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Thread: Google Links Court-Protected Names to online coverage

  1. #1

    Default Google Links Court-Protected Names to online coverage

    I found this story to be really interesting. It's about how Google's search engines are connecting the names of people protected by court-ordered publication bans to online media coverage, thereby exposing the individual's identity.

    http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-...nline-coverage

    Purpose of publication bans:

    Publication bans are issued by the courts in sensitive cases to prevent anyone from publishing, broadcasting or sending information that could identify a witness, victim or other person required to participate in the justice system. The purpose is to protect the individual from serious consequences.

    Publication bans can be used to protect vulnerable people such as children, victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and people afraid to testify. They are used commonly in cases where underage youth have been charged with a criminal offense.


    In Ottawa, as shown in the link above, an investigation by our local media discovered that a Google search for a half dozen different individuals whose identities were protected by publication bans linked their names to the media coverage of the story, effectively revealing their identity. Even though their names do not appear in the media coverage, the Google search algorithms connect the names to the stories.

    The investigation also considered the issue of meta data. This includes information fields which are completed by reporters and editors to describe articles, photos or videos. The information is not available to the public. The names did not appear in the meta data so there was not a problem with the reporting of the media.

    Example:

    In one of our most horrifying court cases last year, a federal police officer was charged for beating, burning, starving, and neglect of his young son who he tied to a pole in the basement and failed to provide the necessities of life. The officer was tried and convicted. None of the names in this case were divulged in the media to protect the boy who is now 15 years old, yet a search of the boy's name links him to the media coverage of the crime.

    This is how the story was reported with the publication ban : https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/...buse-case.html

    The outcome is that Google is undermining the effectiveness of court-ordered publication bans and exposing the identities of vulnerable people and potentially destroying their lives.

    The impact is significant. You just have to think of a youth who was charged as a young offender whose name was protected by a publication ban so that his crime would not be held against him for the rest of his life. He applies for a job in later years and the employer googles his name to find it linked to the court case. Google is leaving people at risk of the hardships the publications were designed to protect. Potential employers, friends, co-workers, acquaintances can be linked to the media coverage to expose the person's secret past.

    At a local level, one explanation is that people who know or suspect the identity of a person in a publication ban might search for the terms by name with other key words and then click on links to articles about the case. If there is pattern to this behaviour with enough people doing similar searches, the search engine would associate the names with the articles, even if the names do not appear in the stories. The search engine knows how to make the connection, but does not know the connection should not be made.

    I heard a lawyer on the radio this morning who is contemplating a class action suit against google, stating that Google could not have known that such a massive search engine would produce such unintended consequences. Publication bans worked effectivley before the age of the internet. We used to have publication bans that prevented the media from reporting election results until all the polls were closed in different time zones. A court case decided that a publication ban could not have any significant effect in the age of the internet and that it was impossible to keep the results off-line until all polls in all time zones had reported the results.

    It'll be interesting to see how this works out.
    Last edited by Starrunner; 23-Sep-2017 at 20:47.

  2. #2

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    As an American who firmly believes in freedom of the press, frankly, I side with Google. While it may benefit rape victims and the like to avoid being identified, legally strangling the press is a major slippery slope. Of course, Canada is based on the British legal system, so freedom of speech is much less absolute.

  3. #3

    Default



    Quote Originally Posted by NovaDL View Post
    As an American who firmly believes in freedom of the press, frankly, I side with Google. While it may benefit rape victims and the like to avoid being identified, legally strangling the press is a major slippery slope. Of course, Canada is based on the British legal system, so freedom of speech is much less absolute.
    I don't think that freedom of the press is an absolute, for example the naming of children inolved in sexual abuse or assault cases. We already have limits on freedom of expression, such as no tolerance on child pornography and speech that is designed to incite hatred. I also think that when freedom of the press interferes with the justice system to the point that dangerous criminals may be released back onto the streets, then the courts should have the right to determine as to whether a publication ban should be issued or not.

    More than anything, I think this is an untested area of the law since no one from Google would know the protected names. It's own technology figuring things out on its own, scraping the information together through artificial intelligence.

    It could be a violation of a publication ban, but whether it is or not is a more complicated matter since Google itself is not seen as a publisher.

