Privacy Versus In-Your-Face Big Government

Overview of HONR 239R - Spring 2014

Information is a weapon. It is a mechanism of control. If you know the right information about another person, you know how to control him; if you keep your own information secure then you maintain a better sense of control in your own life. Citizens who seek to preserve an individual's sense of self-determination in a free democratic society support privacy protections as a strong check on expanding government, that might otherwise grow to infringe on citizens' ability to oversee the institution created in their name.

The interests of individual privacy versus government control have always competed but the dynamic balance between them became more intense in recent years with the advent of computers, and our government's willingness to use them to monitor citizen behavior. New technology enables government interests in citizen control at the same time it introduces alternate means for citizens to defend privacy.

This dynamic is evolving just as quickly in the other direction: governmentís need for its own privacy (presumably on our behalf) is increasingly debated, and balancing this is the citizenís ability to sleuth out and quickly share information. Internet technologies (driven by blogs, grassroots news services and more) have had immense political impact in the last decade, based on technologies barely older than that. The shape of journalism in this connected era is changing how people learn about our government and correspondingly impacts governments effectiveness. For good or ill?

The essence of this course is control of information, whether by individuals (in defense against an out of control government), by government (in the interests of its effectiveness on our behalf) or by the commercial sector (as intellectual property in the interests of a robust economy.) We will tour the competing technologies and specifically evaluate their interplay with both enumerated and natural rights. We will study the role of computers in this balancing act and try to understand the mechanisms underlying the privacy dynamic.

-- Prof. James Purtilo

Course Chronology


Take Home Final Exam is now available. Good luck!


Last class! We tied up some loose ends, tried to distill some take-away points, and retraced the learning objectives of the course in order to assess coverage and outcomes. A few tips on life were tossed in as a bonus. Watch here for the exam to post soon, per discussion.


Media day! Today is the screening of our projects for the semester!

Also mentioned - some information on locks.


Biometrics Privacy and identity are fundamentally intertwined concepts. Today we reviewed some of the history of using technologies to check or track identity, examined some of the emerging technologies and considered some of the implications on policy.

A few links: We mentioned the case of a technologist who was intent on keeping her pregnancy away from the big data tracking - and some of the challenges this presented to her. We also mentioned the sad story of Philip Welsh, a man murdered in Montgomery County, Maryland, whose murder may go unsolved because police, so used to leveraging surveillance technology to solve crimes, lack any idea of how to proceed in investigating the death of a man who simply didn't indulge in social media or modern technologies.


Antifraud Challenges in Microfinance Guest lecture by Alexis Bell, CFE, PI. Our visitor is the Global Forensic Audit Manager for FINCA International, a nonprofit organization that provides micro-loans to primarily women who make $2/day or less in post/active conflict developing countries. Her talk gave an overview of this financial system and discussed security in developing countries, reliable transactions and the many competing privacy issues. In the round table discussion which followed, she talked about the monitoring and data analysis techniques one would use in a fraud investigation in this global system.


Note on Banking In a previous lecture we covered some of the basics of bank procedures and their relation to privacy. With that still in mind, please take a moment to carefully read George Will's latest column, The heavy hand of the IRS seizes innocent AmericansŅ assets, which addresses some of the kinds of application of that banking law. We will discuss this in a future class.


Privacy and Business Guest lecture by Prof. Dennis Pitta, Department of Marketing, University of Baltimore. Dr. Pitta laid out the foundation of economics for reasoning about value of information in the commercial sector, and illustrated with some representative numbers for traditional markets. This gives us the basis to understand why emerging technologies which invade our privacy have grown so quickly, as they improve the targeting of consumers, reduce the cost of reaching them and greatly raise the return on that investment for businesses. Said simply, there is a reason Google simply loves you for giving them all that juicy data for free!


Note on remaining class deliverables Leaving aside the final exam, here are the rest of the details on our remaining graded materials for the class.

