Are Trademarks a Data Security Alternative to Sad, Weak, Outdated Copyrights?

If you’ve been on the web for a while, you’ve seen an advertisement that looks like the user interface of the website you’re viewing- or maybe an ad that has a false close button, and clicking it just navigates you to the advertised page. These are blatant ways to trick consumers into taking actions they don’t want to take. Sometimes, these inadvertent actions can create security vulnerabilities such as malware.

Despite all of the focus on applying copyright law to the internet, I wonder if there are hints of trademark and trade dress protections that could become relevant to data privacy issues. I will cautiously, even timidly, explore a few of those possibilities (which several others have explored over the last few years).

I. Trademarks: When it Comes to Data Privacy, Accept No Imitations.

Trademarks have a simple purpose: to let consumers know the origin of a good or service. Trademarks are often a word, phrase, or image (logo), but can also be a sound or smell (on rare occasion, it can get a bit more abstract ).

A major category of trademark infringement is counterfeiting. That $20 “ROLEX” watch from the guy in the alley? That’s a counterfeit (sorry), and one of the legal issues involved in the sale of that watch is the use of a trademark without the legal right to use it. There haven’t been a lot of counterfeit websites on the internet, especially since SSL and other authentication processes got better. However, there are plenty of imitation apps and games. One of the reasons such apps and games fail and are quickly removed from distribution is that they infringe trademarks.

However, some countries do not have the same standards regarding trademark (or copyright) enforcement. Consider an imitation League of Legends game, lampooned here. At the end of the video, the player says “Oh, and it’s also a virus,” as his security software reports malware after playing the game. This humorously underscores the point that many infringing* products pose a security and privacy threat. Using trademark law to limit the proliferation of readily accessible, easily confused programs is a valuable practice in maintaining computer security for consumers.

II. Trade Dress: No One Really “Owns” That Icon… But You Know Who Owns That Icon.

Trade dress is a sort of sub-category of trademarks. It’s rarely talked about or used, but it can be thought of as the totality of design and aesthetics that go into a product, place, or service that make consumers identify the source. Color palette, patterns, shapes, and other factors go into the evaluation of trade dress. Crucially (and perhaps fatally), elements of a trade dress must be considered “non-functional.”  For example, the major case in trade dress concerned a Tex-Mex restaurant that used the same colors and layout of another Tex-Mex restaurant.

Here’s the controversial idea I think deserves consideration: Could misleading, camouflaged web content be considered an infringement of trade dress? (Think of the kinds of ads that make you believe you’re not clicking on an ad, but rather some piece of actual content on the site- especially regarding navigation buttons that match the navigation icons of the site.)

The reason I look to trade dress for a solution is that icons and interfaces, even stylized ones, are not subject to trademark, copyright, or patent protections. Furthermore, websites are increasingly treated as the digital equivalent of stores and offices of businesses- so much so that designs and layouts can come to be the trade dress of that business. Thus, there is a gap in the legal protection of user interfaces, and a need to cover that gap.

(Treating websites as subject to trade dress might have the added benefit of discouraging UX and UI designers from fiddling with the location and arrangement of navigation tools every other month just to justify their paycheck. And that’s the kind of change this world really needs.)

Conclusion: Trademark Protection is Already Working, Trade Dress is Still Vague and Untested

Trademark law is already quietly making the digital ecosystem a little bit safer by eschewing threatening knock-off games and apps. I think there’s a case to be made for applying trade dress to websites and UIs, but it would be a novel application and courts may be hesitant to apply the law so creatively.

 

* “300 Heroes” Infringes both copyrights and trademarks, but it’s the funniest example.

 

Her Data Is Part of Her Story, But Her Story is not Just Her Data.

Her Story” is a great example how piecing together bits of information can create a picture of a person or an event. It is also an example of some of the limits of that picture.

Hack Her Data, Hack Her Story

Her Story” is difficult to describe or classify as a game. It’s a little like trying to find and organize the pieces of a detective novel. The game doesn’t give the player a lot of direction; part of the game is the discovery of the game itself. The game allows the player to search a police database to find short movie clips from several police interviews with a woman. No context is given for why the woman was interviewed or why the player is searching the database. However, by finding and watching the clips, the player gains clues that allow new searches. This cycle of searching and information is the core mechanic of the game.

Hacking to Learn

Hacking can mean a lot of things, but it is broadly about investigation (sometimes, it is an investigation that is against some laws). It can be done for a wide range of reasons and can take many different forms, many of them legal– or even a legitimate business. Regardless of the specific details, hacking always involves exploring the possibilities and limits of a system in order to learn or discover something. In “Her Story,” the hacking is learning what the in-game database can find that will help the player piece together a coherent string of events and characters.

