WASHINGTON, June 21, 2013 ― Facebook and email users just looking to catch up with family and friends across the miles are getting more than they bargained for when it comes to social networking and email security measures.
The use of social networking sites such as Facebook, and sites that provide search, email and other services, like Google, generates vast quantities of data and preserves surprisingly detailed information about individual users. Security agencies are now demanding that the companies that keep these data turn them over, putting the government in possession of information that many Americans consider personal and private.
So far only limited amounts of information are being handed over the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Justice Department. However, most people are unaware of just how much information projects like the NSA’s PRISM are collecting from the internet, nor do we know the extent to which these agencies are using the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) to expand their surveillance of Americans. It is also unclear to what degree the information will be used.
Limited in their ability to say how much information was requested, Facebook was able to reveal that in 2012, they had data requests from government entities on every level affecting 18,000 and 19,000 accounts. Microsoft was also able to reveal recently that they had data requests affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 accounts.
FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce said that an attack on the New York Stock Exchange was stopped because of the NSA and other security agencies tapping into private phone, email and internet usage of American citizens. This sort of thing is the justification for the widespread searches and seizures of private information. However, claims like these involve selective disclosure of information, making the validity of the claims suspect. Claims that terrorist attacks have been thwarted have been met with considerable skepticism.
People may feel some general unease about government surveillance, but it’s unlikely that many people will change their internet habits out of concern for privacy. The internet is just too useful to abandon. On the margin, some people will make more payments in cash. There has been increased interest in search engines that don’t preserve personal information. There may be some self-censorship as people wonder who could end up reading their mail or hearing their phone calls, but most people won’t bother.
Sensitivity to loss of privacy creates more of an “ick-factor” in the minds American citizens than outrage. The biggest problem facing intelligence agencies and the politicians who oversee them may be increased second guessing from people who are unable to judge what’s reasonable and necessary in terms of data collection and national security. The true cost is a loss of confidence in the integrity of the intelligence gathering process and in oversight, and that will inevitably corrode the ability of these agencies to do a critical job if it isn’t dealt with in a prompt, open and serious way.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution says,
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Being secure in persons, houses, papers, and effects means that we have a right to expect reasonable searches and seizures of property, including personal information like phone records and emails. Otherwise, all manner of reasons may be applied as to the number of golden opportunities attainable from access to unlimited, unfocused data mining.
In the wake of overbroad searches breaking pubic trust, a new emphasis on accountability and rule of law is important to reestablish trust and demonstrate understanding of the Fourth Amendment.
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