Caveat 10.7.21
Ep 97 | 10.7.21

Protecting local officials from doxxing and threats.


Rob Shavell: These data brokers have generally never gotten consent from any citizen. And by the way, they have information on all 300 million, you know, adult Americans and children at this point.

Dave Bittner: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Caveat," the CyberWire's privacy, surveillance, law and policy podcast. I'm Dave Bittner. And joining me is my co-host, Ben Yelin from the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. Hello, Ben. 

Ben Yelin: Hello, Dave. 

Dave Bittner: Ben's got the latest in the FTC's antitrust case against Facebook. I've got the story of the Supreme Court considering disclosure of FISA Court rulings. And later in the show, my conversation with Rob Shavell from DeleteMe. We're going to be discussing how to protect local officials from doxxing and other threats. 

Dave Bittner: While this show covers legal topics and Ben is a lawyer, the views expressed do not constitute legal advice. For official legal advice on any of the topics we cover, please contact your attorney. 

Dave Bittner: All right, Ben, why don't you start things off for us this week? 

Ben Yelin: So it's been a tough couple of maybe three or four days for Facebook. 

Dave Bittner: Yes. Yes. Yes, it has. 

Ben Yelin: Yes, it has. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter). 

Ben Yelin: And, you know, we don't want to rub salt in their wounds. 

Dave Bittner: Well, you know... 

Ben Yelin: Or do we? 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) I don't know. 

Ben Yelin: I don't know. I use it. I admit to using it. I'm not going to - I don't know. How do you pronounce the word - schadenfreude? 

Dave Bittner: Schadenfreude, yeah. 

Ben Yelin: Schadenfreude, yeah. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah, yeah. I - my Facebook account has been inactive since just before COVID, so probably coming up on two years now. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah. So, you know, I want to rag on them too hard, but they've had a tough few days. First on, as we're taping this, just a couple of days ago, there was a "60 Minutes" expose on this sort of internal audit that revealed all of this dysfunction within the organization. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: And, you know, that goes along with some of the negative publicity they've been getting in front of Congress as it relates to Instagram and its exploitation of their youngest users. And then, as we're taping this, yesterday, there was a Facebook outage, which also caused the outage of some of its component parts... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...Like Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Dave Bittner: Six hours they were down. 

Ben Yelin: It was a long time. There were rumors that there was a team of people going to reboot the server at a... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...Secret remote location in California. 

Dave Bittner: And they had to use angle grinders to get into the secure facilities. 

Ben Yelin: Yes. Their badges wouldn't grant them entry into... 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: ...Facebook headquarters, so... 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: ...All those... 

Dave Bittner: Because it was relying on the network that was down. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter). 

Ben Yelin: So we all had a really pleasant six hours without, you know, reading our aunt's screed - political screeds on Facebook. But certainly - it certainly didn't help the stocks of Mr. Zuckerberg. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: We saw Facebook really go into the red there. So I don't want to rag on them too much, but... 

Dave Bittner: It's too late (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: It is too late. They are also involved in ongoing litigation related to antitrust. 

Dave Bittner: Right, right. 

Ben Yelin: So they were sued - we talked about this several months ago - by the FTC alleging that they are a monopoly in their space. And the judge in that case threw out that lawsuit, saying that the FTC didn't put together a valid claim under our antitrust statutes. Basically, the idea was that they didn't allege specific facts saying that Facebook had a particular market completely cornered to the extent required under our antitrust statutes. 

Ben Yelin: So the FTC has amended the complaint. They filed a new lawsuit. And they are arguing that Facebook shouldn't be compared to other popular public-facing social applications like TikTok, YouTube. They say it's most relevant rival is Snapchat, which certainly performs some of the same functions as Facebook but has, you know, a factor - in the factor of the millions, many fewer users than Facebook or its sister company, Instagram. 

