The end of privacy? Government and private surveillance pose a growing threat to Americans - The Buffalo News
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The end of privacy? Government and private surveillance pose a growing threat to Americans

The perfect storm threatens our private lives. Personal privacy, cherished by previous generations, is being swept away by a variety of forces. These include our heavy reliance on the Internet for work, entertainment and shopping; our addiction to cellphones, data plans and apps; our eagerness to expose the details of our lives on websites like Facebook; and our tolerance of excessive government spy programs.

Privacy is essential to our humanity. It permits us to create and maintain private lives from which spring personal identity, self-determination, freedom and, ultimately, happiness.

In contrast, surveillance is a direct assault on privacy. It attacks and eliminates privacy. Its chilling effect constrains and shrinks us through self-censorship of thought and action. When taken to the extreme, like in George Orwell’s “1984,” surveillance objectifies so thoroughly that it destroys our internal life.

Our nation’s founders recognized the importance of privacy in the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

While this language is pre-9/11, Internet and cellphone, it speaks of the kind of nation the founders envisioned. In America, we have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a private life safe from unreasonable search and seizure. But our privacy is being eroded by leaps and bounds every day.

You are what you click

As chronicled in Julia Angwin’s excellent book, “Dragnet Nation,” whenever we use our cellphones, tablets and computers, everything we do on them is tracked, recorded and stored by phone and Internet service providers. The apps we use and the websites we visit gather our personal data and use it to market products to us or sell it to third-party data brokers.

In fact, many Web providers invite third-party data-mining companies to spy on us, allowing them to secretly insert “cookies” and “Web beacons” onto our computers so they can track our activity as we go from website to website. Twenty or more of these undisclosed companies may be tracking us at any given time. The tracking data they gather is then used to create detailed personal profiles of Web users – each made up of as many as 1,000 data points, according to the Obama administration’s just-released “Big Data” report. These profiles are then marketed to other companies. This is how “free” websites and services make money.

Our personal communications, including online gaming activity, are also vacuumed up by the National Security Agency. Thanks to revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we know this U.S. spy agency employs a “collect it all” strategy when gathering information on our personal cellphone and online activities. Since 9/11, the NSA has used secret contracts with telecommunication giants and covert splicing into their communication cables to intercept Internet and cellphone information on hundreds of millions of Americans and foreigners who are not terrorist or criminal suspects. As pointed out by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, the NSA has not shown that this dragnet is effective in preventing terrorist activity.

Credit card use creates a digital trail that banks analyze and may sell to marketers. Cable TV providers track channel choice and may soon send “personalized” ads to individual TVs based on viewer profiles. Once linked to the Net, everything – private business and medical records and more – is at risk of being read and used by others without permission.

Cellphones provide a continuous record of user location. This information is collected and made available to police and government surveillance agencies. The NSA is reported to be able to access cellphones even when they are turned off. Built-in car GPS systems also provide a record of location. New car event data recorders will add an additional measure of surveillance to our lives.

Public surveillance grows

Increasingly, our public activities are recorded by security cameras operated privately or by police agencies. While it’s difficult to argue against security cameras in high-crime areas, their proliferation everywhere and integration into larger networks mean that large swaths of public space may soon be subject to continuous surveillance. Facial recognition technology will allow individuals to be tracked, producing detailed information on daily personal activity, which was previously private.

Police, as well as private parties, are also beginning to use automatic license plate recognition scanners. These devices can be seen on the back or sides of police cars. As they become cheaper, scanners are likely to proliferate to any location with a law enforcement or security justification. Plate scanners will allow police to keep tabs on us and may tell mall operators every time we pull into their parking lots – as was the case in New Jersey before being stopped by public outcry.

In a bizarre public relations gesture, Amazon recently demonstrated how a small remote-controlled “domestic drone” could deliver packages to our doorsteps. But these drones, now completely unregulated, can also be used by police, private companies and the kid down the block to fly around your house, peer into your windows, inspect your backyard or follow you down the street.

Organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation have challenged secrecy surrounding government use of domestic drones and called for privacy protection policies to limit their use. And, locally, former Amherst Town Supervisor Dan Ward has proposed a groundbreaking drone privacy protection ordinance for Amherst.

