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Privacy: What's the big deal?

Tom Jackson • Jun 19, 2013 at 5:06 PM

Some people apparently don’t.

Responding to revelations about the National Security Agency collecting phone call records for all Verizon customers — and apparently customers for every other phone company, too — “Time” magazine senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald Tweeted: “Oh, no, the government knows I made a 74-second phone call to my mom on March 22! This is outrageous because...um...um…”

Civil libertarians argue that view is shortsighted.

“You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy,” author Cory Doctorow says. “I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.”

Leaks to a British newspaper, the Guardian, and follow-up reports elsewhere apparently show the NSA is collecting “metadata” from U.S. phone companies such as Verizon. The data includes the length of the calls, what phone numbers were called, the time of the calls, and the location of the person who called.

Apparently,  the NSA does not routinely record domestic telephone calls, although nobody can be completely sure because information on NSA snooping is secret and NSA officials are not always candid in public. ABC News reported in 2008 that NSA employees listened in on overseas phone calls from U.S. citizens abroad who were phoning friends and family at home. In some cases, NSA employees listened to “phone sex” calls from U.S. soldiers.

Nick Worner, a spokesman for the ACLU’s Ohio chapter in Cleveland, said the collection of such data is still a major intrusion onto a person’s privacy.

“There is no doubt that the so-called metadata can tell the government and whoever has access to that data much about you,” he said.

What if the phone records show telephone calls to an addiction recovery center? Or to a suicide hotline? What if they show repeated telephone calls to a woman who isn’t your wife? What if information about those calls is leaked?

“Think of the numbers people are calling they might not want people to know about,” Worner said.

Even if the phone calls are not what they seem — you’re calling the help line on behalf of a friend, or that woman you keep calling is your sister — in the hands of the malicious or the ignorant, private information can be misused.

“If the data says you’ve done something wrong, then the person reading the data will interpret everything else you do through that light,” said Doctorow, who recommends watching a short documentary, “Naked Citizens,” available at http://boingboing.net/2013/05/27/kafka-meet-orwell-peek-behin.html. 

“Once a computer ascribes suspiciousness to someone, everything else in that person’s life becomes sinister and inexplicable,” Doctorow said.

Even if your life is so innocuous and boring you don’t mind everyone knowing everything about you, you probably know someone who has a legitimate reason for keeping part of his life private, Doctorow said. 

“You know people who can be compromised through disclosure: people who are gay and in the closet; people with terminal illnesses; people who are related to someone infamous for some awful crime,” Doctorow said. “Those people are your friends, your neighbors, maybe your kids: they deserve a life that’s as free from hassle as you are with your lucky, skeleton-free closet.”

The bedrock protection against unfair disclosure of your life is the Fourth Amendment. It’s part of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Sandusky defense attorney K. Ron Bailey, past president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said this week he sees the disclosures about the NSA as an attack on Fourth Amendment rights.

“They’re now saying, oh, it’s OK, we can violate the Constitution because we passed a statute that says we can violate it,” Bailey said.

“You can’t change the Bill of Rights by passing a statute,” he said. “The only way you can change the Bill of Rights is have a Constitutional amendment. The people haven’t approved to amend the Constitution so that you can snoop on our emails and our cell phone conversations.”

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