Ben Yelin: Facebook is challenging this argument, saying that they don't dominate a narrow market of social networks. They call it, quote, "a litigation-driven fiction at odds with commercial reality of intense competition." Limiting their market competition to Snapchat, in the words of Facebook, ignores the competitive reality that there are a lot of services that help people share, connect, communicate and be entertained. And they mention TikTok, iMessage, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, YouTube and countless others. I don't think many people are going to LinkedIn to simply be entertained, but... 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) You'd be surprised. 

Ben Yelin: That's another story. 

Dave Bittner: Right, right. 

Ben Yelin: So, you know, this is - I think Facebook is making a compelling point here. I don't think the FTC has dotted all of their i's and crossed all their t's to really describe the market that Facebook is in and why they have cornered that market. 

Ben Yelin: To compare Facebook to something like Snapchat I think doesn't encapsulate everything that Facebook does because Facebook has the chat function. Facebook has a News Feed. Facebook has pages where organizations can share information about their work. And that's something that's not perfectly captured in that limited competition. So I think they're right to say that they compete with a whole bunch of other companies more broadly and just happen to fulfill some of the multiple services that these companies offer. 

Ben Yelin: So this is just one of the regulatory challenges Facebook is facing right now. We talked about the whistleblower report. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: And they got yelled at in front of Congress for some of their exploitative services as it relates to young people using Instagram. But I think this is probably the biggest threat to their bottom line, being challenged with this antitrust suit. And my read of it is that they are still relatively well situated to get this lawsuit dismissed. 

Dave Bittner: Really? And this is the one where, initially, the judge said to the FTC, hey, go back, do more homework and come back with - you know, try again. 

Ben Yelin: That's exactly what happened. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: So I think the judge is amenable to saying, if you can really dig into that antitrust statute, figure out exactly what you have to prove, which is that Facebook has cornered a very specific, discrete marketplace, then you can bring a valid claim. We can actually get to it on the merits. 

Ben Yelin: The FTC did come back. They tried to argue that Facebook dominates the market. And they're using data about the amount of time people spend on Facebook. They got this from a commercial data company called Comscore. 

Ben Yelin: Facebook argues that, you know, the time people - that's an inaccurate way to measure Facebook's market share as it relates to social media in particular because people use Facebook for a whole bunch of different purposes besides social networking. So if you're going to compare Facebook to Snapchat, which is what the FTC is attempting to do here, it's an invalid comparison, it's apples to oranges because people could be spending the same amount of time on Snapchat and on Facebook as it relates only to social networking, not to everything else that Facebook does. 

Ben Yelin: So, you know, we have a couple of attorneys saying - there's this one they quote named Charlotte Slaiman, who is - works for a consumer advocacy group called Public Knowledge, saying that she thinks Facebook's out of line, that the FTC hasn't - made its case strongly enough that, you know, Facebook hasn't (ph) violated antitrust laws. And she's arguing that Facebook is trying to hold the FTC to a standard that's higher than the actual legal standard at this stage, where you're just trying to get your foot in the door at court. 

Ben Yelin: I think that is certainly plausible. You know, in order to - you have to have a well-pleaded complaint that's grounded in the law in order to just get a case heard in court. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: Your case does not have to be airtight, otherwise no cases would make it on the merits. So I think from that perspective, that might be the FTC's best shot - that they've come up with something that's at least plausible. They haven't proven market dominance. They haven't proven that Facebook is actually a monopoly. But they might have alleged just enough to get it into a legal proceeding, where you can actually go into discovery. You can, you know, do a more thorough investigation, perhaps get this in front of a sympathetic jury. 

Ben Yelin: So I think that's the best-case scenario for the FTC. I still think on the merits, as much as I like to rag on Facebook, I think they sort of have it right here that the FTC hasn't quite drilled down on why Facebook is a monopoly when it hasn't properly situated them in this broader marketplace. 

Dave Bittner: What about some of the folks I see making the point - and I suppose it's after the horse has left the barn - that there should've been more regulatory scrutiny on Facebook at the moment when they were on a buying spree, when they were purchasing Instagram - you know, that that would've been a moment of thoughtfulness to say, perhaps you'll be too big if you do this? 

