PRIVACY VERSUS SECURITY

It’s June 13, 2013. Do you know where your social security number and other confidential personal information is? Before you answer: “yes, of course,” and think what an inane question to ask, consider all the people to whom you have given this information VOLUNTARILY (medical professionals, credit card companies, banks and securities broker-dealers, to name a few). Also, consider who else to whom you have granted access INVOLUNTARILY (email providers, Facebook, hackers).

Well, now you can add the Federal government to that list. A “whistle blower” named Eric Snowden has just disclosed that the NSA has been identifying and storing your telephone numbers and, perhaps, your emails without a “probable cause” warrant. Mr. Snowden is currently in hiding possibly somewhere in Hong Kong. Regardless of whether you consider him to be a hero or a traitor, and I have heard both characterizations, we should ascertain what else he knows and can tell us. Better we debrief him than the Chinese or some other foreign government, don’t you think?

Is this practice a contravention of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits illegal “search and seizure?” Most legal experts opine that it is constitutional for the government to obtain telephone numbers that one calls without a warrant, but it is not constitutional for them to actually listen to the conversations or to read one’s emails without one. Storing without reading seems to be more of a gray area. The NSA claims that it is merely recording the telephone numbers, and that it is necessary to do so in order to foil terrorist plots. They deny they are storing the information or that they are reading emails without a “probable cause” warrant. This begs the question of the purpose of the 1 million square foot storage facility currently under construction somewhere in Utah.

Interestingly, this is the one issue that has crossed party and philosophical lines. One can find liberals and conservatives and Republicans and Democrats on either side. Can you identify any other issue for which this is true?

The government’s arguments sound good. We all want to be safe and secure. Furthermore, we love using the internet and social media for shopping, paying bills, gossiping, etc., but few of us stop to think what we are giving up in terms of the loss of privacy. Let’s not blame the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks of the world. Before you commenced using their services, you were required to agree to their Terms and Conditions in which you virtually signed your life away. But, who of us were aware of the Federal government’s intrusion?

Some have pointed that government snooping is not new. The NSA has been monitoring citizens’ communications since 1957. Fair enough, but I think we can all agree that communications and snooping techniques have advanced somewhat since 1957, so I fail to see that as a valid comparison or excuse. I think there are several concerns:

1. Can we believe what the government is telling us? Do we really trust them in view of all the other instances of government overreach and/or incompetence that have come to light recently? I covered this angle in my recent blog “Who Do You Trust,” so it is not necessary to repeat it here. I think most Americans would answer with a resounding “no.” Trust is at or close to an all-time low and with good reason.

2. How would this information be used/leaked. For example, what’s to stop the government from conducting selected investigations against average citizens based upon this information or blackmailing opposing politicians with the threat of disclosing compromising or embarrassing information? We have recently learned that the Administration is not above using the IRS or justice Department for political purposes. Why not this as well?

3. What, if any, safeguards has the government implemented to secure the information. We have to presume that any electronic data can be hacked. We all know what hackers can do with even a modicum of personal information.

4. The efficacy of this program is dubious. For example, it did not prevent the Boston Marathon Massacre, various incidences of school violence, or the Fort Hood incident. Under Congressional grilling the NSA could not cite one specific instance of prevention of terrorism or violence.

5. Even if you are a blind supporter of the Obama Administration, you have to be concerned that this is setting a precedent for future administrations, which may not be aligned with your political beliefs.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

People should read George Orwell’s book, 1984. I say this with my tongue only halfway in my cheek. At the time it was written it seemed very far fetched. Now, not so much.

I would like to interject a word of caution. No one wants to compromise the country’s security. We all want to feel safe, be safe. On the other hand, there is still much we do not know about this matter, and that is precisely the point. We don’t know and we should. We are all busy with our personal lives and personal issues. However, it is imperative that we focus on this issue. It has a profound impact on us all.

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