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In ‘Parks and Recreation,’ a vision for the future of consumer data privacy issues  

On a sunny morning in Pawnee, Indiana, a notification pops up on Leslie Knope’s phone: “Open Your Door.” Looking outside, she finds a drone at her doorstep, floating effortlessly, cradling a box addressed to her.

“Hey, Leslie Knope!” it chimes as it drops its cargo.

People have only been able to use drones for recreational, research or government purposes in the U.S., but the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed rules that would expand drones for any use, especially for commercial purposes. Yet the final season of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” set in a not-too-distant 2017, envisions a world in which your internet provider can listen to your every conversation, read every email and text, and use that information to predict your mood and deliver packages to your door. The offending company is Grizzyl, a bubbly, gleefully 21st century Internet and cell phone provider that shamelessly violates its customers’ privacy.

For ardent libertarian Ron Swanson, who destroys a drone and brings it to Leslie, (“This is a flying robot that I just shot out of the sky when it tried to deliver me a package”), the threat of such technology is philosophically horrifying, bringing him together with the liberal Knope to try to stop the behavior. While he originally blames others for making themselves vulnerable to that kind of invasion, he later changes his tune when his own privacy is threatened outside of his control.

For liberal Knope, the concern is more universal, with the actions of a corporation infringing upon its customers rights concerning from a populist perspective. As in many episodes, she sees the government serving as an activist voice, protecting its citizens from harm from an ill-intentioned private company.

By placing characters only two years from now, the show’s creators envisioned a future that’s within our reach. In the show’s view, the future has troubling implications for consumers, with sophisticated technology making it easier than ever for companies to pry into their user’s lives.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of technologies and actions made by Grizzyl. With their predictions of a soon-to-be future in mind, we examine the likelihood of each event coming true, and the current legal structures that govern them.

Use of commercial drones

In the show: After listening to its users phone calls, Grizzyl gathers its customers’ personal desires and sends them gifts they think they’ll appreciate via drone. While Donna receives two honey bears and boxes of sugarplums, coincidentally the pet names she and her fiancé use for each other, the characters on the show catch on to Grizzyl’s unethical business practices.

Today’s laws: Americans have very few options allowing them to use drones for commercial purposes. Companies may apply to the Federal Aviation Administration to authorize use of drones on a case-by-case basis. However, no existing legal framework allows for the widespread adoption of drones on a commercial basis, and the FAA describes its approach to the emerging technology as “incremental,” suggesting that you won’t see pizza-delivering drones anytime soon. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 aimed to integrate unmanned aircraft by this year, but a recent government audit found that the FAA wouldn’t meet its September deadline. “There should be an eye toward integrating drones into our national airspace,” Peter Sachs, a lawyer specializing in drone law, said about these proposed regulations.

Tomorrow’s technology: When online retailer behemoth Amazon announced “Amazon Prime Air” last year, it seemed like an elaborate April Fool’s prank. Yet the company is dead serious about using the technology to deliver packages in as little as 30 minutes, sending the FAA a letter pushing for greater reforms. While Amazon predicts that drone deliveries will eventually be “as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road,” time will tell when their vision becomes a reality. However, with the FAA’s proposed regulations, drone operators would be required to stay within “eyesight” of their craft, according to Sachs. With this stipulation, it would be near impossible for vendors to use drones for deliveries.

Consumer data mining

In the show: After the characters receive individualized gift packages delivered by drone from Grizzyl, they quickly realize the only way they would have learned this information about them is through monitoring their calls and texts. Later, when Leslie visits the Grizzyl headquarters in disguise, the Grizzyl vice president of “Cool New Shiz” reveals he knew who she was all along by tracking her location from her phone. He says his company may know Leslie better than she knows herself. He tells her, “There’s nothing scary about Grizzyl. We just want to learn everything about everyone, track wherever they go and even what they’re about to do.”

Today’s laws: Despite the growing fascination with consumer privacy and cybersecurity in recent years, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s program to gather millions of Americans’ phone and email records, no laws have yet to intensely regulate the act of consumer data mining. In Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., the Supreme Court found that a Vermont statute that restricted the sale, disclosure and use of records that revealed the prescribing practices of individual doctors violated the First Amendment rights of data mining companies hired by pharmaceutical manufacturers. In a powerful feature story for Time Magazine in 2011, author Joel Stein sums up the current state of data mining for consumers: He contacts a range of private companies that gather information about him “in stealth,” creating a detailed picture of his life that’s been culled without his knowing.

Tomorrow’s technology: Though the debate about gathering and use data has typically been about government surveillance of private exchanges, companies such as Google, which could be seen as the real-life Grizzyl, already monitor emails sent over their Gmail network in order to tailor advertisements shown to particular Internet users. As Stein’s 2011 feature shows, companies already have an incredible ability to gather people’s information, something that will likely continue to grow unless Congress passes legislation limiting it.