Ben Yelin: Yeah. I mean, hindsight is always 20/20. I think it probably would've been better just because, you know, that was a case where Instagram, at the time that Facebook purchased it, was starting to be more of a direct competitor. And Facebook was engaging in these monopolistic practices of buying off their competitors using their market power. 

Ben Yelin: That's something where if we had a strong, you know, early 20th-century, trust-busting regulatory regime, they might have actually done their jobs and ensured that Facebook couldn't have the type of market domination that they have today. But we - they didn't do that. So now, you know, we kind of - we are where we are here. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: They have acquired Instagram. It is part of their network. It should be considered as part of any antitrust suit. You know, they are making money off of Instagram. So they do have a large market share in whatever it is that Instagram does. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: But, yeah, I mean, I think in the long term, the better solution is to have, you know, more active regulatory agencies who stop these anti-competitive practices before they are allowed to continue. We just haven't done that in any realm in this country in the past 40 years. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: I mean, look at the consolidation of the airline industry. 

Dave Bittner: Well, I mean, you look at anything. Yeah, so much consolidation, all in so many different verticals. You look at things like cable companies, you know, internet providers, all that sort of stuff. My concern with all of that is that you reach the point where these companies are no longer running at a human scale. 

Ben Yelin: Right. 

Dave Bittner: And so, you know, let's just think about cable companies. In the early days of cable TV, you had community cable companies... 

Ben Yelin: Yup. 

Dave Bittner: ...Regional cable companies. And so if you had an issue, chances are you knew somebody or, you know, you knew somebody who knew somebody, and you could get some help with your problem. That ain't the way it works anymore (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: No, and now your estimated wait time is... 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: ...Five hours and six minutes, yeah. 

Dave Bittner: Right. It's like that old Lily Tomlin bit, you know? 

Ben Yelin: We don't care. We don't have to. 

Dave Bittner: We're the phone company. We don't have to care. Yeah (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: I'm afraid that that's where we're going to get with Facebook, which is why if you are very conspiracy minded, which I am not... 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter). 

Ben Yelin: ...Perhaps the outage, you know, maybe it was a false flag operation... 

Dave Bittner: Oh, Ben (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: ...To show the world what would happen if we lost Facebook for several hours... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...And how our lives would be, you know, completely ruined. We wouldn't be able to communicate... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...To social network, et cetera. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: But I'm not - I am not a conspiracy theorist. 

Dave Bittner: No, no, no. 

Ben Yelin: Just asking questions. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. Well, those of us who are not on Facebook, we carried on with our lives as if nothing had happened. It was delightful (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: It was delightful, actually. It was, to be honest, a really good six hours. 

Dave Bittner: All right, well, we will link to this story over on The Washington Post. It's written by Cat Zakrzewski. So we'll have a link to that for you to check out. 

Dave Bittner: All right, let's move on to my story. So my story comes from The New York Times. This is written by Adam Liptak. And it's titled "At the Supreme Court, a Plea to Reveal Secret Surveillance Rulings." The FISA Court is something that you and I discuss here fairly regularly (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: Yup, our old friend, the FISA Court. 

Dave Bittner: And we talked about - in fact, it was a couple weeks ago, I think. I was not aware that FISA went all the way back to 1978. This article points out that as a result of the Snowden leaks in 2013, Congress passed a new law called the USA Freedom Act. Got to love that name. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah, it's also an acronym, by the way, just like the USA Patriot Act. 

Dave Bittner: OK. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah. 

Dave Bittner: What is it - oh, so Freedom stands for something. 

Ben Yelin: It stands for something. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. OK, great. 

Ben Yelin: Hold on, Elliott (ph). I cannot say what it stands for. 

