My earlier blogs have focused on digital privacy and security – including 1) anti-virus protections, 2) online nuisances, 3) the risks of online financial scams, 4) unauthorized access to your communications accounts and 5) potential headaches from your use of social network sites.  There have been a several instances where technology is being used in ways that may compromise your privacy (for example see Google’s Street View and Wi-Fi sniffing privacy breaches), but government’s too can use of these technologies in ways that pose risks to individual freedoms.  This blog represents the last of the series and will discuss how restriction and exposure of your information – for the public good – poses risks to your freedom and threatens your privacy. 

Courts and Regulators and Police.  Government’s protection of Americans and their assets requires accurate and timely information about foreign based threats.  In pursuit of that purpose, the CIA, NSA, FBI and others monitor electronic communications on occasion.  Special courts and Congressional bodies are in place to assure they do not abuse that capability.  The Patriot Act is often blamed for this invasion of privacy, but that claim is mostly political mischief as legitimate surveillance organizations and activity pre-dates the Patriot Act.   To protect us, local police and prosecutors likewise require accurate and timely information for the apprehension and trial of criminals.  There are laws that curtail collection of some information to help uard our privacy and our right to avoid self-incrimination.

  •  Surveillance Related to National Security.  Any description of actual cyber-capabilities and actions of the US military and intelligence communities is likely to provoke strident reactions by special interest groups, so let’s just assume that if the military thinks there is information that might be relevant to a foreign threat’s operation, then they have the technical means to obtain it in short order.  So, if you are chatting with your sister in Europe about “circular error probability” or sources for live Ebola virus or today’s C4 prices, then your phone call might be monitored and studied. 
  •  Surveillance for Store and Street Safety.  Over the past two decades, video surveillance by merchants and municipalities has become common.   In Chicago, an estimated 15,000 video cameras were networked in 2009 to enhance street safety and crime forensics.  About 10% were police-operated, and the rest were non-police-operated.   Merchants use cameras for both deterrence and forensic evidence when prosecuting theft.   The system is too vast for real-time monitoring by police staffers. But each time a citizen makes an emergency call, which happens about 15,000 times a day, the system identifies the caller’s location and instantly puts a video feed from the nearest camera up on a screen to the left of the emergency operator’s main terminal. The feeds, including ones that weren’t viewed in real time, can be accessed for possible evidence in criminal cases.  In recent British riots and looting rampages, video from many sources was made public to help identify the criminals, with some success.     
  • When needed for investigating or prosecuting crime, local police and prosecutors can obtain a court order to monitor or seize our phone, internet, video, or mail communications. A good example is technology that can “find” suspects.  A “Stingray” device was used to locate a man who allegedly filed 1,900 fake tax returns.  The police were able to home in on his cellphone’s signal, not capturing conversation, just the phone’s location.  The turmoil in the case revolves over whether that was an illegal search and seizure.
  • Repressive Governments:  Hacking techniques cost relatively little and can help mask the culprit’s identity.  That makes hacking a useful approach for political, industrial and military espionage.  Low profile individuals are unlikely to be targets of these state-hackers, but institutions you care about are.  China is widely alleged to have invaded military and industrial computer networks to steal technical secrets.   Repressive middle-eastern nations invade communications networks seeking identities and plans of dissident citizens.  And, it’s no secret that all nations have the ability to monitor voice and internet communications, but only the repressive regimes routinely cut off cellular service and social media when it suits them.   If you are communicating with dissidents and want to protect them and yourself, consider using satellite phones.  They are expensive but more resistant to monitoring and blockage.
  • Government Access to Data “in the Cloud.”  As American consumers use online services to backup files (pictures, financial files, emails, videos and music), their information is stored onto servers; and, in some cases, this information may be stored on servers in other countries.  Because laws differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, legal problems emerge.  Can the Danish government have access to an American citizen’s private information, if the data is (unknown to the citizen) stored on a server in Denmark?  The tradeoff between protecting the public and protecting personal privacy is complicated by the lack of international agreements, thereby posing risks to individual freedom, as well as the long-term viability of cloud computing services.     
  • Self-Appointed Arbiters of What Should Be SecretWikiLeaks pursues a political agenda of “no secrets” that disregards collateral damage it does to innocent victims: “the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature, induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”  Revealing dumb moves of the diplomat class is one thing, but WikiLeaks’ indiscriminate revelations of identities of whistleblowers or activists who fight repressive regimes, could expose them to lethal retribution.  WikiLeaks thinks that’s a small price.

 Closing Notes:

There are a number of useful sites to visit and learn more about online privacy and security.  Here is a short list of few useful ones:

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida.  He follows public policy from the consumer’s perspective.