2013-07-19 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

Can You Handle The Truth?
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

As I write this column, Edward Snowden sits holed up in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport waiting to be offered asylum by Russia. Snowden is the former intelligence contractor for the National Security Agency, the U.S. intelligence agency that collects and analyzes foreign communications and intelligence signals to protect government communications and information systems. In June, Snowden leaked information regarding secret government surveillance programs to the public.

Snowden and his supporters claim that he is a human rights defender and a whistleblower who disclosed privacy abuses by the U.S. government. His detractors claim that he is a traitor who has caused great harm to our nation’s security by exposing top-secret government intelligence activities designed to unravel terrorist plots at home and abroad. At heart is the battle between privacy and national security.

The leaks disclosed two surveillance programs: (1) a phone records program that collects customers’ metadata -- U.S. call records, including phone numbers dialed, call length, and location data, but not call content -- and (2) an online surveillance program pursuant to which the NSA collects videos, photos, emails, documents, and connection logs for foreign users through nine major Internet companies. Intelligence analysts use the information collected to detect patterns and connections to search for possible links to terrorists abroad, and suspicious behavior.

The U.S argues that these programs are legal under national surveillance laws, and have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks. The U.K. and other European countries view the programs as conflicting with European data protection laws, which generally grant more rights to the individual than American laws.

The plain truth is, except for the recluses and Luddites among us, our lives are open books. The government continues to collect data for national security purposes. Further, commercial companies are increasingly collecting our online and offline data (like publicly available government, court, and voting records), and compiling it into robust profiles about us, for sale to and by data brokers.

With narrow exceptions, consumers generally have no rights, and there are few restrictions, regarding the purchase and sale of their own commercial information. While industry self-regulation exists, government regulators and Congress have been taking a closer look at data brokers, and are urging them to be more transparent with regard to what they do with all the data they collect. Privacy advocates are calling for the preservation of private space through the consideration of fundamental privacy principles as technology develops, and not afterwards.

Most of us have some expectation of privacy in our homes and even in public. While this may have been a reasonable expectation in a less technological era, it is at odds with the fact that our world today is one of constant monitoring and commercial data collection.

In a post-9/11 world, I am comfortable offering up some phone call metadata if that means I will be protected from terrorism, even if this costs me some privacy. But I am not na├»ve to the fact that encroachments in civil liberties are not without consequences, like the potential for innocent people to be picked up in government sweeps. We have no assurance that information gleaned from surveillance – and even commercial data collection – will not be misused.

This is the truth: we live in a world of constant surveillance by the government and commercial industry, a world in which our digital and offline tracks are virtually indelible.

Can you handle it?

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