Orwell, Privacy and the NSA

President Obama recently met with tech leaders at the White House to discuss a variety of issues, including an update on the attempt to fix healthcare.gov.   At the meeting, the leaders – hailing from Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, AOL and others – urged the President to take action on the unwarranted intrusions into their technology-based infrastructures by the NSA and other US agencies.

This comes on the heels of a letter sent by the same leaders last week, which also urged action to address the intrusions on their businesses and information pertaining to their customers and users.

The open letter sent last week included signers from AOL, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and many other tech community leaders. As more news comes out about the breaches of user data by the NSA and other spy agencies, the extent to which user information has been accessed becomes more and more disturbing, as it has been found that the NSA has had little oversight and has potentially stepped over its bounds many times. The letter called for more government accountability, more transparency, and putting a limit on the governments power to collect information from private sources, among others.

Over the past several months, mostly stemming from the information revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, we have found out about many breaches of user data. Last week, we heard that the NSA has been tracking users through Google’s cookies, using Google’s popular ad-tracking software to track users and to find vulnerable targets susceptible to hacking by the NSA and its British counterpart. There have been many other breaches as well, including ones into Dropbox, Facebook, and even the wholesale collection of phone call metadata from Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.

Earlier this week, a judge ruled that the NSAs surveillance program of phone metadata is unconstitutional and in breach of citizens 4th Amendment rights. It was a scathing opinion, calling the procedure “Orwellian” and saying that James Madison would be “aghast” at the activities and the intrusions into citizen’s privacy. The judge, a George W. Bush appointee, left room for an appeal but left no doubts over the legality and constitutionality of the procedures.

The rebuke by tech leaders in their open letter to the President and their queries to him in the meeting are good, but certainly don’t go far enough. Companies like Yahoo, Facebook and Google (which itself has a spotty record when it comes to privacy) should protect the interests of their users and safeguard their data, before things truly do resemble something out of an Orwell novel.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org

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