Big Brother is watching you – and documenting

  • Ha'aretz – Big Brother is watching you – and documenting.

    eBay, ever anxious to up profits, bends over backward to provide data to law enforcement officials

    “I don't know another Web site that has a privacy policy as flexible as eBay's,” says Joseph Sullivan. A little bit later, Sullivan explains what he means by the term “flexible.” Sullivan is director of the “law enforcement and compliance” department at eBay.com, the largest retailer in the world.

    Sullivan was speaking to senior representatives of numerous law-enforcement agencies in the United States on the occasion of “Cyber Crime 2003,” a conference that was held last week in Connecticut. His lecture was closed to reporters, and for good reason. Haaretz has obtained a recording of the lecture, in which Sullivan tells the audience that eBay is willing to hand over everything it knows about visitors to its Web site that might be of interest to an investigator. All they have to do is ask. “There's no need for a court order,” Sullivan said, and related how the company has half a dozen investigators under contract, who scrutinize “suspicious users” and “suspicious behavior.” The spirit of cooperation is a function of the patriotism that has surged in the wake of September 11.

    [ … ]

    “We don't make you show a subpoena, except in exceptional cases,” Sullivan told his listeners. “When someone uses our site and clicks on the `I Agree' button, it is as if he agrees to let us submit all of his data to the legal authorities. Which means that if you are a law-enforcement officer, all you have to do is send us a fax with a request for information, and ask about the person behind the seller's identity number, and we will provide you with his name, address, sales history and other details – all without having to produce a court order. We want law enforcement people to spend time on our site,” he adds. He says he receives about 200 such requests a month, most of them unofficial requests in the form of an email or fax.

    The meaning is clear. One fax to eBay from a lawman – police investigator, NSA, FBI or CIA employee, National Park ranger – and eBay sends back the user's full name, email address, home address, mailing address, home telephone number, name of company where seller is employed and user nickname. What's more, eBay will send the history of items he has browsed, feedbacks received, bids he has made, prices he has paid, and even messages sent in the site's various discussion groups.

    [ … ]

    A brief visit to the company's Web site reveals that the “user contract” that visitors are supposed to read before agreeing to the conditions is 4,023 words long. One paragraph makes reference to the site's “privacy policy.” The user has to click on a link and is diverted to another document that is some 3,750 words long. It then takes another 2,390 words to reach the section about which Sullivan told the legal authorities: The user's privacy is solely up to eBay.

    [ … ]

    Sullivan is even more forthcoming. Aware of how hard the police work, he decided to help as much as possible. “Tell us what you want to ask the bad guys. We'll send them a form, signed by us, and ask them your questions. We will send their answers directly to your e-mail.” Essentially, by engaging in what seems like impersonation, eBay is exploiting its relationship with customers to pass on information to law enforcement authorities. Why? “We take various steps in order to fight fraud and provide a safe buying environment for our numerous users,” says Pursglove.

    “In order to prevent misuse of authority, the law ensures that authorized impersonation will only be used with persons suspected of carrying out illegal activity,” says Pursglove. But eBay's practice is to impersonate people on a regular basis, for law-enforcement objectives. However, “there need not be a proven connection or well-founded suspicion of a crime having been performed,” claims Kozlovski.

    [ … ]

    Two years earlier, eBay bought Half.com, a site that specializes in sales of CDs and books. Sullivan explained that these acquisitions help eBay to provide lawmen with a full picture. “Every book or CD comes with a bar code. So we know who bought what. The acquisition of PayPal helps us to locate people more precisely. In the old days, we had to trace IP addresses (unique address given to computers linked to the Internet), to locate the buyer, but now Paypal supplies us with the money trail.

    PayPal has about 20 million customers, which means that we have 20 millions files on its users,” Sullivan proudly relates. “If you contact me, I will hook you up with the Paypal people. They will help you get the information you're looking for,” he tells his listeners. “In order to give you details about credit card transactions, I have to see a court order. I suggest that you get one, if that's what you're looking for.” It isn't certain that visitors to the site are aware of the thick hints eBay gives the lawmen.

    “By buying PayPal, eBay is merging the information about the goods trail with the money trail,” explains Kozlovski. “Thus, in spite of the protective mechanisms of the law against disclosure of details on transactions, eBay is in a position to analyze the full set of data and `advise' investigators when it might be `worthwhile' for them to ask for a subpoena to disclose the details of a financial transaction. Essentially, this bypasses the rules on non-disclosure of details of financial transactions and the confidentiality of the banker-client relationship.”  [Privacy Digest]

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