  • The biggie is your class project. We need the paper on your original research by the last day of class. Let's save the trees and get this submitted electronically. A Word document is most convenient - please email, bring in to copy over from a thumb drive or make your best arrangement for it to be in my possession by the deadline.
  • Your media piece should be in my possession by the early morning of the 8th (Thursday). This is to give me a chance that morning to organize them, get them on my computer, and we'll begin reviewing them in class that afternoon. Email an attachment (if it fits, but potentially not), bring a thumb drive to be copied, or push it to your youtube channel and send me the link to it. (But remember, we don't favor making you you subject to profiling and monitoring by pushing your material to external sites like that!) Potentially, some of these will get pushed for display on the last day of class, but for fairness let's ensure everyone lives under the same deadline.
  • You'll have remaining speaker reports, of course - same conventions as always apply (remembering that we increasingly take these as attachments if you like.) Same for writeup of movie reports in case you want to fill in something. (Please drop of any remaining DVDs once you're done with them, feel free to swap them for something new plus popcorn if you want the stress reduction going into the last weeks!) Oh, and please don't forget that the participation on the hyperbolic blog is a graded effort, letting me knit together a story for the Gen Ed outcomes about your skill set in scanning for relevant content, knowing how to analyze it and then packaging it for presentation to others.
  • We'd like to consider your CourseEvalUM (teaching evaluation) submission a deliverable too, even if to campus and not me. Shortly the campus will start spamming you with reminders to participate. That is yours to fill out or not as you like, but the favor I would ask is to wait to see the last class before you form your opinions. There will be some loose ends to tie together and connections to make, so let us make the full pitch - but then by all means give us your sincere and most constructive evaluation.


Lecture: The Swinging Pendulum of Government Privacy looked at the time line of policy evolution from the late 1960's, to 9-11 and up to today. Transparency of government operations increased, and then dramatically decreased, with impact to all citizens. What's next? We want to analyze whether the pendulum continues or swings back - and find out what will cause any change.


Privacy and Security Issues in Federal Research and Technology Guest lecture by Dr. Larry Schuette, Office of Naval Research.


Note on 4th Amendment A very candid exchange between Justices Ginsburg and Scalia at the National Press Club gives insight on their thinking about privacy and the 4th Amendment. This is a must-hear exchange for students of privacy!


Note on free speech and its potential effects (to touch again on our 'mixed fare' discussion the other day.)


Civil Liberties in the Era of Big Data: An ACLU Perspective on Technology and Privacy Guest lecture by David Rocah, ACLU.


Note on identity theft A developing story of concern as we go into the weekend, we learn that a new pattern of identity theft is emerging.


Lecture: Health Records and Privacy We charted the space of many compelling situations which challenge one to sort out whether health information might be best shielded or disclosed. We gave a thumbnail description of HIPAA, its history and present applicability.


Lecture: Banking and Finance Officials intent on exposing illegal (if not also terrorist) activities know the real value of that old phrase "follow the money" - it is almost impossible to live a life completely independent from some sort of commerce, so federal policy increasingly forces commerce to move through bottlenecks where it can be monitored. Today's lecture covered the legal history of these policies, and illustrated ways it is applied today.


Lab exercises We dissected the privacy considerations in several timely news stories, illustrating how one would analyze them with respect to foundational material already covered in the course.


Notes Now that the 'liberty' writing assignment is behind us, the semester research assignment is squarely in our sights. This is your friendly tip that now is a good time to up your game. The intention, and our challenge, is that you indulge in genuine knowledge discovery or creation, not just repackaging. Yup! That's hard! But we've seen some good preliminary work so far this semester, and we know you are all up to the challenge. In any case, the end of semester will be coming up faster than you might want. Let's knock these goals out sooner rather than later, so you can load balance with other courses that might have heavy projects and finals arrive all at the same time.

In addition: We strongly recommend that you plan to squeeze more value out of both the recent essay assignment and your upcoming research deliverable. For example, consider submitting the latter to such forums as the competition for best research paper, sponsored through the Honors College. You won't have your project done in time for this year, but think ahead! There is the next cycle, and there will be other targets too.

In the same way, as long as liberty, economic freedom and privacy - all issues involving control - are still on your mind, please take a look at the essay contest run through the Ayn Rand Institute (whose generosity, you will recall, supplied us with some of the books used this semester.) The competition involves essays which address questions out of "Atlas Shrugged", the prize is pretty beefy and the deadline to submit is far enough in the future that you have plenty of time to polish.

Competitions like these beg to be owned completely by students in our seminar!


