iPhone Tracking

Pursuing iPhone Thief, Officer Knew Right Buttons to Push is a cute little tale of a thief’s comeuppance and a perfect microcosm of the tradeoffs between security and privacy. The article relates how a New York City cop used the Find My iPhone app to locate and recover a stolen iPhone (and arrest the thief) in less than 30 minutes. The app is free to download and install and simple to use: enter the Apple ID and Apple Store password of the target phone in the app’s search screen, select Go, and the phone’s location pops up on Google Maps. You can track the phone as its location changes, lock it, and play a submarine-sonar beeping sound or send and display a message on it. All that’s required is that the target phone be signed into and have Track My Phone enabled on Apple’s iCloud.

And that’s where one trades privacy for security. Once activated anyone who knows the owner’s Apple ID and password can track the phone’s location. My wife left the house early this morning to play tennis. After reading the article I checked her location–indeed she was at the tennis facility. (Current iPhone technology does not allow me to verify that she was indeed “playing tennis” there.)

Comforting, or creepy?


As reported in “Meet SOPA’s Evil Twin, ACTA,” SOPA’s demise has brought the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement–ACTA–into focus. (The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has posted ACTA’s text.)  The U.S. was among the group of nations that signed ACTA last October; 22 European countries signed it last Thursday, prompting protests throughout Europe (ars technica, “Opponents protest signing of ACTA without adequate debate“). The U.S. signed ACTA as an Executive Agreement that (the Obama administration claims) does not change U.S. law and thus need not be submitted to Congress, limiting public commentary on its provisions.  Jack Goldsmith and Larry Lessig challenged the Constitutionality of the administration’s secret ACTA negotiations in a  March 2010 Washington Post Op-Ed.

[ACTA’s] proposals [contained in a leaked January 2010 draft] might or might not make sense. But they ought at least be subject to public deliberation. Normal constitutional procedures would require the administration to submit the final text of the agreement for Senate approval as a treaty or to Congress as a “congressional-executive” agreement. But the Obama administration has suggested it will adopt the pact as a “sole executive agreement” that requires only the president’s approval.

Such an assertion of unilateral executive power is usually reserved for insignificant matters. It has sometimes been employed in more important contexts, such as when Jimmy Carter ended the Iran hostage crisis . . .

The Supreme Court, however, has never clarified the limits on such agreements. Historical practice and constitutional structure suggest that they must be based on one of the president’s express constitutional powers (such as the power to recognize foreign governments) . . .

Joining ACTA by sole executive agreement would far exceed these precedents. The president has no independent constitutional authority over intellectual property or communications policy, and there is no long historical practice of making sole executive agreements in this area. To the contrary, the Constitution gives primary authority over these matters to Congress, which is charged with making laws that regulate foreign commerce and intellectual property.

Obscured by SOPA, ACTA managed to fly under the radar to multi-national ratification. The question is whether it’s too late.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) joined the chorus of criticism this week when he called ACTA “more dangerous than SOPA” at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s not coming to me for a vote,” he said. “It purports that it does not change existing laws. But once implemented, it creates a whole new enforcement system and will virtually tie the hands of Congress to undo it.”

Show Your Civic Illiteracy

For proof of how many Americans fail to comprehend the scope of fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution–not that more proof is needed–read this story about a high school student who successfully challenged the presence of a Christian prayer that has been affixed to the wall of her public school for almost 50 years.

A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion.

In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group.

Based on the presence of this prayer in a public school for 49 years and the response of some of its inhabitants to Jessica Ahlquist’s assertion of a well-settled principle established by the First Amendment’s establishment clause I agree that Cranston is indeed “a dense city.” The decision’s opponents are of course entitled to voice their opinions, but one wishes they demonstrated some knowledge of establishment clause jurisprudence before excoriating her.