Dave Bittner: So the bottom line here is that the ACLU has filed a motion seeking disclosure of major FISA Court decisions that took place between the September 11 attacks and the 2015 Freedom Act of - Freedom Act, the Freedom Act of 2015. And the ACLU is saying that we - that the First Amendment should require that we have more disclosure here of what's going on in the FISA Court. 

Dave Bittner: Now, an interesting wrinkle here is that as I read it - and you can correct me here if I'm wrong, Ben - the Freedom Act of 2015 puts the discretion of disclosure in the executive branch. 

Ben Yelin: That's exactly right, yeah. 

Dave Bittner: And so the argument that the ACLU is making is that this discretion should be under the judicial branch's jurisdiction. Am I getting this right, Ben? 

Ben Yelin: That's absolutely correct. So what happened with the 2015 USA Freedom Act - among other things, what Congress did was give the executive branch some discretion, but advised it to release controversial or consequential FISA decisions to the extent practicable, to the greatest extent practicable. Basically, unless there is some major national security obstacle reason why an opinion cannot be released, it should be released. 

Ben Yelin: And so we've actually had a decent record over the past six years since the USA Freedom Act was enacted in having significant FISA decisions be released. Now, they're often released behind schedule. So when we have these annual programmatic FISA Court decisions where they might review, for example, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows for the collection of online content of non-U.S. persons... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: They review that every year programmatically. Sometimes we'll get that, you know, six to 12 months after they've already granted approval, so it's not going to be as useful. It's hard to raise a fuss once the die has already been cast. 

Dave Bittner: I see. 

Ben Yelin: But to their credit, to the executive branch's credit in both the Trump and Biden administrations, we have received - we do end up seeing a lot of these redacted but released FISA opinions. 

Ben Yelin: The relevant period at issue in this case is from September 11, 2001, through the enactment of the USA Freedom Act. And there are a lot of extremely consequential decisions that took place during that 14-year time frame. Largely, we know about the existence of a lot of surveillance authorities from that period because of the Edward Snowden disclosures and other disclosures. But, for example, you know, this is the time period where FISA Court decided that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which allows for the collection of tangible things, justified the collection of nearly all domestic phone records in the United States. 

Ben Yelin: So we were getting some very consequential decisions. And it is still a major blind spot for the civil liberties community. Courts are reliant on these decisions. You know, they're still binding on our court system, even though they haven't been released to the public. 

Dave Bittner: Oh. 

Ben Yelin: So that's really what this case is about. There are a couple of interesting wrinkles here that I'll mention. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: The first is a general justiciability wrinkle. So there was a similar case, ended up going to the FISA Court of Review, which I would say is the best gig if you're going to be a judge because they've been in existence since 1978, and I think they've met three times... 

Dave Bittner: Wow. 

Ben Yelin: ...In their existence - something like that, three or four times. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) Right. 

Ben Yelin: And they said that this issue isn't justiciable at all because Congress didn't provide in the original FISA Act some sort of proceeding for regular declassification. So they said that this is not something that the FISA Court could even consider. So we have to get around that justiciability problem. 

Ben Yelin: The second is the really interesting story arc here of one Merrick Garland. So Merrick Garland in 2020 was an appeals court judge for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: And he wrote a very forceful opinion on the importance of openness in our justice system. To quote him, "court decisions are public documents. Indeed, since at least the time of Edward III, judicial decisions have been open for public inspection." 

Ben Yelin: But Mr. Garland then was hired for a new position. He is, of course, now our attorney general. And now his Justice Department is arguing in front of the Supreme Court that there is no justiciable First Amendment claim to have these decisions issued - to have these decisions made public. 

Ben Yelin: So in some ways, it's kind of a tragic story arc. I'm sure in his heart of hearts he does really believe in transparency. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: But, of course, the Justice Department, for perhaps some legitimate reasons, some illegitimate reasons, is going to want to protect some of the secrets contained in these FISA decisions. 