Lab We generally muddled through creation of a composition within Adobe After Effects in order to confirm that matching the baseline example ("pizza ad") in our animation deliverable is so easy even the instructor can do it. This evolved into some discussion about the research focus for semester projects. Then, as everyone was bleary-eyed for completing the writing assignment due for today, we adjourned to go and smell the roses.


Mixed Fare We nailed down our research goals for rest of the semester, and went over more details of our expectations. We'll bring our computers (and writing assignment submissions!) to the next class to do an exercise with the animation software which would support some of our final deliverables. (Those who would like my red marks and annotations on the writing assignment like before should bring the hardcopy for me to use; if you would accept the grade and maybe a few synoptized comments instead, then please feel free to save a tree and submit by email attachment.)


Computer Basics, Part Deux We made the case that much of what we do in computer science is about manipulating complexity, either to reduce it (in order to manage our systems more effectively) or selectively increase it (to erect cryptographic barriers around private information.) Often, inappropriate exploits lurk buried inside complex systems, using obscurity of scale to cloak disclosures. More commonly, our data become disclosed to commercial or governmental interests with our own help, made easy because it is similarly cloaked inside complex apparatus. We looked at some of the ways this works, and discussed how data become 'joined' to create more colorful pictures of our lives.


Computer Basics We did a lightning review of the foundations of computer technologies, so we have a basis to talk about ways they are used to capture private information or invade private space.


The Fourth Amendment at the Crossroads Guest lecture by Jim Harper, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute, and Global Policy Counsel at the Bitcoin Foundation. The Supreme Court is gradually coming to terms with the effect information technology is having on the Fourth Amendment. In 2001, the Kyllo decision curtailed the use of high-tech devices for searching homes. In its early 2012 decision in United States v. Jones, a unanimous Court agreed that government agents can't attach a GPS device to a vehicle and track it for four weeks without a warrant. But the Court was divided as to rationale. The majority opinion in Jones found that attaching the device to the car was at the heart of the Fourth Amendment violation. Four concurring members of the Court felt that the government's tracking violated a "reasonable expectation of privacy." Our speaker reviewed this history and discussed where the court must go in the future if privacy is to be protected as it was when the nation was founded.


View from the Fourth Estate Guest lecture by Josh Kurtz, editor of Environment & Energy Daily. Our guest explored the role of a working journalist in exposing problems and issues in government, and in our community overall. He discussed the power - and limits - of FOI requests in supporting such exploration. He raised the question of whether a different standard for investigation or reporting does or should apply for a "public figure". He covered examples from the nuclear energy industry, big city politics and Maryland state government. Discussion looked at whether any government entity or topic should be off limits for scrutiny by the public, and the limits of using 'anonymous' quotes in reporting (effectively protecting the privacy of some with information to share.)


Writing Assignment This writing assignment deals with the relationship between government and privacy. What is the role of privacy in preservation of liberty?

At some level, the size of government and extent of liberty have an obvious inverse relationship. (More government necessarily means less liberty.) The essence of this assignment is to explain where privacy fits into this picture.

Brook and Watkins, in Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government [*], surely assert that smaller government means more liberty, and they are not alone in arguing that pure capitalism (in which individuals maintain greatest control over their possessions and activities) is necessary to protect liberty. (We trust you are enjoying your read of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged as well.) Similarly, both the ethics systems we have discussed and federal law define privacy in terms of control. This parallel between government size or market systems on one hand and privacy frameworks on the other is intriguing and what frames our assignment.

Based on reading your essay, a literate reader should be able to tell what is the economic value of privacy today (for example, what is your private information worth in a free market?) and also know what is its value with respect to liberty. The reader should also know clearly whether privacy is necessarily linked with capitalism, inversely linked, connected in a more subtle way, or simply unrelated. Similarly, one should be able to tell whether privacy and size of government are correlated in any way. It would be fair to view this as a cost-benefit study, in perhaps more than one dimension.

It would be surprising if this exposition could be given adequate treatment in under 2500 words, and you should be sure to support your assertions with appropriate citations. (We've provided several source materials to get you started, of course, but that is the starting point for your research and reading, not the end.) The same writing tips from the previous assignment apply now. Feel free to go over drafts with me well in advance of the due date, but in any event please submit your completed papers by the start of class on April 3rd.

