I recently wrote about a Minnesota Appeals Court ruling that the presence of encryption software on a computer may be viewed as evidence of criminal intent. Jennifer Granick of the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society has some intelligent comments on the ruling.
Entries Tagged "courts"
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In the U.S., medical privacy is largely governed by a 1996 law called HIPAA. Among many other provisions, HIPAA regulates the privacy and security surrounding electronic medical records. HIPAA specifies civil penalties against companies that don’t comply with the regulations, as well as criminal penalties against individuals and corporations who knowingly steal or misuse patient data.
The civil penalties have long been viewed as irrelevant by the health care industry. Now the criminal penalties have been gutted:
An authoritative new ruling by the Justice Department sharply limits the government’s ability to prosecute people for criminal violations of the law that protects the privacy of medical records.
The criminal penalties, the department said, apply to insurers, doctors, hospitals and other providers—but not necessarily their employees or outsiders who steal personal health data.
In short, the department said, people who work for an entity covered by the federal privacy law are not automatically covered by that law and may not be subject to its criminal penalties, which include a $250,000 fine and 10 years in prison for the most serious violations.
This is a complicated issue. Peter Swire worked extensively on this bill as the President’s Chief Counselor for Privacy, and I am going to quote him extensively. First, a story about someone who was convicted under the criminal part of this statute.
In 2004 the U.S. Attorney in Seattle announced that Richard Gibson was being indicted for violating the HIPAA privacy law. Gibson was a phlebotomist a lab assistant in a hospital. While at work he accessed the medical records of a person with a terminal cancer condition. Gibson then got credit cards in the patient’s name and ran up over $9,000 in charges, notably for video game purchases. In a statement to the court, the patient said he “lost a year of life both mentally and physically dealing with the stress” of dealing with collection agencies and other results of Gibson’s actions. Gibson signed a plea agreement and was sentenced to 16 months in jail.
According to this Justice Department ruling, Gibson was wrongly convicted. I presume his attorney is working on the matter, and I hope he can be re-tried under our identity theft laws. But because Gibson (or someone else like him) was working in his official capacity, he cannot be prosecuted under HIPAA. And because Gibson (or someone like him) was doing something not authorized by his employer, the hospital cannot be prosecuted under HIPAA.
The healthcare industry has been opposed to HIPAA from the beginning, because it puts constraints on their business in the name of security and privacy. This ruling comes after intense lobbying by the industry at the Department of Heath and Human Services and the Justice Department, and is the result of an HHS request for an opinion.
From Swire’s analysis the Justice Department ruling.
For a law professor who teaches statutory interpretation, the OLC opinion is terribly frustrating to read. The opinion reads like a brief for one side of an argument. Even worse, it reads like a brief that knows it has the losing side but has to come out with a predetermined answer.
I’ve been to my share of HIPAA security conferences. To the extent that big health is following the HIPAA law—and to a large extent, they’re waiting to see how it’s enforced—they are doing so because of the criminal penalties. They know that the civil penalties aren’t that large, and are a cost of doing business. But the criminal penalties were real. Now that they’re gone, the pressure on big health to protect patient privacy is greatly diminished.
The simplest explanation for the bad OLC opinion is politics. Parts of the health care industry lobbied hard to cancel HIPAA in 2001. When President Bush decided to keep the privacy rule—quite possibly based on his sincere personal views—the industry efforts shifted direction. Industry pressure has stopped HHS from bringing a single civil case out of the 13,000 complaints. Now, after a U.S. Attorney’s office had the initiative to prosecute Mr. Gibson, senior officials in Washington have clamped down on criminal enforcement. The participation of senior political officials in the interpretation of a statute, rather than relying on staff attorneys, makes this political theory even more convincing.
This kind of thing is bigger than the security of the healthcare data of Americans. Our administration is trying to collect more data in its attempt to fight terrorism. Part of that is convincing people—both Americans and foreigners—that this data will be protected. When we gut privacy protections because they might inconvenience business, we’re telling the world that privacy isn’t one of our core concerns.
