What Price Safety Over Privacy: A Slippery Slope Revisited

In 2012 I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about what price do we pay for losing our privacy in the name of safety? The subject is still very pertinent today as it was when we were all discussing warrantless wiretapping by the Federal Bureau of Investigating (FBI).

I asked how much privacy are we willing to give up ensuring our safety against possible terrorist attacks?

Still not sure I have a definitive answer? Has privacy taken a total back seat to a “Big Brother” society?

I think I can safely say that unless you are completely “off the grid” in that you don’t have a credit card and pay for everything using cash without having a bank account, don’t participate in any online activity such as email and social networks, (which means you are not reading this post), don’t have a telephone (any kind) don’t work for a company or communicate in any fashion, it’s possible you may have some semblance of privacy.

Government and our privacy

In my earlier post, I referenced the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECA) which allowed government agencies to read our private e-mails without a search warrant.

E-mails in transit was protected, but once they reached a third-party Internet Service Providers (ISP), like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail and were stored, they were no longer protected under the Fourth Amendment. In brief, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that:

“[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The good news is that in 2010, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the ECA unconstitutional.

What changed is that the courts ruled that emails that were stored were secure from government eavesdropping as well. Because of the ruling, the government has to get a warrant to read the stored e-mails of someone they are investigating.

Cell phone tracking

Not just e-mails had been freely available to the government without a warrant historically, but cell phone tracking data is available to a police investigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union advocacy group conducted a year-long investigation into law enforcements use of cell phone tracking data.

MSNBC reporter Bob Sullivan, author and writer on technology crime and consumer fraud, reported that using the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU found many local police departments around the country to routinely pay mobile phone network operators a small fee to get detailed records of historic cell phone location information. In addition, police departments are using a device known as the StingRay to monitor phone activity to track criminals — but they’re not allowed to say anything about the technology or how it works, as The New York Times reports

In his article, Sullivan said this data tells cops not just where a suspect might have been at a given moment, but also create the possibility of retracing someone’s whereabouts for months. In many cases, law enforcement can get this information without applying for a search warrant.

Most often, Sullivan reported, subpoenas are issued instead, which require law enforcement to meet a lower legal standard.

Digging deeper into the use of our personal information being culled by public agencies, James Bamford, in a Wired magazine article, revealed a top-secret construction project in Utah, named the Utah Data Center that is being built for the National Security Agency (NSA).

The purpose of this massive center is to intercept, decipher, analyze and store huge amounts of communications taken from satellites and cable communications.

The source of this information will come from private emails, cell phone calls, Google searches and personal data trails.

Loss of personal information

Frankly, I have long ago given up the idea that my life is private. In terms of being a writer who does research online, I must confess I’m a hypocrite when it comes to finding information about people online. I conduct all kinds of online research for a living so I’m all over the Internet looking and digging.

But, I’m asking the same question I did in 2012: Is giving up our privacy the price we pay for staying safe from terrorist attacks. Does it help?

We may never know what tactic made the difference or missed the mark.

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