Your Private Information is Less Safe than Ever – And it was Never Safe

NSAThe N.S.A. leaks and the saga of Edward J. Snowden had broadened the public’s perception of privacy and its limits. Perceptions vary widely. From the perspective of the law, Snowden is a criminal (RMuse, 2013). From the perspective of an information activist, which is a term often loosely applied (for example, to people who steal other people’s information on the grounds that all information – even yours – ought to be freely available to everybody) Snowden is a hero.

However Snowden might be viewed, however, the N.S.A., nearing completion of a new data center in Utah, is building yet another at Fort Meade, in Maryland (Sverdlik, 2013).

Much of that data will – inevitably – be about you and me.

If it important for people to recognize is that government surveillance is nothing new in history. In the ancient world, the king’s road was protected by outposts and patrols of mounted warriors. These measures made travel safe for royal messengers and promoted commerce. Guards at city gates provided further surveillance.

Nobody, of course, objected to being made safe while traveling. At the turn of the Common Era, Augustus rid the Mediterranean of pirates and the roads from bandits. He could no more completely eliminate these threats than we can today, but Benjamin Isaac speaks of burganin, which were permanent structures along Rome’s eastern highways that “served not only as police stations or guard-posts, but also as hostels” which offered protection from wild beasts and bandits (Isaac, 1990, pp. 182-183).

The simple fact is that people are willing to give up a degree of privacy in order to be protected. We like knowing there are cops in the mall and that we can therefore shop with a measure of safety; that there are police monitoring our roads to keep us safe from dangers similar to what the ancient Romans faced (though all too often these days the cops turn out to be the bad guys).

Therefore, regulation of travel and communications is a thing that has always been with us and it is not an inherently bad thing. At the same time, those Romans no more welcomed official intrusion into their private lives than Americans do today. “Snooping” and “informing” has never been an admired activity and you have to wonder how many information activists would want their own private information “out there.”

The threat we face is therefore not a new one by any means. Governments have always spied, both on foreign enemies and on potential domestic enemies. The Spartans had their “krypteia”; the Persians their “eyes and ears of the king”; and the Romans their “frumentarii,” who by the third century of the common era had earned their epithet, “curiosi,” or “snoops” (Sinnigen, 1961).

Technology has made governments much more capable of crossing the line from surveillance into intrusiveness. We can monitor roads now with satellites and with aerial drones (Bennett, 2013) and we do not have to be outside a person’s window to listen to their most private conversations. We can monitor communications by tapping into phone lines and listening to unencrypted cell phone signals. Technology has made governments capable of knowing far more about a private citizen’s activities than could ever have been imagined in ages past (Lichtblau, 2013).

Of course, in the modern world, measures have been taken to provide certain safeguards. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) dates from 1986 and was at the time a revision to existing statutes governing the use of wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping. ECPA requires that warrants or subpoenas are necessary in order to access emails though the government can also use a National Security Letter (NSL) to force a company to disclose information about subscribers (Electronic Communications Privacy Act, n.d.).

However, when ECPA was passed, hand held phones were in their infancy (the first U.S. cellular network dates from 1983). The need for reform has been recognized and Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2011, which died in committee before being reintroduced on March 19, 2013. The new amendment would update the ECPA to include mobile phone data and increased email protections (Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2011, 2011).

Many have seen the Patriot Act with its surveillance provisions as a threat to privacy but the Patriot Act has in fact been extended, rather than limited in its scope (USA Patriot Act, n.d.). The proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) has drawn opposition from websites citing threats to the private information of Internet users (Smith, 2013). Some politicians, like Sen. Bernie Sanders,would actually like to reverse the process by limiting the ability of the N.S.A. and FBI to spy on the American people (Easley, 2013).

There are also many ways for a malicious hacker (aka a “cracker”) to get at you and yours, from war-driving (literally driving by your house or business using a laptop, WiFi card, free software and an empty Pringles can) to physical access to your computer to hacking into it from a Wi-Fi hotspot or on the Internet by way of an email sent to you, or by your access to a malware-infected website (Cobb, Cobb, & Kabay, 2009). There are ways for legitimate businesses to intrude upon your privacy by tracking you on- and off-line (more on that tomorrow).

There is no refuge to be found in brick and mortar retail establishments. People say they are concerned about these issues but their actions do not show that they truly understand the dangers; they always think it will not happen to them, or they just try not to think about it (Nguyen & Hayes, 2009). No matter what we do today, no matter how we shop, we must recognize that we are being tracked, whether it is a device on a grocery cart, an overhead security camera and facial recognition software, human “trackers” who follow you around, the tracking of your cell phone signals, or through some other means (Lutz & McConnell, 2013).

Lamentably, existing laws are completely inadequate and some of those in place do not offer satisfactory protections of private data. Technology has outrun our ability to regulate new means of surveillance, if not our ability to feel and express outrage over real or imagined (or even potential) violations of our privacy (Bennett, 2013).

Politicians from the extremes of left and right have expressed concern over the data-collection impact of these new technologies (Wolfgang, 2013).There is a delicate balance between protecting Americans from terrorist threats through intercepted communications and infringing on the First Amendment rights of the innocent.

If our communications are encrypted we have some protections against illegal snooping but only legislation can protect citizens from government snooping and then only if laws are enforced. The government has no more right to listen to everyone’s conversations in hopes of finding one terrorist than a brick and mortar store has to strip-search every departing customer to find one shoplifter.

The old saying “forewarned is forearmed” is relevant here: we cannot completely protect ourselves (any more than can a business). And make no mistake: corporations, government, and information activists, are all threats to your private information.

Yet if we are aware of the threats and of our vulnerabilities, means exist with which we can mitigate the dangers. We simply have to be as determined to protect our privacy as others are to strip it away.

Tomorrow I will show you how dangerous shopping can be.

Image from Datacenter Dynamics


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Wolfgang, B. (2013, March 20). Many questions, few answers as Capitol Hill weighs drones, privacy. The Washington Times. Retrieved from

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