If the administration doesn’t believe that we need to follow its medical data privacy rules, what makes you think they’re following the FISA rules?
A court ruled that simply password-protecting a file isn’t enough to make it a trade secret.
To establish that information is a trade secret under the ITSA, two requirements must be met: (1) the plaintiff must show the information was sufficiently secret to give the plaintiff a competitive advantage, and (2) the plaintiff must show that it took affirmative measures to prevent others from acquiring or using the information. Although the court determined in this case that the customer lists met the first requirement, it denied trade secret protection based on the second requirement.
The court held that “[r]estricting access to sensitive information by assigning employees passwords on a need-to-know basis is a step in the right direction.” This precaution in and of itself, however was not enough. The court was “troubled by the failure to either require employees to sign confidentiality agreements, advise employees that its records were confidential, or label the information as confidential.” There was insufficient evidence in the record to show the employees understood the information to be confidential, thus the trial court’s finding that the customer lists were not trade secrets was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.
Researchers who reverse-engineer software to discover programming flaws can no longer legally publish their findings in France, after a court fined a security expert on Tuesday.
Edited to add:
Seems like the case did not center around the publication of the bug, but the use of pirated software.
According to ChoicePoint’s most recent 8-K filing:
Based on information currently available, we estimate that approximately 145,000 consumers from 50 states and other territories may have had their personal information improperly accessed as a result of the recent Los Angeles incident and certain other instances of unauthorized access to our information products. Approximately 35,000 of these consumers are California residents, and approximately 110,000 are residents of other states. These numbers were determined by conducting searches of our databases that matched searches conducted by customers who we believe may have had unauthorized access to our information products on or after July 1, 2003, the effective date of the California notification law. Because our databases are constantly updated, our search results will never be identical to the search results of these customers.
Catch that? ChoicePoint actually has no idea if only 145,000 customers were affected by its recent security debacle. But it’s not doing any work to determine if more than 145,000 customers were affected—or if any customers before July 1, 2003 were affected—because there’s no law compelling it to do so.
I have no idea why ChoicePoint has decided to tape a huge “Please Regulate My Industry” sign to its back, but it’s increasingly obvious that it has. There’s a class-action shareholders’ lawsuit, but I don’t think that will be enough.
And, by the way, Choicepoint’s database is riddled with errors.
A Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice faces a fine—although no criminal charges at the moment—for trying to sneak a knife aboard an aircraft.
Saylor, 58, and his wife entered a security checkpoint Feb. 4 on a trip to Philadelphia when screeners found a small Swiss Army-style knife attached to his key chain.
A police report said he was told the item could not be carried onto a plane and that he needed to place the knife into checked luggage or make other arrangements.
When Saylor returned a short time later to be screened a second time, an X-ray machine detected a knife inside his carry-on luggage, police said.
There are two points worth making here. One: ridiculous rules have a way of turning people into criminals. And two: this is an example of a security failure, not a security success.
Security systems fail in one of two ways. They can fail to stop the bad guy, and they can mistakenly stop the good guy. The TSA likes to measure its success by looking at the forbidden items they have prevented from being carried onto aircraft, but that’s wrong. Every time the TSA takes a pocketknife from an innocent person, that’s a security failure. It’s a false alarm. The system has prevented access where no prevention was required. This, coupled with the widespread belief that the bad guys will find a way around the system, demonstrates what a colossal waste of money it is.
For at least seven months last year, a hacker had access to T-Mobile’s customer network. He’s known to have accessed information belonging to 400 customers—names, Social Security numbers, voicemail messages, SMS messages, photos—and probably had the ability to access data belonging to any of T-Mobile’s 16.3 million U.S. customers. But in its fervor to report on the security of cell phones, and T-Mobile in particular, the media missed the most important point of the story: The security of much of our data is not under our control.
This is new. A dozen years ago, if someone wanted to look through your mail, they would have to break into your house. Now they can just break into your ISP. Ten years ago, your voicemail was on an answering machine in your house; now it’s on a computer owned by a telephone company. Your financial data is on Websites protected only by passwords. The list of books you browse, and the books you buy, is stored in the computers of some online bookseller. Your affinity card allows your supermarket to know what food you like. Data that used to be under your direct control is now controlled by others.
