly two million consumers. The FCC found that Verizon failed to inform consumers of their privacy rights, including how to prevent their personal information from being used for marketing purposes. The Verizon payment is the largest consumer privacy settlement in FCC history. In 2013, EPIC urged the FCC to investigate Verizon's disclosure of customer record information to the NSA. Also, in response to a 2005 EPIC petition, the FCC strengthened privacy protections for telephone records, which EPIC defended in a "friend of the court" brief for the DC Circuit, establishing support for opt-in privacy safeguards. For more information, see EPIC: Customer Proprietary Network Information, EPIC: NCTA v. FCC (Concerning privacy of CPNI), EPIC: US West v. FCC (Privacy of Telephone Records), and In re EPIC (NSA Telephone Records Surveillance).

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