Stop your privacy from being buried alive

Edward Snowden's revelations have shocked few, but it should still spur us to fight for our constitutional right to privacy

As Edward Snowden manages to stretch his 15 minutes of fame to four weeks, those of us who know the context realize his revelations are nothing special. The U.S. government has been spying on its citizens, often without warrants, for decades.

If you doubt the government reserves the right to monitor whatever it likes, dive into any book by James Bamford. My favorite is his early work, "The Puzzle Palace," but take your pick. If you think you're cool with your government doing just about anything to protect us against terrorists and criminals, you won't be after a few hundred pages.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Top 10 tech whistleblowers of all time. | Keep up with key security issues with InfoWorld's Security Central newsletter. ]

We all know 9/11 raised snooping to a new level. The Patriot Act and even seemingly innocuous telecommunications bills have spelled out the privacy incursions our government can employ against its citizens. These initiatives have instructed telecoms and ISPs to make all their traffic easily tappable and to provide areas for spies to do their job. It's written into law.

Personally, I can't understand why we've allowed the continued erosion of our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Can fear of terrorism be that all-consuming? Our founding fathers would roll over in their graves to learn that we allow our garbage, telephone call origination information, and vehicles whereabouts to be open to scrutiny, all without a warrant.

Plus, requests for warrants are hardly ever turned down. The FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court reviews and approves surveillance warrant requests, and in its 35-year history, only 10 petitions have been denied out of some 21,000.

Confused by Fusion Centers

Let's say this sort of violation makes you shrug. Perhaps you reason it's the cost of doing business in the age of terror. Then explain Fusion Centers to me. In case you haven't heard, Fusion Centers are located in every state in the union. They began as centers intended to organize the fight against terrorism, but have expanded their purview to combat all crime.

It's the information collected by Fusion Centers that bothers me -- we're talking information on nearly everyone, suspected of crimes or not, including ordinary records relating to daycare centers, health care records, hunting licenses, deeds, credit records, property appraisals, mental health records, and email records. This information tends to be legally collected (often purchased) because the data is resold legally. But I think it's inexcusable that our government is building a complete life record for each of us, without a single shred of evidence that we've engaged in any illegal activities.

For a closer look at Fusion Centers and what's being attempted to restrict their activities, read the excellent summary information compiled by EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), one of the entities fighting for our rights.

Legalized civil rights violations

Of course, as bad as the United States is, many countries are far worse. Some don't even keep up the appearance of protecting their citizens' privacy. I've been involved in Internet projects with foreign governments that explicitly spelled out they wanted to spy on all citizens. They wanted to know what each citizen was doing and where they were going; the same went for visitors. Although I never knowingly participated in a project that eroded anyone's privacy, I was dismayed by what I saw. What hurts now is the realization that my own government has come much closer to that disregard for individual rights.

Many people believe it's acceptable or even essential to let our government gather such information so that we can enjoy a civil society. They don't participate in illegal activities, so they don't have anything to fear. The problem with this thinking is twofold: First, it violates the Fourth Amendment. Second, governments always abuse the legal rights they are given. Give them a foot and they'll take a mile.

What really frustrates me are the tens of millions of people -- particularly young people -- who simply aren't concerned that their privacy is being violated. They don't care. They live in an online world where they're willing to post every facet of their lives online and get frustrated only when someone's complete personal history is unavailable.

I don't like Snowden. He violated his security clearance and employment contract, and he should face the consequences. But it shouldn't take an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning to wake up the masses. Our government has been transparent about what it's doing. Let's take this opportunity to think long and hard about whether we truly want to give up the right to privacy.

This story, "Stop your privacy from being buried alive," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in network security and read more of Roger Grimes' Security Adviser blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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