[*] And again, a big thanks to the Ayn Rand Institute for generously providing copies of this book for our class!


Private Investigations and Public Privacy Guest lecture by Phil Becnel. Our guest explored the world of the private investigator - someone who works in the commercial sector but subject to many different regulatory restrictions as compared with those of a government official (especially law enforcement.) He reviewed those similarities and differences, talked about the various practices people in his profession follow, described cases and also showed some of the various technologies which are common in that field.


Mixed Fare A bit of retrospective on the recent string of guest speakers' topics, lots of informal discussion about research projects for the semester, and no small amount of cheering on of efforts to get to know our software for creating animation pieces by end of the semester.


Privacy and the Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Guest lecture by Julie McEwen, MITRE Corporation. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are currently being employed for a variety of uses by the government and in private industry, and their use is expected to increase in the future. The use of a technology such as UAS has the potential to impact individuals' privacy. Our guest provided an overview of basic foundational privacy principles and examined how to apply them to address privacy risk in the use of UAS.


Mobile Privacy: Are we there yet? Whose problem is it anyway? Guest lecture by Nickyra Washington, MITRE Corporation. Our guest covered the full spectrum of privacy issues which commonly arise in debate over policy involving mobile technologies. She touched on the history and origins of today's privacy policies in general, and then explained how they are treated with respect to mobile technologies in particular.


NSA Surveillance: How's Your Relationship with your Phone? Guest lecture by John Frazer, J.D. John Frazer lectured on the legal backdrop to the ongoing debate on government policy on surveillance, especially as relates to communications. He reviewed some of the rich history, especially focusing on Smith v. Maryland which decades ago established the legality of warrantless capture of data, and brought us up to the most current petitions now before the Supreme Court.

Followup: Because 'pen registers' were discussed at length (as part of the case history), our guest followed up by sending links to give some details of this technology of the era plus he reminds us of what is neary by on display at local museums.

More followup: Our guest notes another timely development for us. Almost as if they are trying to give our class more good material to discuss, the Supremes just granted cert to cases that challenge police searches of cell phone data coincident with an arrest. Never mind pen registers - modern devices carry around far more data about you, but need a bit of digital coaxing for police to drag it out. Do police need a warrant for this or not?


Mixed Fare We followed up some of the suggested reading with discussion about MPIA usage in Baltimore (red light and speed cameras, plus teacher claims in the school system) and FOIA usage in the matter of some admirals' travel (reported in the Washington Post.) We went into detail on expectations for the semester project, emphasizing our interest having a big part of your effort be on original research. Then we talked about research itself, what it looks like, how we try to get ideas of what to do in the first place and some of the practices we follow along the way. Remember: guest speaker on Thursday (so make sure you've done your pre-reads) and first writing assignment due next week.


Update: Any in-class portion of the final exam will occur as scheduled by campus, which we now know will be 10:30am-12:30PM on Wednesday, May 21.


Announce: In anticipation of our guest's presentation on Thursday of this week, our pre-reads are:

A little more color to the story which will be discussed Thursday can be found at Justice Blackmunís File on Smith v. Maryland at a (now) Washington Post blog (run by law professors) called the Volokh Conspiracy.


Note: Another good demonstration of what can be found out about previously-private government activities is given in Baltimore, with a report on teacher claims for injuries in the classroom.


Snow Day! Word breaks that the campus will close tonight and remain closed all through tomorrow, which will trigger some adjustments to our schedule. Tomorrow's speaker will reschedule to an open date in March; for Tuesday you'll have to put up with me again. We'll plan on talking about ways to start zeroing in on a research topic and how one would proceed, so it will be useful for you to think in advance about at least some topic areas that interest you. We'll see if we can help you sharpen them.

Meanwhile, I recommend you stock up on hot cocoa, snag a copy of "Atlas Shrugged" (as discussed in class yesterday), bunker up in a warm place and use the time to get a start on figuring out who is John Galt.


Books An update on our resources ...

