Edward Snowden PRISM: Leaks Prove You Can Have Privacy Or the Internet, But Maybe Not Both


Do we have a right to privacy?

The Constitution says we have a right to avoid illegal search and seizure. And that right is very loosely defined, but very specifically defended. The text of the Fourth Amendment is this: “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.”

This particular question has come up more and more in recent weeks, with the issue of internet security. Google is accused of having a back door for the government, an easy access point to allow officials to dredge through information on users, mining for things such as purchase habits, which groups people support, and even private conversations via messaging services. Google denies this back door, but states that they do cooperate with law enforcement when asked.

And yet … though many people are truly up in arms about this topic, and do see it as an invasion of privacy, I think this may reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the internet and the nature of "privacy."

The wording “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” was written centuries before the internet was even a twinkle in a computer scientist’s eye. The earliest computing machines had almost a hundred years to wait before they came into existence. The Founding Fathers could lock all their private information into a safe, and their expectation that no one would safe-crack them was inviolable.

And it still is. But with data mining, we are not talking about papers locked into a safe, we are talking about information freely entered into a system of computers that are there for the sole purpose of talking to each other.  A network, running across the entire world, for data sharing. Every time you input your birth date into a website to prove you are old enough to access it, you are giving a fact about yourself. Every time you present your credit card for verification, or make a purchase from an online store using PayPal, or accept a user agreement, or download software updates, or post on Facebook, you are scattering your information to servers and file-sharing computers on the internet.

And that information has a way of getting around, with or without the help of the U.S. government. So, what are your reasonable options?

Well, you can fight for stricter privacy laws. I certainly think that the Fourth Amendment should be broadly interpreted to apply to online data, and laws should evolve with technology instead of fighting against it. This may not be a realistic expectation, however, as it seems that most legislation in the past few years has been designed to help corporations or the government itself, and thwart the people it is supposed to protect.

You could also refuse to put your information out there. It is possible to shop offline, not have any social networking accounts, refuse to provide your Zip code to retailers, and generally live as off-the-grid as possible. Though that seems a bit more paranoid than really necessary.

My philosophy is this — if someone could get the same information from a phone book or a public record search, put it out there. If you can stand behind your statement, put it out there. If you don’t want things shared, don’t share things in the first place. The internet is a tool to be used, and like all tools you can only apply so much force to it before it breaks into tiny pieces and throws splinters back in your face. Care should be taken.