The Switchboard: Five tech policy stories you need to read today

September 30, 2013

F(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

NSA gathers data on social connections of U.S. citizens. "Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information," reports the New York Times. This is yet another report based on data leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

No, Gmail’s ad-targeting isn’t wiretapping. Our own Timothy B. Lee writes that a federal judge in California made the wrong decision when he ruled that Google may have violated wiretapping law by using the contents of e-mails to choose the ads to serve its own customers: "The poorly reasoned decision isn't just unfair to Google, it threatens to impose unpredictable legal liability on other online businesses. The plaintiffs' argument goes like this: When Google receives an e-mail on your behalf, it doesn't just deliver it to your inbox. It also 'intercepts' the e-mail and 'reads' it to scan for ads. That, in the plaintiffs' view, violates the wiretapping provisions of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA). The plaintiffs should have lost right there."

Feds targeted Snowden’s e-mail provider the day after NSA whistleblower went public. Wired reports that the government wasted little time in going after Snowden's e-mail after he revealed himself on June 9: "A new appeals court filing today shows the government served a court order on Texas-based Lavabit the very next day, demanding metadata on an unnamed customer that the timing and circumstances suggest was Snowden. The June 10 records demand was issued under 18 USC 2703(d), a 1994 amendment to the Stored Communications Act that allows law enforcement access to non-content internet records without demonstrating the 'probable cause' needed for a search warrant. That would include email 'To' and 'From' lines, and the IP addresses used to access the account, but would not include the content of the email."

When BlackBerry reigned (the Queen got one!), and how it fell. The Times has a nice infographic charting the downfall of BlackBerry. "While BlackBerry, as the company is now known, created and dominated what became the smartphone market, competitors, notably Palm, failed. But the company’s co-chief executives missed the real threat: they initially dismissed Apple’s iPhone as little more than a toy."

Valve’s final trick is a Steam controller with touchpads instead of thumbsticks. Time explains the final Valve's reveal from last week, a Steam controller: "Not just any controller, mind you, but a 16-button, beveled, ebony boomerang-like gamepad that looks (and sounds) a little like the lovechild of a PS Vita and Nintendo DS, where the left and right spaces you’d normally spy thumbsticks have been supplanted by circular trackpads."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Timothy B. Lee · September 29, 2013