Thursday, February 2, 2012

Privacy Lost and Found

I hate to get lost. Whether it’s the actual reality of not knowing where I am or whether it’s a control issue, nothing ignites my Irish temper like being lost. GPS is one of the world’s most vital inventions and untold wasted hours have been saved, let alone my emotional equilibrium. It’s value far outweighs the irony that the Government invented the system for military purposes. I was at crossroads when this incredible tool is used by authorities to track people. Last week privacy was very much in the news with Twitter caving to Governmental authority, Google introducing its consolidated policy and the Supreme Court ruling that the Fourth Amendment still has relevance.

The U.S. Supreme Court took a stand for privacy last week and ruled that if government agencies want to use GPS to track somebody, they need a warrant. Perhaps more stunning than the constitutional reinforcement, was that it was unanimous. The Court has been polarized in recent years with many controversial issues being decided 5-4, reflecting the country’s political divide. Plenty of cases with the current court have been unanimous, but it is rarer for a decision that tackles the role of government to find commonality. It is tremendously reassuring that in a philosophical tug-of-war between government and individual liberty that the Fourth Amendment protections are intact.

The decision was nuanced in that the GPS device the police used in the case is not like the Tom-Tom or ap on one’s Smart Phone, but rather a separate device surreptitiously planted on a car to follow people. The more complex issue of authorities tapping into devices that everyday people are using was sidestepped. Government intrusion into individual liberty was central to Twitter’s revised policy that was immediately (and wrongly) labeled censorship.

When a Government goes to Twitter and says “Take down this post” – the new policy of the company is to take it down for that region only. An anti-government tweet in China may not be seen there, but would still be seen in other areas of the world. The company’s approach is geared towards keeping the totality of their service operational while mitigating the impact of censored data. In August 2011 the British Government considered shutting down Blackberry’s Messenger service as a way to control the riots. Given that as an alternative, Twitter’s post-by-post censorship policy actually seems reasonable. An important distinction here is that Twitter isn’t doing the censorship, a Governmental authority is.

The U.S. Government announced it is looking into Google’s new 85-word consolidate privacy policy. What chutzpah!  The U.S. Government has created an entire subset to the economy based on secrecy – best explored by the award winning series “Top Secret America” by the Washington Post that was a newspaper series, a documentary and now a book. These experts in hiding information from the public are now going to launch an investigation into a private company.

When Google’s new policy comes into effect on March 1, information from most Google products will be treated as a single trove of data, which concerns privacy advocates. It makes sense that a for-profit company would find value in leveraging all of their products together. They even explain how they define “evil”  in their corporate philosophy page. Google’s products and services are ubiquitous but there are other alternatives available and there is always the option of just not logging in!

In mid-January major Internet companies protested the proposed Internet censorship regulations. In November 2011 I wrote about the proposed legislation. In August 2011 I wrote about censorship  in foreign lands and in the US. In May 2011 I wrote  how Americans value secrets with nearly a million of our citizens carrying Top Secret clearances. My blog posts show a long term passion for privacy – where a GPS was nearly required to find examples of victories for freedom. Let’s hope that #trend is changing.

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