[OPINION] Our Brave New World, Where Privacy Is A Relic Of The Past

by Paul Hadsall

In 1993, cartoonist Peter Steiner contributed a famous piece to The New Yorker. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” it said. The cartoon’s computer-savvy canines were seen as a sign that the global computer network, once the dominion of universities and government institutions, had begun to capture the imagination of the public.

As the Internet grew in importance to our everyday lives, most of us never stopped to question the illusion of privacy it provides. We should have.

In a court filing last week, attorneys for Google wrote that 425 million users of its Gmail service have “no legitimate expectation of privacy.” The company uses automated scanning to filter email sent through the free service to filter spam and deliver targeted advertising to its users, but the practice is being challenged is a class-action suit by users who say that represents an illegal interception of their electronic communications without their consent.

Facebook got a slap on the wrist for setting up a program which automatically collected data on users’ purchases and video rentals and displayed that information to their “friends” in the form of online ads. Users didn’t see a dime of a class-action settlement, which was upheld last week by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the bulk of the money went to a foundation that is partially controlled by Facebook.

And it isn’t just our computer activity at home that’s being monitored by big corporations. Retailers are experimenting with technology to track their customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. Nordstrom ended their program in May, in part because of customer complaints, but other chains are continuing them.

Private corporations are collecting more and more data about us, but for the most part they are just using that information to find better ways to sell us things.

It’s a bit less clear what the U.S. government is doing with the data it collects, or just how much data is has access to. Edward Snowden may have brought the issue to a new level of attention, but the National Security Agency had been worrying to privacy advocates before this summer.

Last year, Wired reported on a $2 billion top secret data center being built in Utah. “A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks,” wrote James Bamford in the March 12, 2012 article.

Despite repeated reassurances from the Obama Administration that the NSA does not collect private information of ordinary Americans, every week seems to bring new revelations about what information isn’t really as “private” as we thought it was.

First it was phone call “metadata” – the numbers of both parties on a call, its duration, and cell phone location data – The Guardian obtained a document from a secret U.S. court giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the information of Verizon customers over a three month period. The British newspaper also obtained a top secret document that indicated the NSA had obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other U.S. internet companies, though both the government and the companies involved have said that report is inaccurate.

The New York Times reported that the NSA searches the contents of “vast amounts of Americans’ email and text communications into and out of the country.”

Reuters let us know that the NSA doesn’t just use the information it collects to look for terrorists, it shares it with other government agencies. A secretive Drug Enforcement Administration unit reportedly passes information to law enforcement agencies and the Internal Revenue Service, and trained agents to cover up the source of the tips that began investigations.

And just last week, the Washington Post reported that even when a court does try to rein in the NSA’s snooping efforts, the agency doesn’t always comply. In one incident documented in a May 2012 audit obtained by the Post, the NSA unlawfully retained 3,032 files that a court ordered the agency to destroy. Each file contained an undisclosed number of telephone call records.

The NSA’s current intelligence gathering efforts are a continuation of Bush Administration official John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness system, intended to allow the Pentagon’s Office of Information Awareness to link commercial and government databases to create a vast field of information to enable authorities to track down terrorism suspects.

For once, Congress did not blindly go along with a demand to surrender Americans’ right to privacy in the name of security; they defunded the program in a 2004 defense appropriations bill. Privacy advocates thought they’d scored a victory, but they’d just driven the government’s data mining efforts underground.

We may not have the privacy we thought we did, but the government’s secrets aren’t as secret as they’d like either anymore. What are we going to do about it?

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