Our Vanishing Privacy Rights

By Richard Larsen

According to Supreme Court precedent, U.S. citizens are presumed to have a “right of privacy.” Whether we concur with how the precedent has been applied or not, it makes sense that in a republic where the rule of law protects citizens, that we not be unduly exposed to prying government or corporate invasions into our privacy. That “right” has all but vanished.

In 2001 when the Patriot Act was passed, the FBI was allowed to expand its use of National Security Letters to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order. It expanded access of law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records. The underlying theory was to provide law enforcement access to data allowing them to “connect the dots” on future attempted terrorist attacks. The American Civil Liberties Union and hosts of citizens groups protested vehemently.

The Act was renewed in 2005 and again last year for another four years. Not much was changed, other than expanded use of “roving wire taps.”

Although media and civil liberties groups were extremely vocal in their denunciation of the original Act, and the 2005 renewal, hardly a thing has been said regarding last year’s renewal, with its concomitant expansion of authority to impinge on our privacy.

Much more has happened in the past three years to further erode any semblance of privacy. In March, the New York Times reported that, “For more than two years, a handful of senators on the Senate intelligence committee have warned that the government is secretly interpreting its surveillance powers under the Patriot Act in a way that would be alarming if the public knew about it.” The senators averred, “Americans would be ‘stunned’ to know what the government thought the Patriot Act allowed it to do“ through “a top-secret intelligence operation that is based on secret legal theory.”

Also in March, The Huffington Post reported, “The U.S. intelligence community will now be able to store information about Americans with no ties to terrorism for up to five years under new Obama administration guidelines. Until now, the National Counterterrorism Center had to immediately destroy information about Americans that was already stored in other government databases when there were no clear ties to terrorism.”

Last year the New York Times reported, “The government is increasingly monitoring Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for [law breakers and] political protesters.” They continued, “Wired magazine reported last month that In-Q-Tel, an investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, has put money into Visible Technologies, a software company that crawls across blogs, online forums, and open networks like Twitter and YouTube to monitor what is being said.”

More alarming is the explosion of government requests for information from the search engines. From Google alone, according to their latest online Transparency Report, the government is actively censoring the web, requesting removal of 757 online items. They’ve also issued requests for “disclosure of user data from Google accounts or services” 5,950 times, which Google complied with 93% of the time. They’ve also requested personal user and account information from Google 11,057 times. All of these requests were over just a six-month period.

Last November, The UK Guardian reported on a conference held in D.C. “The annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas conference is a mecca for representatives from intelligence agencies.” In characterizing the technology presented at the conference, which is strictly off limits to the general public or the media, “Gone are the days when mere telephone wiretaps satisfied authorities’ intelligence needs. Behind the cloak of secrecy at the ISS World conference, tips are shared about the latest advanced ‘lawful interception’ methods used to spy on citizens – computer hacking, covert bugging and GPS tracking. Smartphones, email, instant message services and free chat services such as Skype have revolutionized communication. This has been matched by the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.”

After the attacks of 9/11/01, increased surveillance capacity made sense. But clearly, we have far exceeded the original intent of the Patriot Act. What possible reason can there be for gathering, storing, and sharing data on average citizens with no possible ties to terrorism? What possible reason can there be for gathering such data on “political protestors?” And is a “political protestor” someone who disagrees with what Washington is doing? The possibilities are chilling.

Financial organizations are required to abide by strict privacy laws, and state their policy periodically. Maybe it’s time we hold government to the same standard.

It would appear that we have no more right to privacy at all, as far as government is concerned. Clearly, the fox is loose in the chicken coop, and we’re the chickens. All of us, and our electronic communications, are fair game to a government intent on spying on us, and doing Lord knows what, with the data they gather.

AP award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, and is a graduate of Idaho State University with a BA in Political Science and History and former member of the Idaho State Journal Editorial Board.  He can be reached at rlarsenen@cableone.net.

 

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