Last year, when law professor Joel Reidenberg wanted to show his Fordham University class how readily private information is available on the Internet, he assigned a group project. It was collecting personal information from the Web about himself.
This year, after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made public comments that seemingly may have questioned the need for more protection of private information, Reidenberg assigned the same project. Except this time Scalia was the subject, the prof explains to the ABA Journal in a telephone interview.
His class turned in a 15-page dossier that included not only Scalia’s home address, home phone number and home value, but his food and movie preferences, his wife’s personal e-mail address and photos of his grandchildren, reports Above the Law.
And, as Scalia himself made clear in a statement to Above the Law, he isn’t happy about the invasion of his privacy:
“Professor Reidenberg’s exercise is an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment. Since he was not teaching a course in judgment, I presume he felt no responsibility to display any,” the justice says, among other comments.
A Supreme Court spokeswoman confirmed to the ABA Journal in an e-mail that the Scalia blast to ATL “is accurately attributed to Justice Scalia.”
In response, Reidenberg tells the ABA Journal that the information gathered by his class about Scalia was all “publicly available, for free,” and wasn’t posted on the Internet by the class or otherwise further publicized. He views the dossier-gathering about a public figure as a legitimate classroom exercise intended to spark discussion about privacy law, and says he and the class didn’t intend to offend Scalia. …
Read the entire article here. There is no privacy on the Internet and Scalia invokes the gratuitously nasty “blame the messenger” response so typical of the arrogant and uninformed.
ETA: Joel Reidenberg, who is a friend as well as professional colleague, sent me an e-mail about all this and gave me permission to post this part:
There seems to be significant misinformation circulating in the blogosphere relating to the nature of my class exercise, its instructional use, and how the exercise became public.
The exercise was part of my Information Privacy Law class this semester. The course, in exploring the origins and scope of privacy law, examined the ways technology can both invade and protect personal information and examined how the law related to those technologies. We used a traditional case book, Solove & Schwartz, and I supplemented the book with two concurrent exercises that are treated as course materials: 1) each week the students posted links on the course discussion board to news stories related to privacy issues so that we could discuss them in class and make connections to the casebook reading assignments; and, 2) throughout the semester, the students posted on a class discussion board links to information found on the web related to the class research exercise.
The research exercise is designed for class discussion to illustrate law and policy issues associated with readily available information, contextual use, social norms and the scope of legal protection. The exercise seeks to provide a first-hand experience for discussions of the boundary between public and private information, the loss of practical obscurity and the capacity of law to respond to these issues. For the exercise last year, I framed the research as a challenge to the class to find a specific piece of esoteric information about me. The class was surprised at how much information could be found readily. This year, I planned for the course to focus more attention on the blurring of public and private information and decided to frame the research exercise as a challenge to find information about a public figure. Very early in the semester, a news report about Justice Scalia’s speech was posted on the class discussion board as one of the weekly news items. He was reported to have made the comment that treating much of the information on the web as private was “silly.” As our class session began to discuss the article and the transparency of personal information on the web, Justice Scalia became the logical public figure for the exercise researching publicly available personal information. Over the course of the semester, students posted links to web pages containing information about Justice Scalia, which in turn led to information about his family. To enhance a summation class discussion on the issues of aggregation and secondary use, the loss of anonymity, and legal responses, I had one of the students compile the information in an organized dossier format. The class was pretty shocked by the results. This was one of the teachable points. Our class dossier has remained a course document- we have not published it and have not disclosed the personal information found on the web.
Last week, however, I referenced the exercise during Fordham’s privacy conference when I gave a resentation on “The Transparency of Personal Information and the Rule of Law.” Here’s the abstract of my talk:
“This presentation will explore the erosion of the boundary between public and private information on the Internet. The thesis is that the transparency of personal information available online erodes the rule of law in two ways. First, the transparency of personal information that is created by private sector activities enables government to collect and use personal information purchased from the private sector in ways that side step political and legal checks and balances. Second, technical self-help in the development of network infrastructure that seeks to assure complete anonymity online may used by individuals and groups to evade legal responsibility and the rule of law. The presentation will conclude with a discussion of governance implications and norms.”
In illustrating the point that there is an over-transparency of personal information, I described the class exercise from last year and this year, the type of information the class found and the students’ astonishment at the results. I did not not release any of Justice Scalia’s personal information.
This kind of exercise and discussion brings forth many interesting and disturbing areas to think about. The availability of personal data, online anonymity, potential uses or abuses, etc. This exercise shows how far the law lags behind technology and the unintended, as well as intended, consequences that have or may arise because of our not being completely honest with each other when it comes to our intentions. I hope our scientists hurry up and give us AI. Justice R2D2 WE NEED YOU!
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Since this story is still around, I wanted to pass on a comment I made over at the Faculty Lounge Blog. I cannot believe that anyone with an internet connection would imagine that Prof Reidenberg did anything either inappropriate or unusual.
“It’s hard to imagine what could be unethical or even questionable about having students do what is essentially a Google search. Any person with an internet connection anywhere in the world could do the same thing. The problem isn’t that they did it, it’s that they could do it so easily.
There’s a case in the Torts casebook I used with a successful cause of action against a detective agency for finding a woman’s address and giving it to an old boy friend (the result as I recall was tragic). To show how times had changed regarding expectations of privacy I asked everyone to take a minute (they were all on-line)and find my last two addresses. They could all do it in less than a minute. And they found my brother too.
It made my point that there is very little, if any, personal privacy left just as I think Prof. Reidenberg’s exercise made his.
Oh–and the James Spader character did exactly the same thing as the Justice Scalia exercise about two weeks ago on Boston Legal but in open court to a similarly skeptical judge and jury.
That was poor judgment–although of course he won.”
Posted by: Jennifer Bard | April 30, 2009 at 01:45 AM
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