  • Yesterday we distributed our remaining copies of The Influencing Machine, which was last year's FYB. A big thanks to the folks in UGST who scrounged to help us cover as much as we could. (If our upperclassmen can't find your old copy and you still need one, then do let us know, I'll keep shaking down other colleagues on the FYB committee.)
  • In anticipation of our upcoming writing assignment on the role of privacy in commerce and government, we distributed copies of Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins. This was made possible by the generosity of the Ayn Rand Institute and their donors, so a sincere thanks to them for making this possible!
  • If you have not already picked one up, please get a copy of this year's FYB, The Signal and the Noise, also made available through Undergraduate Studies on campus. Why get this? You you should!
All of these are great resources, so please get reading.


The government's case for privacy Government's case for privacy Legal mechanics behind the US structure of both protecting and providing information. What are rules of the game today? First discussion about what is the government interest in conducting business in private, plus the general legal framework today that governs government handling of "personally identifiable information". Introduction to Freedom of Information Act and Maryland Public Information Act, with examples given to illustrate how this sort of research forms one of your tools in a study of government.

A complete example of a FOIA request (and response) involved a State Department report of inspection for Embassy Bucharest, Romania. A classic use of the Maryland PIA for research concerns the Baltimore Sun investigation of red light cameras. (Start with that link but then do your own further investigation of what transpired from 2012 through to the present).

Based on today's discussion, our intent in mentioning the earlier Washington Post article should be clear. This is about as classic an example of how FOIA might be used with effect. (You can judge for yourself whether it reached a reasonable outcome.) Please take a moment to review again that short article with the today's lecture fresh in mind.

With Abraham Lincoln's birthday tomorrow, privacy scholars will remember his (unfortunately not unique) role in handling the Fourth Amendment. We commend to you this analysis of the Constitutional issues at play.


In the news ... Today is 'the day we fight back', in the words of activists pushing back against mass surveillance at (Do take note, that logging in to that site using twitter, facebook, google+ or other options listed will expose you to surveillance by the greatest purveyors of personal data on the planet.)


Update Some more material for you to check out! First, in advance of our guest speaker's visit on Thursday please study The (Ex) Voice of the Village, by Richard Perez-Pena. Second, make sure you have at least a basic understanding of what is meant by "Watergate". (Hint: it is not just an old hotel downtown. Feel free to ask about this in class tomorrow.)

Some other materials we'd like for you to have your head around for our upcoming discussion:


Update A timely article for our Tuesday discussion appears this morning in the Washington Post. Please take a moment to look that over (it has a couple privacy angles we'll consider) and see if you can find one or two other easy examples of the application of FOIA for some interesting purposes. These will set the stage for discussion.


Mixed Fare We talked about possible topic areas for your semester research project, and more importantly about some of the practices which help you come across good angles. (Some interesting topic areas were suggested by members in the class. Good!) We viewed a couple of videos which illustrated issues with the 4th amendment - or actually, with how it is or is not observed in some cases. And we lamented how, in an utter brain fade, the first writing assignment which I thought had been pushed out late Tuesday simply never got updated to the web site. That is now below ...

Writing Assignment Based on last year's FYB book The Influencing Machine and your own research, write an essay on the role of journalists in US society today. Are they critical to liberty? But how can they protect liberty if one of their roles is to infringe on a right to privacy? As a result of your essay, a literate reader should know whether or not our government has an unfettered expectation of privacy in its operation and (if so) on what that expectation is based; the reader should know how or whether that expectation is different from any 'right' an individual might have for privacy; and whether those expectations are respected in practice today. Please submit these at the start of class on 25 February.

To set our standards for writing, let's focus on getting these in at 1000 words. Expect the next assignments to go longer. Expect to get the grade for each paper based on your first submission of each, but to be given a revise obligation (one week turnaround) if it is not acceptable. That can buy back a small bit of the letter grade if you invest the effort. Risk reduction tips: bring the paper to me at least one week in advance and sit with me during office hours to go over it; that costs you nothing but a bit of time, yet gets you the advice I would give you after the grade is assigned. Why not get it in advance? Also, you can have the writing center go over your work with you in advance; if you have them send me the standard notice of same, then it will be good for some sort of brownie point or other at an unspecified future date.