We have no choice but to trust these companies with our privacy, even though the companies have little incentive to protect that privacy. T-Mobile suffered some bad press for its lousy security, nothing more. It’ll spend some money improving its security, but it’ll be security designed to protect its reputation from bad PR, not security designed to protect the privacy of its customers.
This loss of control over our data has other effects, too. Our protections against police abuse have been severely watered down. The courts have ruled that the police can search your data without a warrant, as long as that data is held by others. The police need a warrant to read the e-mail on your computer; but they don’t need one to read it off the backup tapes at your ISP. According to the Supreme Court, that’s not a search as defined by the 4th Amendment.
This isn’t a technology problem, it’s a legal problem. The courts need to recognize that in the information age, virtual privacy and physical privacy don’t have the same boundaries. We should be able to control our own data, regardless of where it is stored. We should be able to make decisions about the security and privacy of that data, and have legal recourse should companies fail to honor those decisions. And just as the Supreme Court eventually ruled that tapping a telephone was a Fourth Amendment search, requiring a warrant—even though it occurred at the phone company switching office—the Supreme Court must recognize that reading e-mail at an ISP is no different.
This essay appeared in eWeek.
Much of the political rhetoric surrounding the US presidential election centers around the relative security posturings of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, with each side loudly proclaiming that his opponent will do irrevocable harm to national security.
Terrorism is a serious issue facing our nation in the early 21st century, and the contrasting views of these candidates is important. But this debate obscures another security risk, one much more central to the US: the increasing centralisation of American political power in the hands of the executive branch of the government.
Over 200 years ago, the framers of the US Constitution established an ingenious security device against tyrannical government: they divided government power among three different bodies. A carefully thought-out system of checks and balances in the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch, ensured that no single branch became too powerful. After watching tyrannies rise and fall throughout Europe, this seemed like a prudent way to form a government.
Since 9/11, the United States has seen an enormous power grab by the executive branch. From denying suspects the right to a trial—and sometimes to an attorney—to the law-free zone established at Guantanamo, from deciding which ratified treaties to ignore to flouting laws designed to foster open government, the Bush administration has consistently moved to increase its power at the expense of the rest of the government. The so-called “Torture Memos,” prepared at the request of the president, assert that the president can claim unlimited power as long as it is somehow connected with counterterrorism.
Presidential power as a security issue will not play a role in the upcoming US election. Bush has shown through his actions during his first term that he favours increasing the powers of the executive branch over the legislative and the judicial branches. Kerry’s words show that he is in agreement with the president on this issue. And largely, the legislative and judicial branches are allowing themselves to be trampled over.
In times of crisis, the natural human reaction is to look for safety in a single strong leader. This is why Bush’s rhetoric of strength has been so well-received by the American people, and why Kerry is also campaigning on a platform of strength. Unfortunately, consolidating power in one person is dangerous. History shows again and again that power is a corrupting influence, and that more power is more corrupting. The loss of the American system of checks and balances is more of a security danger than any terrorist risk.
The ancient Roman Senate had a similar way of dealing with major crises. When there was a serious military threat against the safety and security of the Republic, the long debates and compromise legislation that accompanied the democratic process seemed a needless luxury. The Senate would appoint a single person, called a “dictator” (Latin for “one who orders”) to have absolute power over Rome in order to more efficiently deal with the crisis. He was appointed for a period of six months or for the duration of the emergency, whichever period was shorter. Sometimes the process worked, but often the injustices that resulted from having a dictator were worse than the original crisis.
Today, the principles of democracy enshrined in the US constitution are more important than ever. In order to prevail over global terrorism while preserving the values that have made America great, the constitutional system of checks and balances is critical.
This is not a partisan issue; I don’t believe that John Kerry, if elected, would willingly lessen his own power any more than second-term President Bush would. What the US needs is a strong Congress and a strong court system to balance the presidency, not weak ones ceding ever more power to the presidency.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.