Consumer agreements

In the show: When Leslie Knope discovers the data mining, she brings a lawsuit against Grizzyl. Leslie’s husband Ben argues that the agreement giving Pawnee free WiFi explicitly banned data mining. However, the company was able to sneak a clause “into the 27th update of a 500 page user agreement,” allowing them to monitor all communications sent over the network through Grizzyl products. As Ben said, “a person should not have to have an advanced law degree to avoid being taken advantage of by a multi-billion dollar company,” a sentiment oft repeated in today’s on-the-grid society. Ben compelled Grizzyl to be “upfront about what you’re doing and allow people the ability to opt out.”

Today’s laws: According to Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, the U.S. has little protection for consumers against how a private company constructs its consumer agreements. A report released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent government agency formed by the 2011 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, showed that consumers often hand over their rights in consumer agreements without realizing it. They found that in 92 percent of credit card disputes that went to arbitration, consumers had signed contracts precluding their ability to sue without realizing it. In effect, even the savviest consumer, like Ben Wyatt, can be thwarted by a legal document that buries its most damaging clauses under pages of legal jargon, something that’s become commonplace in our society.

Tomorrow’s technology: When consumers sign these consumer agreements, they may unknowingly give up their right to sue, effectively stripping themselves of their right to take these corporations to trial in the event of an injustice. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has championed the Arbitration Fairness Act, which works to “restore the rights of workers and consumers” in assuring them of transparency in civil litigation and prohibiting the usage of forced arbitration clauses in consumer agreements. While the bill has unsuccessfully been introduced in Congress since 2011, Franken plans on reintroducing it during this session.


Whistleblowing in the FBI: problems lie deeper than confusing legal boundaries

WASHINGTON — Former FBI agent Michael German thought the agency had the information it needed to see the 9/11 terrorist attacks coming. In the aftermath of the attack, German reported a cover-up of a failed counterterrorism investigation that infringed upon people’s civil liberties in unprecedented ways.

Yet when German raised these concerns, the Department of Justice inspector general failed to investigate, he said. He also said the IG Office failed to protect him from official retaliation within the FBI, including possible surveillance, resulting in the 16-year veteran resigning in 2004.

“I tried to challenge the system from within, but they don’t like that,” German said in an interview with the American Civil Liberties Union. “They made it very uncomfortable so I finally realized it was time to work on the outside.”

German’s case became one of the most visible examples of the challenges facing whistleblowers in the intelligence community. In addition to a legal framework that makes it incredibly difficult for whistleblowers to come forward, a more subtle influence lurks beneath the surface: a culture that views whistleblowers as traitors, not reformers.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office released last Thursday found that, despite recent efforts to extend whistleblower protections to FBI employees, they remain exposed to retaliation for reporting wrongdoing.

Under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, federal employees are generally protected from retaliation for reporting wrongdoing, entitling them to pursue legal recourse should they face retribution. However, FBI employees were excluded from these protections, and in 1998 the Department of Justice established separate guidelines that were meant to protect whistleblowers within the agency.

Yet the guidelines permitting FBI agents to disclose wrongdoing are unclear, according to the GAO report. For example, FBI employees must report wrongdoing only to a handful of designated officials. As a result, more than half of the 62 cases reviewed by the GAO were dismissed without review.

According Steven L. Katz, formerly counsel to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and an expert on federal whistleblowing law, those in the FBI face much deeper issues than simply unclear legal guidelines. Instead, intelligence agents are a part of a culture that targets whistleblowers and punishes their behavior.

“When someone raises concerns, do you throw them overboard, or do you sit down with them and thank them?” he said. “The FBI throws them overboard.”

Katz argued that the GAO report fails to reflect the human aspect of the FBI in making it difficult for whistleblowers to come forward, focusing instead solely on the regulations that govern whistleblowing activities.

“The agencies are full of people, not just processes,” Katz said. “It’s the people who screw up because the laws look perfect on the books.”

According to Katz, other government agencies have faced similar problems with whistleblower culture. Last year, a series of attempted break-ins at the White House prompted Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to resign. A report released after the incident found that the Secret Service was “too insular,” ignoring the warning signs made plain by the attacks.

“In the agencies where you have a law enforcement culture, where power is might, people tend to transfer that culture of enforcement that’s outward facing inwards,” he said.

In 2012, President Barack Obama released Presidential Policy Directive 19, which established whistleblowing protection for those in the intelligence community. Elements of the directive were codified under the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY2014, but the guidelines of the directive aren’t permanent and can be easily reversed by a different president.

The result adds up to a climate that, while improving in some key ways, remains hostile to the act of whistleblowing. In an organization that possesses some of the nation’s most important classified information, the threat to the success of the FBI is intimately tied to the future of the country itself, as the 9/11 attacks demonstrated.

“You want the FBI to be effective, and so to help them be more effective you’d expect them to have better protection against retaliation from reporting problems,” said David Maurer, director for GAO’s homeland security and justice department. “It’s ironic that they have less whistleblower protection than the rest of the government.”