The Ethical and Legal Basis for a Right to Privacy Continuing last lecture's thread, we started with the Founder's view of rights, followed that through how they justified formation of a government, discussed the basis for its forming and enforcing laws, and then traced the evolution of "privacy" from something very physical through to today's notion of it also being informational. We discussed the difference between instrumental and intrinsic value, and ultimately used that to study models of privacy that were introduced in the readings. We concluded with a brief comparison of the US model of privacy with that as evolving in the EU.


Update The repository is now loaded with the first papers provided for discussion. For next time, please read these papers:

You can access these materials via the login name and password as given in class (and the information sent to our class list today.)

Other reminders:

  • Pick up a copy of this year's FYB, The Signal and the Noise. (Will we rely heavily on it? Who cares, it's a great book.)
  • If you already received last year's FYB, or can scrounge one from someone who didn't yet repurpose their copy, then please get a copy of last year's FYB, The Influencing Machine. This is something we would like to use.
  • Seriously - go check out the free stuff available at as already suggested below. I recommend toying around with Adobe After Effects first, and you can jump right in with your own throw away examples by checking out the free tutorials available from Adobe. Some of these won't take you even half an hour to both watch and try. It is so easy even I can do it. Go for it! This will get you an early start on the project we'd like to do in class.
  • For those of you interested in getting a sense of what kind of 'original research' has been done in the past in this class, an exemplar is UM Cardswipe Report. We will be challenging you to do Really Good Stuff in this semester too! You can start to think about what privacy areas you'd like to stake out as your turf.


The Origin of Rights In order to understand whether we have a right to privacy, we need to know a little bit about what rights are in the first place and where they come from. We started by defining some of the basic terms of discourse for the semester - kinds of privacy, for example - and discussed at length what is the foundation for reasoning about "rights" in the US. The basis for our understanding of rights at least in this country derives from our Constitution and its origins, which we covered. Left open is the question of what framework one would use in reasoning about how rights are treated elsewhere in the world, and of course a connection between this foundation and a question whether privacy is a right of some kind.


Course overview First day of class! In addition to going over the mechanics of the course and what we expect of students, we raced through a hodgepodge of privacy-related terms, topics and questions in order to give a sketch to the scope of our discourse this semester. We talked at length about course outcomes and gave a heads up to the sorts of assignments to come.

Action items:

  1. For those who were around campus last year, please dig out your copy of The Influencing Machine. [*] Why a book on media and journalism? Reporters sleuth out 'stuff' about people (or companies) which might otherwise be private, and in theory should be doing the same for government too. They shed light from one to the other. In each case, there will be information which the one wanted to keep private and others thought ought to be known. How to sort it all out, and how in particular do you research what the government here is doing on your behalf? Start studying up on these questions - and this book might help.
  2. If you have not yet done so this year, swing by Marie Mount hall to get your copy of The Signal and the Noise, which is this year's First Year Book. Hey, it's a good book!
  3. Read the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Start thinking about how it is you come to have rights in the first place. What are rights? We must understand that before we can understand whether one of those rights is to privacy.

Administrative: We discussed the project goal, and described how it is important to know how to research a topic, package a scholarly paper about it, and then craft a compact way of delivering your research punch lines using novel media. There will be plenty more on this in coming sessions, but you might want to start investigating just how much software you can get free because of your affiliation here. In particular, check out One of the packages we used to make a little presentation at our seam project page on intrusion detection is Adobe After Effects. If we can do it, then you can do it, and the only materials we used to get up to speed are the free Adobe tutorials also available on line. Check it out now, play with it, and we'll be talking more later about how to draft a storyboard, focus a message and then produce your own piece.

[*] A big thanks to the campus First Year Book program for generously providing us with copies of this book for our class.

[**] For reference, the ACLU 'pizza ad' we showed today is available under the Outtakes link at top of this page.


Course Status Testudo now correctly lists this course as satisfying Gen Ed's Distributive Studies Scholarship in Practice requirement.

We are also cross-listed as HACS208G, in the ACES program.


Course Status Testudo now correctly lists this course as satisfying Gen Ed's Distributive Studies Scholarship in Practice requirement.


Course Status We are waiting to hear whether this course will satisfy an Interdisciplinary and Emerging Issues (IE) requirement under CORE and serve as a Distributive Studies Scholarship in Practice requirement under GenEd. It has in the past, but still needs to be listed as such for the coming spring.


Copyright © 2004-2014 James M. Purtilo