Ben Yelin: The stakes here are extremely high. The Supreme Court is set to meet to decide whether to take up this case - generally need four justices to agree to hear this case, which was brought by civil liberties groups led by the ACLU. And if we do get to the point where this series of FISA decisions are released from 2001 to 2015, I think we'd, you know, have greater transparency in how courts arrived at these decisions and whether the Justice Department, as they've done in several other cases, you know, cut corners to get the results they wanted from the FISA Court. So I think that's something that's going to be really important to look at going forward. 

Dave Bittner: Based on the current makeup of the Supreme Court, any thoughts or predictions of where they might go? 

Ben Yelin: That's a good point. I don't think this really falls neatly on ideological lines, necessarily. You have justices like Alito and Thomas, who on national security matters - and actually Chief Justice Roberts as well - are quite deferential to the executive branch, saying that they have prerogative under Article II to protect the national security of the United States. So this isn't just any other classified opinion. This has to do with national security, and there are limits to transparency in that context. 

Ben Yelin: You have other justices, even some of the more conservative ones like Justice Gorsuch, who I think would be pretty amenable to transparency here. He kind of has a libertarian streak and has been skeptical in the past of government surveillance programs. 

Ben Yelin: So I think it's a 50-50 tossup... 

Dave Bittner: OK. 

Ben Yelin: ...As to whether they would consider this case and how they'd rule on this case. Again, I'm terrible at prognostication in sports, politics and everything else I try to prognosticate - weather. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) Right. 

Ben Yelin: But that's just my... 

Dave Bittner: OK, fair enough. 

Ben Yelin: That's just my mildly informed opinion. 

Dave Bittner: OK, fair enough. All right. Well, again, we will have a link to that story in the show notes. That comes from The New York Times. 

Dave Bittner: We would love to hear from you. If you have a question for us, you can email us. Our email address is 

Dave Bittner: All right, Ben, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Rob Shavell from an organization called DeleteMe. And our conversation centers on the notion of protecting local officials from doxxing and threats. We've seen a lot of that sort of thing going on lately, I mean, even down to school boards and things like that. Here's my conversation with Rob Shavell. 

Rob Shavell: When things get politicized, which they increasingly seem to be in our country, one of the new vectors of threat, revenge, retaliation, harassment, whatever set of names you want to throw at it is to take people's information online and use it against them. 

Rob Shavell: And so really, that is sort of the new reality of, unfortunately, incidents that are cropping up not just with school boards, but, frankly, across a lot of different domains. And that is, in some ways, sad to see and, in other ways, sort of unfortunately and fortunately driving incredible growth in our DeleteMe business, which goes out and removes this kind of exposed personal information that's out there about people. 

Dave Bittner: Do you have any specific examples of what people are facing here that can kind of illustrate the problem? 

Rob Shavell: What will often - there's sort of two categories of things that will often happen. One I would call impersonation type of attacks, where by getting people's personal profiles and detailed personal information - which anybody can really do these days by Googling somebody's name and paying a few dollars to a data broker to get a detailed profile, which contains typically information about us, our home, our past addresses, our relatives' names, our marital status, the net worth of our house, all kinds of things that you wouldn't imagine are easy to find in one place about us. And then they can - people can use that to impersonate us in different ways. 

Rob Shavell: So, for example, you can act as if you're a member of the school board and email other parents or members of the school board impersonating them with very accurate email addresses and information that would seem like it could only be from that individual. And that kind of creates, you know, its own set of issues. You can do it on social media, where it happens often - that sort of thing. 

Rob Shavell: And incidentally, it's not so relevant to the particular incident that you raised with the school board, but this is a very important and growing problem for companies to address because what happens is hackers will go impersonate executives at companies and get people into trouble, divulging information that then allows them access to the network and all kinds of things like that. So it's actually becoming a cybersecurity threat, not just a harassment threat. So that's sort of one area of specifics around how this information that's out there about all of us is getting used inappropriately and, frankly, abused. 

