Technology and the reduction in privacy

by David Lane

As I was standing in the shower this morning, ruminating over the firings of several Verizon employees for snooping into President-Elect Obama’s phone records, I began to think about privacy and what it means and what it will evolve to mean in the coming days and years. After all I was in one of the most private places a person can be right?

Let me begin with something that Steve Riley said during a presentation a couple of weeks ago. He said that there is no “right to privacy” in the Constitution because the founding fathers never could conceive of a time when that right would not be present in our society. Let me say it again for those of you who are unclear. In today’s society, the right of privacy is NOT guaranteed and this is a state of affairs that the founding fathers (at least in the United States) could not conceive of. The Constitution does guarantee the right of peaceable assembly but as anyone who has walked down an urban street lately can tell you, it certainly is not private, nor is it anonymous.

So what, you may ask? Well, many people have simply accepted that with all this technology, the right of privacy should be extended. Others, particularly those in law enforcement, feel otherwise. Some argue that if you are not doing anything wrong, what’s the harm while others, Bruce Schneier among them, argue differently.

What got me thinking was this. For those that missed it, Verizon caught several employees looking through the records of Barak Obama, who had a cell phone on the company’s wireless service. They have since been fired. Now, you may think that looking at who he called is not that big of a deal. It was his personal cell phone according to reports and one might hypothesize that he could have used it to avoid official scrutiny, just like members of the current administration did several years ago by using RNC equipment to send email. After all it is not like they were actually listening to the calls or reading the SMS messages. It was then that it really sunk home. The former is a felony (unless you have a warrant) and the latter is not even illegal. Let me say this again. Reading SMS messages, like email, is NOT illegal (at least in the United States today). Surprised? I should not have to state for this audience the number of devices an email or SMS message passes through on its way from sender to receiver and the innumerable chances for it being intercepted. There are no laws on the books that prevent anyone from reading email not destined for them. Microsoft used to have a session in their Exchange classes that showed administrators how to monitor messages in a man-in-the-middle method as a service to corporations. And yet, how many intimate details are send daily through unencrypted email?

It is common in New York, London, and now here in Washington to have to submit to random bag checks when entering the city’s subway systems. Amtrak is doing bag checks before you get on a train and of course, anyone who flies knows of the joy of airport security. But it has gotten more insidious than that. Street corners are littered with city approved cameras for everything from watching where you go to how fast you are driving to get there. Backscatter x-ray machines are just being implemented and as Steve mused, how long until there is a usenet group called alt.binaries.air.port.port. Our net traffic is open to anyone with a desire to follow it and large quantities of our personal information is available to the highest bidder just so they can sell us a new toaster (and if the increase in catalogs at my house is any indication, the list sellers are doing a banner year this year).

What make the news are the big data breaches: TJX, Department of Veterans Affairs, State Department, Berkeley University, Verizon. What does not make the news are the insidious, daily depletion of our privacy and increased exposure of our personal information. And it is all a result of technology.

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