Our privacy dilemma is symbolized by computer and cellphone cameras and microphones. We take photos and videos for instant sharing. We make video calls – a distant dream a few years ago. But these cameras and mikes can also be used by uninvited third parties to watch and listen to us without our knowledge or permission whenever we are online. Too paranoid to consider? Well, it’s already been done by a school district and a retailer that spied on students and customers, respectively, in the privacy of their homes, including in their bedrooms.

What can be done?

Individually, we can recapture some online privacy by covering our webcams, switching to socially responsible providers, web-based services, retailers and search engines like DuckDuckGo that promise not to track, and employing software like Ghostery and Disconnect to reveal and block third-party data-miners from following us across the Web. These strategies can work but are inconvenient.

We can “opt out” of tracking whenever possible or drop out all together. Quitting or strictly minimizing certain activities may seem like a radical Luddite step, but an increasing number may take it if real privacy protections are not forthcoming from government and the private sector.

There are a number of policy changes that would protect privacy.

Enact strong laws to protect digital activities. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act should be updated to provide email correspondence and all personal electronic documents the same protection from warrantless government snooping and seizure as hard-copy paper documents. Ideally, this law, or a new digital consumer protection law, would ban all online tracking that is done without the user’s explicit knowledge, full understanding and consent. New laws should also permit Internet users to have easy access to data about them with the option of deleting or correcting it.

Limit security cameras, license plate scanners and domestic drones. Laws are needed to limit and control the deployment of these technologies, recognizing that it’s all too easy to justify their use to enhance security while their cumulative impact is an unacceptable erosion of privacy. Potential application of these devices should be subject to a rigorous determination of need and compliance with serious privacy protection policies placing sensible limits on surveillance in public spaces.

Lift the veil on government spying. In a democracy, the public has a right to know about government surveillance. Spy agencies should be held to the highest standards of public accountability and controlled by our elected representatives – not by a shadowy secret government we are expected to blindly trust. All government surveillance agencies should be required to issue annual privacy impact assessments accompanied by opportunities for public review and policy change.

Repeal the USA Patriot Act. This law was a vast government overreach from the day it was passed in the aftermath of 9/11. In expanding government spy activities, the Patriot Act allowed search and seizure without specific warrants or probable cause, initiated the dragnet collection of personal information on hundreds of millions of people here and abroad, and placed gag orders on those ordered to turn over information on others.

Reform or abolish the FISA Court. Ideally, a secret court, making secret rulings and secret interpretations of law, should not exist in a democracy. But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court does exist, and its use was vastly expanded under the Patriot Act. This court needs transparency and a complete overhaul to protect individual rights and privacy. It should not rubber stamp excessive spying.

Pass the USA Freedom Act. This bill would stop bulk collection of Americans’ communication records and meaningfully reform the FISA Court. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Chris Collins, Brian Higgins and Tom Reed are not listed among its co-sponsors.

Cut the budgets of government surveillance agencies. The NSA annually costs taxpayers $10.8 billion which, according to a Washington Post analysis, is part of a $52.6 billion “Black Budget” for all national intelligence agencies and their 107,000 employees. Budget cuts should be big enough to force the scuttling of ineffective, unnecessary, wasteful and unconstitutional programs without jeopardizing national security.

Protect the free press and whistle-blowers. Our government should not be spying on journalists and their confidential sources. Laws are needed to prevent this and thus protect the press’s ability to investigate and criticize government. Whistle-blowers perform a critically important public service. National security agency employees and contractors need whistle-blower legal protection. They do not have it now.

Seek a constitutional amendment. In addition to strong digital privacy protections, we need a constitutional legal basis for “privacy in public” without which our lives in real and virtual public spaces may soon become subject to continuous surveillance.

Insist on congressional accountability. Our senators and congressional representatives failed to tell us about or stop NSA dragnet surveillance and FISA Court abuses. They also failed to address ubiquitous Internet surveillance by private companies and the need for meaningful digital age consumer protection.

While our elected officials need a wake-up call, segments of the news media have been on the job and deserve our thanks for consistent coverage of this issue. The UK Guardian and the Washington Post recently received the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the NSA scandal. And public opinion polls now show a sizable majority of Americans, both Democrat and Republican, want government to stop spying on them. An increasing number are also upset about online surveillance. The time is right for action on the privacy issue.

Walter Simpson writes about a variety of environmental, peace and justice issues. He resides in Amherst.

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