Saturday, June 8, 2013

Can you expect digital privacy?

How Would a Patriot Act?
Since the stories of the government looking at cell phone records broke, I have friends on the left and the the right (and especially the Libertarians) who are very concerned, and some shocked, at the amount of information the government has access to about us ordinary citizens.  I guess maybe some of them weren't really paying attention when FISA was being renewed and when the Patriot Act was enacted.  None of this is exactly shocking to me. The only "news" was some of the details.  I had already heard the government had a program for monitoring internet activity for key phrases associated with terrorism.  I certainly expected that they could get access to phone records in the course of an investigation.  I think these stories are being blown way out of proportion. The bigger concern, for me, a law abiding non-terrorist citizen is not what the government is doing with that data, it's how that data impacts our "private" lives.  I'll get to that later.

First, I think we need to sit back and think of how much privacy we can reasonably expect in the digital world we live in.  I had a friend use the analogy that the government going through our phone records is like coming in and looking through our panty drawers.  Of course, all analogies fall apart at some point, but here are the reasons I don't see this as being particularly analogous.  I think we could all agree that to have the government come into our homes and go through our personal property would be an invasion.  They have to come into our homes to do it.  And, our panties are obviously our personal property. Data though- whom you have called- not the call itself.  Is that "property"?  If it is, is it your property? Does it belong to the phone company?  It's not a physical thing.  You didn't purchase it.  You didn't make it.  Do you own it?  Keep in mind, the program that has so many people upset is the government looking at records of who you called.  It's not the phone conversations themselves.  This is not "wiretapping".  It might feel like an invasion, but is it?  This is being called spying by some, but I don't agree with calling it spying.  If the government were listening in on the conversations themselves, that would be spying.  They are looking at lists of records gathered/generated by the telephone companies.

Then, I think about how much paranoia we have since 9/11.  We gladly allowed the government to spy on us, with limits, after we were attacked almost 12 years ago.  We expect the government to keep us safe from terrorists domestic and foreign.  The Boston Marathon bombing was a reminder that not all terrorists come from outside the United States.  Both brothers, even though foreign born, were US citizens.  There was some amount of criticism, rightfully not much, that the FBI and other agencies didn't do their jobs because they didn't know what the Tsarnaev's were up to.  One way of finding out who is being radicalized would be to find out who is talking to the radicals.  That data is just sitting out there as many of these groups are using the internet and telephones to do their communications.  Anyone who didn't expect law enforcement to go after that, well....

Last, as a law abiding non-terrorist, I don't care if the government is looking at metadata about whom I call.  I don't care if they're looking at my Facebook posts or my emails for key phrases.  I really don't.  What concerns me more is what private companies are doing with the data out there about me.  They have a lot more likelihood of impacting our personal lives. Already, credit card companies are lowering people's credit ratings based on patterns like spending more time in bars or buying certain items.  Grocery stores are selling loyalty card data (your Kroger Plus card purchases) to insurance companies who are using it to see what type of risk you are.  This article Grocery Loyalty Card Purchases Surveilled by Insurance Companies has me a lot more concerned than anything I've heard about the government looking at phone records.
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