  4. #4

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    It looks more like a failure in Google's search algorithms rather than freedom of the press. Bruce Schneier mentioned this very problem with data mining technology. It's easy for companies who collect enough data to draw inferences to protected information, such as using phone metadata to find out who had an abortion, was diagnosed with cancer, has a teen criminal conviction, etc. Schneier's suggestion is to strengthen privacy controls on the collection and publication of publicly available data. The military has understood this. Knowning that Sgt. Smith is stationed at a certain Air Force base is not classified information. Military people can tell you where they are posted. However, the military closely guards the number of people stationed at each base, so they have database search technology which will allow contractors to search for data on individuals but not allow them to aggregate such data to find out classified information.

    One example is police use of ALPR (automated license plate recorders) where police cars have cameras that mass scan and store data on people's license plates. Private companies also bulk collect and store this data to sell to repo companies. While this data is useful for repossessing vehicles and finding stolen vehicles, the same data can tell you all sorts of other information. Burglars can use it to find when you are and are not home. Lawyers can gain access to it for lawsuits and divorce cases. Suppose you are a husband whose wife files for divorce and you are fighting for custody of the kids. The opposing lawyer gets access to your license plate data and finds you were parked at a number of ABDL events and conventions. That lawyer could use that information to convince the judge that you are a sexual threat and you lose custody of the kids.

    So yeah, I agree that this data needs to be better protected.

  5. #5

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    It sounds like Google would be sensitive to the desire to avoid protecting witnesses or youths to criminal matters if they had more ways to tweak their algorithms.

    That said, this particular issue with only minor variation is one where the freedom of expression as it is understood in Canada and the freedom of expression as it is understood in the United States are in fact different. In the U.S., it's permissible to publish news stories discussing crimes, including victims and people related to the incident, even including information about them being minors so long as the information isn't obtained through unlawful means or from a private source and published without permission.

    Here, the weirdness appears to be that there is no source at all and the names aren't being published anywhere, so Google is somehow making the connection even though no source does so, which is probably why Google will fix it. On the other hand, the instant that you have a source writing about an issue, even including cross-border sources like, say, an American paper from the northern states covering issues in nearby Canadian cities if they're notable enough, I think it would be extremely unlikely that Google would remove the information, even if a court later ordered the names hidden in Canada. From a U.S. perspective, once there's a source and public reporting, the information is public information and the fact that Google collects and aggregates it should not change the nature of it.

    Edit: Reading the rest of the article, it sounds like the best guess is that people who possess the information are giving it to Google. I'm not sure that's Google's fault. If a court officer who knows all about the case violates the publication ban by writing the person's real name along with details about the case in a letter to a friend or to a newspaper, it's the court officer who has violated the judge's ban by sharing that information. The recipient wouldn't be liable if they didn't know the information was protected. So, like, the people who actually possess this secret information and are giving it to Google shouldn't do that, and may deserve to be sanctioned by the court for their indiscretion.

  6. #6

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    Quote Originally Posted by ArchieRoni View Post
    Edit: Reading the rest of the article, it sounds like the best guess is that people who possess the information are giving it to Google. I'm not sure that's Google's fault. If a court officer who knows all about the case violates the publication ban by writing the person's real name along with details about the case in a letter to a friend or to a newspaper, it's the court officer who has violated the judge's ban by sharing that information. The recipient wouldn't be liable if they didn't know the information was protected. So, like, the people who actually possess this secret information and are giving it to Google shouldn't do that, and may deserve to be sanctioned by the court for their indiscretion.
    TL;DR: This.

    Although our definition of "indiscretion" probably needs to evolve a little. A large segment of the population obviously thinks that Google just indexes the content on web pages. They don't realize that Google also associates popular search terms, ranks results according to how often they're clicked, etc. In short, it also sources information directly from its users. This kind of thing is what makes search engines the amazing and indispensable tools that they are, but it also means that there are all sorts of non-intuitive ways to "leak" information. I'm sure Google and other search engines can and will streamline the handling of requests to disassociate search terms and search results that represent leaks, but I have a hard time imagining how this could be fully automated. In the end, it really does boil down to: If you don't want Google to know something, don't tell it.

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