The Limits of Hacking

Even after hacking together all of “Her Story,” something about the picture is incomplete. Why is the player watching these interviews? The game gives the player this answer after piecing together enough of “Her Story,” but hacking a person’s data doesn’t necessarily answer all of the questions about that person. For most criminal hackers, the pieces of data have enough of the story: credit card numbers, bank accounts, social security numbers, addresses, birth dates, etc. Sometimes we need more than a collection of data about a person, and those are often cases where believing data too blindly can cause problems, from legal decisions in courts or policies to judgments in our interpersonal relationships. As mountains of data pile up for each of us, the temptation to describe and explain people using that data also grows. This data has a lot of appeal because it can measure and evaluate some things very effectively. This effort to make life more efficient comes brings at least two potential drawbacks: First, the data can be misleading in myriad ways, and second, the data seems so powerfully scientific and sound that questioning it (or its interpretation) can become almost taboo.

Her Story

There will always be hackers trying to steal financial information and identities. But that threat is known and recognized, so experts fight against it and consumers take protective measures. The data we give to companies and employers and government is riddled with pitfalls, and blind faith in big data will amplify those problems. In “Her Story,” twists emerge as the player pieces the plot together. After enough of the story is pieced together, the game asks the player if “you understand why [the woman] did what she did.” I’m not sure any collection of data can ever really answer that.

Keep Data Secret, Keep Data Safe.

Privacy and Security are two different words, so it is reasonable to ask if there is a difference between “Data privacy” and “Data Security.” The terms seem to be used interchangeably a lot, but I think there is a difference that affects how we think about the issues and that guides how we approach solutions to protecting information.

The standard industry analysis is that Data Security is “confidentiality, integrity, and availability,” while Data Privacy is about the “appropriate use” of the data (I think this is better understood as asking “are only the right people seeing the data?”).

If you’ve seen the movie (and you should have), you remember this moment:

When Gandalf leaves Frodo with the One Ring, he admonishes him: “Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.” Is this one instruction, or two? Are safety and security of a thing the same thing, or two different dimensions of protection?

  1. Secrecy as Privacy.

One of the most interesting discussions I had in law school began with a professor asking “What good is Privacy?” Some academics and jurists, like Judge Posner, have challenged privacy as inefficient; it is the right of criminals to hide their activities and avoid detection or evade conviction by concealing evidence. Advocates of this position assert that non-criminals do not need privacy, while privacy greatly advances the efforts of criminals.

However, privacy is also how we keep information away from criminals. In the digital world, information is everything, so keeping information away from criminals prevents harm. While non-criminals might not fear other non-criminals accessing financial information, certainly they would not want criminals to have the tools to access their bank accounts.

Privacy is an element of security, but it is not the same thing as security. One of the best ways to keep a secret is for people to not know you have a secret; people don’t rob vaults they don’t know exist. However, you wouldn’t leave your valuables unguarded and rely solely on the hope that no one ever finds out about them. Security is always a prudent consideration. (Though there might be interesting strategic choices in minimizing security to maximize secrecy…)

  1. Safety as Security.

I thought it was a little odd that the US government considers “integrity” one of three prongs of data security. “Confidentiality” makes sense (see the point on secrecy), and “availability” is an often over-looked part of security. Your money would be very safe if you shot your life savings into space, but that’s the kind of security plan we might call “not thought through to step two.” But why would the reliability and accuracy of the data be part of the security of the data? We don’t evaluate the security of a bank value on the basis of whether the currency it protects is undermined by inflation or monetary policy decisions.

I think this prong shows one of the dissimilarities between physical security and cybersecurity. We are rarely concerned about the sabotage of physical things we protect, just as we are not often concerned about physical objects being copied (as data can be copied). Data is subject to minor alterations that can corrupt it to render it unreadable or unsafe to use. In some cases, the fact of the data being shared might render the data less valuable (particularly for military intelligence).

  1. So, Gandalf has a pretty good privacy policy. By keeping a Ring secret, it is easier to keep safe; by recognizing the difference between safety and secrecy, he is able to give Frodo a more robust policy to guard the fate of Middle Earth.

Of course, if Gollum yelps out “SHIRE! BAGGINS!” the data will be compromised and new measures and methods will become necessary… But “The Fellowship of Data Protection” is a blog post for another day.