When Private Information Becomes Public

Revelations about tech giants raise questions about voluntary sharing

The technological landscape has become increasingly conducive to sharing all kinds of information — personal or otherwise. But recent developments shed light on the possibility that the culture of sharing might come with unexpected risks for privacy and constitutional rights.

Documents recently obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit suggest a shadowy relationship between the FBI and Best Buy’s electronics repair subsidiary Geek Squad. According to the documents, Geek Squad appears to have been cooperating with the government for several years in turning over child pornography found on customers’ computers and has received money for that information on at least one occasion.

The EFF is still trying to gain information that could clarify the relationship, according to staff attorney Aaron Mackey, such as whether Geek Squad employees have actively searched for illegal materials or merely turned over material they happened across while working on customers’ devices. The company’s cooperation with the FBI raises questions about whether the employees act as agents of the government and whether their actions amount to warrantless searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

More recently, Facebook became the focus of another scandal when it was reported last week that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica accessed Facebook users’ data through an app via Facebook’s login feature. Although some users gave permission to have their data collected, Cambridge Analytica also harvested data on those users’ friends who had not given their permission. After Facebook changed its rules in 2014 to limit information gathered by third-party apps about users’ friends, Cambridge did not delete the data, despite its promises in 2015, and according to reports, Facebook knew the data had not been deleted. CNN reported Tuesday that the Federal Trade Commission has neither confirmed nor denied an investigation against the social media platform.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the March 26, 2017 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online