Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What is private?

What a difference a few days makes!  First, we find out that a "leaker" outed the NSA classified surveillance programs to a foreign news reporter, and guess what? The NSA was supposedly surveilling us!  Then, the "leaker" pops up in China where he seems to have generously shared more of our nations secrets with the Chinese government. (I mean this is China, do you think that they let him in out of the goodness of their hearts?)

And, of course, chaos ensues!  Citizens are furious! Politicians are back peddling and pretending they never knew of such intelligence programs.  FOX news is gleefully dumping on President Obama and Democrats.  CNN is conducting psuedo-polling, "Is Snowden a hero or a traitor?"  The ACLU is suing the government for presumably obtaining ACLU phone records.

Watching all of this, I was very puzzled as to why everyone was suddenly so upset now, when no one seemed to be upset when it was first made known to the public in 2006.  What was different now?  Is it because the internet generation has come of age in this last 7 years?  Or is this yet another example of "it's OK when it's a white republican president"? 

There appears to be blood in the water, and the feeding frenzy is epic.

After a week this, there are some misconceptions that was being sorted out. For instance:

* These is the same programs that Congress approved in 2006.

* Phone conversations are not being listened to.  Can you imagine how many people it would take to listen to millions of people phone conversations?

* The collection of internet data is still per request, and constitutes only a tiny fraction of user accounts.  We don't know if those were accounts of private citizens or not.  And of the requests reported, only an unquantified portion were requests from the NSA, the rest from Federal, State and Local law inforcement agencies.

* The phone companies and internet companies willingly cooperated.  Back in 2006, only QWEST refused government requests for information.

* Yes, the surveillance program did stop some terrorist activity.  More will be known as details become unclassified.

There are a lot of questions left to be answered. 
How well does the NSA investigate people for security clearances?  Since this is wartime, is Snowden guilty treason, or just guilty of releasing classified documents to unautorized foreign nationals? What information did he or will he release to China and other governments?

What can the information that the NSA has collected be used for?  Can it be shared with other agencies?  Would we want that? (i.e.  If they uncovered a pedophile ring, would we want them to bust the ring?)

But, arguably, the largest issue is: In this information age what constitutes privacy?  Has the 4th ammendment been breached here?  To determine that, we need to answer the legal questions:

Who owns the data?  When you proudly post your latest selfy on Facebook, does that data, the bits and bytes that make up that image, belong to you?  Or does it belong to Facebook?  Is it only copyrighted material would be protected?  When you post information to the internet is there an assumption of privacy?  What about data transmitted over an unsecured link as opposed to encrypted links?

Can the emails that you keep on Google be construed as your "property" or "papers" has stipulated in the 4th Ammendment?  Can it be reasonably expected that your emails are your private communications and therefore, protected?

Are phone records the property of the phone company?

What we need is not finger pointing and bluster.  Instead we need national understanding about the laws as they stand, a conversation about what we the people find acceptable and reform as needed.

Now is the time to address these issues.

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