At a glance.
- Privacy in tension with analytical soundness.
- Illuminate removed from the Student Privacy Pledge.
- Privacy activists warn of Amazon's acquisition of iRobot.
Privacy in tension with analytical soundness.
Demographers are asking the US Census Bureau to stop using differential privacy algorithms, saying that the practice jeopardizes the usability of the numbers in the data, the AP reports. The demographers and other researchers penned a letter to Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, asking that future plans for use of the controversial method in annual population estimates and the American Community Survey be dropped. The letter stated that the methods “are inappropriate for the critically important data sets, which are fundamental to American democracy and to equity in redistricting, fund allocation and planning for government services of all kinds.”
The Census Bureau has defended the use of the methods, stating that they are needed due to growth of available third-party data combined with modern computing, which may allow hackers to get the identities of those surveyed. The use of the algorithms was challenged by the state of Alabama last year in a lawsuit, but three federal judges allowed for their use.
Illuminate removed from the signatories of the Student Privacy Pledge.
Illuminate Education, an educational technology vendor that suffered a massive data breach affecting millions of students, has been removed from the Student Privacy Pledge following allegations of misrepresentation of security safeguards, The74 reports. The creator of the pledge, the Future of Privacy Forum, announced Monday that Illuminate was stripped of its pledge signatory designation, and that they had referred the company to the FTC and state attorney generals in New York and California to “consider further appropriate action.” Forum CEO Jules Polonetsky said in a statement that “Publicly available information appears to confirm that Illuminate Education did not encrypt all student information while” being stored or transferred from one system to another. Mr Polonetsky also said that the decision came after “direct outreach” to the company, which would not confirm that the privacy practices had been in place.
Illuminate Education spokesperson Jane Snyder has said that the company is disappointed in the forum’s decision, but that the decision “will not detract from our commitment to safeguard the privacy of all student data in our care.”
Your Roomba may soon be in cahoots with Amazon. (Privacy advocates are sounding the klaxon, anyway.)
Computing reports that data privacy advocates are concerned following Amazon’s announcement last week of their acquisition of iRobot, the maker of Roomba vacuums. Advocates fear that the deal could be used by Amazon to collect more personal data from the homes of consumers. iRobot reports that advanced Roomba vacuum cleaners can generate a map of a user’s home floor layout, and can adapt to and memorize up to 10 floor layouts, which can, theoretically, be sent back to Amazon’s corporate offices following the acquisition. Amazon launched the Astro last fall, a three-wheeled $1,450 competitor to Roomba, which has not yet garnered much traction from consumers.
"Amazon is a surveillance firm. That is the core of its business model, and that's what drives its monopoly power and profit," Evan Greer, director of non-profit digital rights group Fight for the Future, told Wired. Antitrust experts believe that the FTC may conduct a thorough investigation of the purchase, and that in order to block the merger, the argument would have to be made that it significantly reduces competition in the smart vacuum market. Ron Knox, a senior researcher and writer with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says that this “may be the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company's history.”
Alexandra Miller, a spokesperson for Amazon, emphasizes that "protecting customer data has always been incredibly important to Amazon," and notes that the company believes that they have been "very good stewards of peoples' data across all of our businesses,” adding that “Customer trust is something we have worked hard to earn —and work hard to keep— every day."
There’s a temptation to regard Amazon, for all of its appeal to consumers, as an electronic panopticon (if not the lidless eye of Sauron). Take the concerns seriously, but recognize that they can be mixed with a degree of alarmism.