Rob Shavell: The other area is - you know, we generally call doxxing, and it's much simpler, which is if there are particularly constituents in a situation like this that are angry with a particular person - say, a school board member - they can just post on social media or a webpage or a blog or whatever intimate details of that person's personal information and then say to people, hey, you know, this is where this person lives. This is what their house looks like. This is who their children are. And whether or not there's a credible threat link to that, it can be very, very disturbing because it could happen. And in fact, there have been cases where horrifying incidents, you know, that threatened people's physical well-being actually did happen which started out with the posting of exposed information online. 

Dave Bittner: Now, in the work that you do at DeleteMe, I mean, are there common things that people have left behind online that they don't consider, that, you know, they don't think about when they're thinking about their digital history? 

Rob Shavell: Well, I would respond to that everything. In fact, most people have no idea - while over half of us have Googled ourselves and sort of seen, you know, what some of the results look like when we do that. And what you'll find, I think, and what your listeners will find if they do a quick Google search for their name and their address, the first several pages of Google will be littered with data brokers, people like and Spokeo and Intelius and Radaris and background checker and reverse number lookup. All of these companies that we call data brokers will be out there responding to those queries about us and offering anyone who wants to pay for it detailed profile information for very small amounts of money. 

Rob Shavell: So the original question was, well, what's - what have people left behind? Do they even know what they left behind and where they left it? And the answer is absolutely not. These data brokers have generally never gotten consent from any citizen. And by the way, they have information on all 300 million, you know, adult Americans and children at this point. They've never gotten consent for it. They've bought it. They've scraped it. They've aggregated it. When we sign up for things like mobile apps, they'll go - if some innocuous mobile app or our child has played some game, they'll go to the publisher and buy all that information on the back end and never tell anyone. And it's all, quote-unquote, "legal" because we don't pay attention to the terms of service when we do things. And, you know, that ain't going to change. 

Dave Bittner: What is the process that you all use then? If someone engages with you and they say, I need some help, you know, cleaning up this stuff, how do you go about doing that? 

Rob Shavell: So as an entrepreneur, I personally hated services and guides that just told you what to do but made you do it because I'm busy, and I didn't have the time. And so, you know, one of the reasons why we created DeleteMe was so that we could be the experts that do this stuff for people that don't have a whole lot of time to go do it. 

Rob Shavell: You know, there's a hundred popular data brokers out there. They're changing, you know, every six months. You have to be vigilant in going out and asking each one of them through a separate process that may or may not require you to submit different information and then wait for a confirmation. And, you know, they don't make it easy, in short. 

Rob Shavell: And so our service basically does it for you. You sign up. It takes five minutes, where you put in your information, and then we go out and search for it. Our privacy experts then deliver a report to you that says, hey, here's where we found your information. Here's exactly what we found. Here's how exposed your phone number is out there, your children's names, your employer, your past addresses, your Social Security number. Whatever information we find out there, it gets very clearly delivered to you in an email report. You never have to log in to a dashboard if you don't want to. 

Rob Shavell: And then our service goes out and actually does the opt-out and removals on your behalf. And so 30 to 60 days after your report, if you go back and Google yourself - and most of our customers do because they want to check and make sure that our service actually delivers - what you'll find is far fewer exposed information profiles at data brokers about you. And then over time, we deliver reports every quarter to you, and we go and check and make sure you're cleaned up effectively all year long for a single price. 

Rob Shavell: Over time, your digital footprint and that information that's out there and exposed and easily searchable about you will go down dramatically. I have to say it's not perfect. No service is perfect. We can't delete you from the internet. But we do a good enough job to have a 4.75-out-of-five-star review, and we've been in business for 10 years. 

Dave Bittner: From a policy point of view here, I mean, is it - as someone who works in this space, is it frustrating to you that, you know, the default is that these organizations are allowed to gather up all this information? Is this something you'd hope to see eventually, you know, consumers having more control over? 

