With the revelations of Edward Snowden about the massive amount of government surveillance of individuals worldwide, and the almost endless amount of news stories regarding the lack of privacy on the internet, the issue of data mining by the government and private businesses is of increasing concern to Americans.
Many agencies of the government, including President Obama have defended the collection of phone records and Internet use data by stating that these efforts are key to the global fight against not only terrorism, but also financial crime, sexual crimes and surveillance by foreign powers. Many people in America and elsewhere are very concerned with the ramifications of these programs. Privacy issues (vis-a-vis the government and private business interests) are at the forefront of this concern, but there also issues of personal security, government intrusion and potential limits on freedom of speech.
One of the most interesting aspects of this entire issue is how much information we voluntarily give to the government and to private corporations. A couple of years ago, and continuing to this day, a debate began about police officers downloading smart phone information without a warrant during routine traffic stops. Many smart phones contain GPS tracking software that can tell the police, and its manufacturer where you have been. The most well-known of these phones is the Apple iPhone. There was an uproar over this information when it was disclosed, and it was also reported widely that there is an easy way to disable this feature, yet most people do not, and their information continues to be collected.
In just briefly perusing two main social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, one can easily observe that the public voluntarily gives up privacy information. When we write something inane and innocuous like “Going to Applebee’s”, software easily picks this up, collects it, compares it with other information, and then gears advertisements on our most used web pages based on our interests. These advertisements then send reports back to various companies, logging the popularity of their products, and other usable data regarding the user’s interest level. The same geared advertisement occurs when we post about TV programs, music, politics, and sexual habits. People seem to act as if their Facebook page is their own property, and are seemingly shocked when the information they think is “private” is mined or revealed. However, as many people do forget, a social media account is a service that is provided, not a right. Many people do not ever bother to read the “EULA”, or “End User Privacy Agreement” that is frequently offered at a stage before software or web-page use, and many times there are provisions within the “EULA” that allow for the anonymous use of your data. There are also very important questions about our society involved in this, such as the lack of discretion and shame sometimes shown on the Internet.
This is not to say that there are not serious issues at stake, and that the public should be prepared for and accept the secret use of their data. We are still in the beginning phases of a new stage in how information is passed on, and we know from the long history of humankind that technology always runs ahead of the laws that limit it or its use. It is almost impossible to predict the technology of the future and all of the uses it could be put to, and this is what has happened with the Internet and the mining and collection of data.
Of immediate concern regards the intrusion of the government (especially those of the military, intelligence gathering and law enforcement branches) into the private lives of individuals, or of institutions. Recently it was alleged by Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the CIA had hacked into Senate files and removed sensitive information that the Agency did not want the committee to have. This is something that should concern every American, for while it seems necessary that there be some monitoring of internet traffic, the American tradition of checks and balances on power seem to warrant an independent oversight of these activities by the elected representatives of the people.
Another threat to our privacy comes from the collection of private data by corporations in the pursuit of profit. The fear here is not necessarily what these companies are doing now, but what they could do, or what they could be compelled to do with that information. Your preferences in, or issues surrounding, purchases, hobbies, travel, spending, mates and sex (from dating sites or Facebook, for example), and health might possibly be used by insurance companies, lenders, employers or potential employers, and of course, the police, to use unfairly against people.
The collusion between government and private business is also a threat. This can come voluntarily, with the corporation, such as Google or Yahoo, providing information about web pages or chat rooms that seem to contain information about potential violence, crime or terrorism.
This also is a threat to private enterprise as well. The use of AT&T’s information collecting ability via wiretapping and collection of its data by the government in the mid-2000’s is an example. The National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the data of many of the major phone providers in the United States (AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth, etc.) in order to discover what it said were patterns that could help them detect terrorist activity. It was disclosed that information about the phone calls of ordinary Americans (within the United States) were recorded, and beyond that, that there was monitoring of actual conversations, and that AT&T representatives, for example had entertained themselves by listening to the intimate sexual conversations of others. The program apparently went way beyond the scope of what was originally disclosed. Besides the obvious threat to privacy, there is another threat. Hanging over the corporation itself was the implicit benefits or handicaps to the company in cooperating or refusing cooperation with government programs such as this. The airwaves and telephone lines/cables of the country are ruled and regulated by the government. Contracts, mergers, and patents, are all under the control of the government. A corporation that does not cooperate could likely find itself losing out on contracts and business to competitors who do. This in turn, gives the government even more power over the individual.
Obviously, there must be a balance. In an age of increasing anonymity and mass culture, freedom of expression and privacy are more important than ever. This must be balanced with safety in an age of terrorism and of weapons of mass destruction. The key is the oversight of data collection, and possibly the oversight of the oversight (“Who is watching the watchers?”), and the vigorous prosecution of anyone or any entity that breaks the law. Including the NSA.
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