Aug 6, 2020

A federal judge mourning her son calls for increased data privacy

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There are laws that protect our medical data and financial information, but there's none protecting addresses or phone numbers.

In July, federal Judge Esther Salas was deliberately targeted in her home in New Jersey. A gunman shot and killed her son and gravely wounded her husband. This week, Judge Salas released a statement, speaking about how personal information, like her home address, was available online, making it easy for her attacker to find her. 

The judge called for better laws to protect the personal information of federal judges and their families, but the internet can make it relatively easy for anyone to track down the address, phone number and other personal details of people online, which can translate into real-life risk.

So, what is the law surrounding our personal information online? I spoke with Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who leads a victims’ rights firm in New York. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Carrie Goldberg. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Glamour)

Carrie Goldberg: We have laws that protect our privacy when it comes to medical providers sharing our medical information, like HIPAA. We have laws that protect our financial information. We’re beginning to have laws that protect us from nonconsensual pornography. But when it comes to what is often considered publicly available information, that’s where there’s a real gulf.

Kimberly Adams: Is there a positive use case for having sites like a White Pages or a Zabasearch, or something like that, to look people up?

Goldberg: Playing devil’s advocate, there’s a big section of this world who feel that all information should be free, and that the internet’s sole purpose is to provide the free flow of information. And perhaps, from their perspective, address information is part of that. Of course, the people who advocate that are also not the people who traditionally are the victims of stalking and harassment and online malicious behavior.

Adams: There are companies out there making money off distributing this information, maliciously or not. There are also companies that are making money off removing this information. Can you talk a little bit about that industry, and what that tells us about the state of affairs?

Goldberg: That’s capitalism, isn’t it? My whole staff, we pay for ongoing scrubbing of personal information from the internet, because it is like a game of whack-a-mole and keeping up with new postings and new companies that are publishing this information.

Adams: It occurs to me that it means people who have discretionary income to do that can have some measure of privacy on the internet, compared to everybody else.

Goldberg: It’s another way that privilege impacts our society. There’s a tier of people that can afford to have their private information removed. And then there are those who don’t or maybe don’t even know that it’s an option.

Adams: What are the implications for people who maybe have been in abusive relationships, or who may have been survivors of domestic violence, that this information is so readily available?

Goldberg: The implications are catastrophic. We do have special protections for victims of domestic violence to try to hide their addresses or, if they’re getting an order protection, to not have their address on the petition. Our location is the one thing that we should have the right to keep private, because it’s about safety. If it becomes complicated, and it’s a game of whack-a-mole to remove content from the internet about us, then it puts our safety at risk. But because of the First Amendment right to share information, and there are no laws that protect us from having this information public, there’s very little recourse that we have. Oftentimes in our cases, we see malicious actors publishing people’s information. With abortion providers, there are websites that are just dedicated to publishing personal data about the abortion providers, their medical school transcripts, their family members, their address, and it’s so that other people can use that information to stalk and harass them.

Adams: Do you have any hope?

Goldberg: A couple of years ago, lawmaker Katherine Clark, who herself was the victim of really extreme online harassment, she proposed a federal doxxing bill, which basically outlawed the peddling of certain private information. I think our hope has to lie with our lawmakers.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Carrie Goldberg’s firm also does a lot of work on digital privacy issues related to revenge porn and other unlawful use of private images online. The New Yorker has a piece about her. My colleague Scott Tong sent along another digital privacy story from CyberScoop about a publicly available guide from the National Security Agency with advice on how to limit leaking information about your location through your cellphone. It’s pretty hard to avoid, but you can try.

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