Rob Shavell: I think it's very frustrating. If you read a little bit of recent history, if you're a financial regulatory nerd and you go back to when the United States created the credit bureaus that we're all scarily familiar with - Experian, Equifax, TransUnion - those bureaus had access to lots of different financial data to create these credit profiles about us, but they were also regulated by Congress. 

Rob Shavell: And I think it's very important to juxtapose the government and oversight that was created around those to today's data brokers, who have basically - for 20 years since the internet came about broadly have been allowed to do whatever they want. So in effect, whether it's a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, they've just encouraged technical development and looked the other way. And now we have thousands of unregulated Experians and Equifax running around, collecting our data with basically no rules and selling it to basically anybody - a hacker, a foreign government, a lawyer, an insurance company, people that we would not want to have easy access to all of this information about us - you know, in one easy and inexpensive profile. 

Rob Shavell: So I think it is very frustrating that this has gone on for so long and these data brokers have become so sophisticated and good at correlating and assembling more and more data points about us. And as we all know, we are generating much, much - each of us is generating much, much more data every year that goes by. So, yes, I'm very frustrated. 

Rob Shavell: At the same time - and this is the silver lining here - I'm very encouraged that governments across the world and states here in the United States are steadily passing new laws and regulations that empower consumers to access their data in ways they couldn't before from third parties that have it, correct it and to delete it. So I think the trend from a regulatory standpoint, both in the U.S. and globally, is very positive for giving consumers back some rights that they've lost since the internet began. 

Dave Bittner: All right, Ben, what do you think? 

Ben Yelin: It's just a really dangerous time to be a local official because passions are extremely high. I mean, we've seen these raucous school board meetings where there are really intense discussions about - first it was school closures last year. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: Now it's things like testing, masks and, in some cases - namely California - vaccine requirements. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: So there is going to be a lot of public on local officials. Local officials have a job to do. They have some very difficult decisions to make. They certainly deserve to have their privacy protected. They have the right to be free from threats from the public. And so I think it's really important that they have all the tools at their disposal to protect their own interests as public servants. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. I wonder to what degree does this have overall a chilling effect on, you know, the people who would be willing to serve. Many of these positions are volunteer positions. 

Ben Yelin: Yup. 

Dave Bittner: Or if they are paid, it's, you know, it's a stipend. It's not a career. 

Ben Yelin: It's not a full-time job. 

Dave Bittner: No. And so I would imagine a lot of people thinking to themselves, how is this possibly worth it? I don't need this headache. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah. I mean, that's what really concerns me is we want very committed parents, community leaders, members to be on these boards, to be on school boards... 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: ...To be part of these, you know, local governing institutions. It isn't glamorous. You're not paid a lot of money. But these positions are extremely important. They make extremely consequential decisions. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: And so... 

Dave Bittner: It takes a lot of time. 

Ben Yelin: It's a lot of time. And if you just add the pressure of people literally sending death threats to some of these public officials and, you know, releasing their address, their physical address online, as we've seen in a number of circumstances, which leads to harassment... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...You worry that nobody is going to volunteer for these positions, or, you know, the people that do volunteer might not be representative of the community at large. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: So, yeah. I mean, it's such an important issue. It's never been more important because we've never had such high-stakes, passionate arguments at - in front of these local boards. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: I mean, we have to some extent, but not the way it is now where these are literal life-and-death issues. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: So I'm glad that there is an effort to protect the privacy and the security of these public officials. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah, absolutely. All right. Well, our thanks to Rob Shavell from DeleteMe for joining us. We do appreciate him taking the time. 

Dave Bittner: That is our show. We want to thank all of you for listening. 

Dave Bittner: The "Caveat" podcast is proudly produced in Maryland at the startup studios of DataTribe, where they're co-building the next generation of cybersecurity teams and technologies. Our senior producer is Jennifer Eiben. Our executive editor is Peter Kilpe. I'm Dave Bittner. 

Ben Yelin: And I'm Ben Yelin. 

Dave Bittner: Thanks for listening.