Educate, Then Legislate

Researching the policy debates surrounding SOPA I came across “Dear Internet: It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works.” Clay Johnson, its author, posted it in response to “Dear Congress: It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How the Internet Works,” which rightfully criticized members of Congress for their wilfull ignorance of fundamental aspects of Internet architecture during debates on SOPA. Johnson’s point is that “online activists, the free culture crowd, and the pro-open and free Internet crowd needs to get a clue too. See — it’s just as important for us to understand how Congress works as it is for the Congress to understand how the Internet works. In Washington, those who ‘educate’ Congress the best usually end up with the winning legislation.” As a teacher this is what most interests me, helping students understand how policy is translated into legislation and other modes of regulation. I’m not talking about the mechanics of How a Bill Becomes a Law, but understanding that law is the manifestation of policy. The topic of tomorrow’s Internet law class is “Architecture, Values, and Regulation,” introducing students to Larry Lessig’s concept that with respect to the Internet, Code is Law. (Here’s Lessig’s 2000 article by that title in Harvard Magazine; he developed the concept most fully in Code v.2.) It’s not surprising that after years of being the foremost thinker about modes of Internet regulation Lessig turned his attention to how money, lobbying, and corporate influence affects how policy becomes law.

SOPA Status

It’s been a consequential week for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act, the two controversial pieces of copyright-protected legislation pending in Congress. I’ve posted about these bills in recent months but I’ve not attempted to post the play-by-play culminating in last week’s coordinated online protest against the bills. Now that the bills have stalled–the New York Times reports “the pressures of an election year make action this year unlikely”–over the next few days I want to take time to compare the bills’ stated purposes with their methods for achieving those purposes, and separate fact and myth from arguments of both the bills’ proponents and its opponents. These particular bills may be gone for good but the issues they address and, as important, the music, motion picture, and publishing industry lobbying effort that pushed for their creation are still patrolling the House and Senate.

Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Requires Warrant

The U.S. Supreme Court just announced its decision in U.S. v. Jones, ruling unanimously that the government must obtain a warrant before affixing a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle. While all the justices agreed that the Fourth Amendment required police to obtain a warrant they did not agree on the rationale.  Five joined Justice Scalia’s majority opinion that the Fourth Amendment applied to private property such as a vehicle.  Four agreed with Justice Alito that this warrantless search violated the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy. According to the article just posted by The Wall Street Journal

Justice Alito warned that a property-based approach was too narrow to guard against the proliferating threats to personal privacy modern technology posed. Justice Scalia stressed, however, that the majority wasn’t repudiating the broader test articulated in 1967, but rather that it was unnecessary to reach it because installation of the tracker was sufficient by itself to trigger the Fourth Amendment.

Recommendation Recommendations

Frustrated by the many students who make the same missteps my colleague Professor Rachel Spooner penned a terrific short memo about seeking written letters of recommendation.  She gave me permission to use it; I’ve excerpted the portions that resonate most with me (which is 90% of it).

For several years I have been spending a significant percentage of my time writing letters of recommendation for my students, current and former. I am happy to do so; my students work hard and I am happy to acknowledge their strengths, and I realize I wouldn’t be where I am without several busy people taking time to write letters for me, so I feel I obligated to do the same. Because I take the time to know my students, in most cases it is easy for me to write a letter expressing a personal view of the student. Occasionally, though, the circumstances present a real challenge. I do the best I can, but the best letters are those that reflect anecdotes and personal details that don’t come through on a transcript. The following is a list of my suggestions on how to get good, personal, and detailed letters of recommendation written for you, whether it is by me or another professor or professional contact.

  • Let me get to know you. Simply showing up in class, doing well on exams, and writing good papers is not enough. Often I have “A” students that I barely know. All I can write is about is their performance on tests and papers, which is already conveyed to the Admissions Office/Employer in their transcripts. This is even worse if the student does not get an A. It is easy to let a professor get to know you: talk to see them in office hours, or ask them to meet over lunch or coffee. Some of my best letters have been written about a meaningful conversation I had with a student in office hours that had nothing to do with our course. You do not need an important question or topic to come see me.
  • Class participation is only the first step. One way I can start to get to know you is through strong class participation. It is not the only way, and it is not enough, but it is a start.
  • You don’t need an “A” to get a good letter. Some of my favorite students received average grades in my course. But because I got to know them outside of class, I could appreciate all their strengths, and write meaningful letters. I include this point so you don’t think all we care about is grades, and to reinforce how important it is to get to know your recommender.
  • Provide ample notice. Writing letters isn’t our only job.
  • Keep in touch. Even if I knew you well when you were in my class, if you come to me years later, and I haven’t spoken to you since, it will be challenging to remember the type of personal details that make a good letter. Stop by office hours, meet me for coffee, send an email once in a while.
  • Let me know the results. It is frustrating to write letters of recommendation and never hear from them again. I want to know where you got in, and what your plans are. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t write the letter. A simple email, or postcard from your study abroad program would suffice.