The conversation about government overreach into the private lives of innocent citizens generally centers around one individual whistle blower (or, depending on your point of view, “cowardly traitor“). The current war on whistle blowers is all the more alarming given that strengthened whistle blower protections was called out as part of the Obama-Biden plan in 2007.
Beyond the issue of whistle blower protection, though, is the general practice of warrant-less bulk surveillance of Americans. While PRISM is certainly the biggest and baddest of them all, the smaller scale of other programs should not diminish the concerns we have about them.
Stingrays and similar devices, for example, are portable devices that law enforcement officers can use to track tens of thousands of individual citizens without their knowledge or consent by tampering with the radio signals cellular phones use to communicate. Not only is this technically illegal, but these devices have been used without warrants and their usage has been withheld from the courts (and, by extension, from the defendants whose fourth amendment rights may have been violated).
Of course, as information about stingrays and their use is uncovered, it is possible to challenge their use in court. In other cases, such a challenge is not even feasible to mount because the underlying legal protections for citizens aren’t even there. Such is the case with email.
The Stored Communications Act ostensibly protects email but because it was written nearly three decade ago, considers email older than 6 months to be “abandoned” and therefore accessible without a warrant. Despite the fact that this has been ruled unconstitutional, it has not stopped government agencies like the IRS or SEC from continuing to exploit the outdated law.
The good news is that some private corporations are demanding a warrant before turning over email anyway and a few, like Microsoft, are going the extra mile (though it remains to be seen if they fair better than Yahoo). Still, it is worth noting that private corporations are not acting out of the goodness of their own hearts.
Apple, as one example, recently made a big deal about how encryption will be on by default for iPhones and iPads and how all of their new products offer biometric security. But encryption on your phone doesn’t help as long as all of your data is in iCloud. And the fingerprint scanner is cool but it’s really there to expand Apple’s business. It also probably isn’t as secure as Apple claims it is. And to top it off, it has potential implications on your fifth amendment rights.
That’s not to say that these are bad ideas and that Apple is evil. At the end of the day, a new iPhone is just a product and we should take care not to overvalue its role in addressing the bigger issues.
A good sampling of tech issues that Congress failed to address this year can be found over at Ars Technica. Nearly all of these touch on cyber security in some way, and the article helpfully lists who backs and opposes reform. If you want to get involved or just want to show your support, organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union are actively fighting in the Courts and on K Street so that we don’t have to live under a government that fears technology so much that it actively hinders its humanitarian potential.