NSA Phone Tracking and the Impact of the Digital Age on Personal Privacy

Jay Osterholm
Jay Osterholm Founder and CEO , The ODM Group

Posted on June 13th 2013

NSA Phone Tracking and the Impact of the Digital Age on Personal Privacy

The political punches keep rolling

If the next couple months continue like the last, it may be a more strenuous road for the Obama administration than previously thought at the inception of his second Presidential term. From Benghazi to IRS targeting of conservatives to the latest controversy regarding the NSA tracking of phones, Internet, email and texts, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the political strife plaguing the administration.

It is, of course, the latest controversy, i.e., the tracking of phones, which has my attention. Specifically, the implications regarding privacy, our individual rights and the impact of the digital age stand out. Have we abandoned the days of court ordered “wiretaps” in favor of an open season on “cell taps?” The President has stated that taps into privacy require a court ordered sufficient cause. Having these open-season politics in place sets the stage for a slippery slope of abuse.

If you have tuned into any of the shout shows or news across the cable network board in the past couple weeks, you will have found no shortage of debates taking place among political pundits emphatically emitting their views. With any controversy, there are two sides, and this one is no different; Some are crying it is a gross invasion of privacy, while others are contending it is an effective counter-terrorism tactic. Can you guess which side the majority of U.S. citizens have taken?

Survey Says…
According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & Press, the majority of U.S. citizens believe the NSA tracking of phone records is an acceptable means in fighting the war against terror. Specifically, 56% of Americans shared this belief, compared to the 41% who believed it to be an unacceptable practice.

The study, which was no doubt contracted in lieu of the recent controversy concerning the tracking of millions of Americans’ phones, surveyed 1,004 adults over a 4-day period in the beginning of this month. The research was conducted in conjunction with The Washington Post.

Not surprisingly, when broken down by political affiliation, Democrats and Republicans shared contradicting views. Here’s a brief rundown of the political divide from 2006 to 2013:

• 52% of Republicans today believe it is acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to track phone calls.
• When the Bush administration introduced its surveillance program in 2006, 75% of Republicans believed it was acceptable for the NSA to track phone calls without court approval.
• 64% of Democrats today believe it is acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to track phone calls.
• When the Bush administration introduced its surveillance program in 2006, 23% of Democrats believed it was acceptable for the NSA to track phone calls without court approval.

Does privacy in the digital age exist?
As the debate heats up, it begs the question as to whether privacy in the digital age truly exists or whether we have turned a blind eye to the evaporation of our personal privacy, as we have become more and more comfortable [shall we say reliant] sharing everything online. Okay—the latter of the two may, perhaps, be a tad cynical, but it still raises an important issue in terms of personal privacy and our rights as U.S. citizens.

Our privacy rights are protected in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; you know the one that states the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …”

However, in the age of technological advancement and digital innovation, our privacy may not be so black and white. Generally, we have become so dependent on our online channels of communication that we have willingly given up our own rights to privacy. People are now shocked when Facebook makes a little change in its privacy settings that suddenly reveals all. The point is why would you ever depend on someone else’s protection of your private information?

I recently read a speech given to the D.C. Superior Court judges by the Center for Democracy & Technology Senior Policy Analyst Erica Newland. In her talk, she discussed the notion of what she refers to as digital ubiquity. She said:

“The digital technologies that collect data about us are unavoidable—they are ubiquitous. To disconnect from all of the services and technologies that collect personal data, sensitive data about us would be to disconnect from society…For most Americans, within the next two decades, just about every activity of daily life will be monitored to some degree or another.”

By now, the majority of us, especially those in marketing, are used to technology’s omnipresence and the impact it has in our daily lives, both professionally and personally. So, why does this all matter?

How Technology Impacts Privacy & What You Can Do
For me, it is more about the need to understand your privacy rights and divulge your personal information across technology platforms with both caution and intelligence. Sure, you may not be able to stop the government from tracking your records; but you can limit what you broadcast about yourself. The simplest measure you may employ to safeguard your personal information is to read all agreement terms whenever you subscribe to a site. Technology obscures the lines of personal privacy, but we are not helpless in how our information is shared.

I recently stumbled upon a post in the blog, “Politics & Policy,” which discussed privacy in the digital age. Illustrated through an interactive timeline, an overview of U.S. electronic privacy is given. It highlights various events from the 60’s through 2012 that touch on personal privacy and government authority. The trend line represents the dichotomy between privacy and state authority. The clickable interactive map provides great background of the history of privacy in the digital era.

References
Choen, Rhaina; Fisher, Tyler. North by Northwestern. Politics and Policy. “Privacy in the Digital Age.” http://politicsandpolicy.org/article/privacy-digital-age

Find Law. Fourth Amendment – U.S. Constitution. http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment4/amendment.html

Newland, Erica. Center for Democracy & Technology. May 2012. “Disappearing Phone Booths: Privacy in the Digital Age.” https://www.cdt.org/files/pdfs/Privacy-In-Digital-Age.pdf

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. June 2013. “Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic.” http://www.people-press.org/2013/06/10/majority-views-nsa-phone-tracking...

 

Jay Osterholm

Jay Osterholm

Founder and CEO , The ODM Group

Founder & CEO of The ODM Group. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my articles.

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Comments

It seems like the Democrats have a less obviously partisan mindset about wiretapping.

• 64% of Democrats today believe it is acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to track phone calls.
• When the Bush administration introduced its surveillance program in 2006, 23% of Democrats believed it was acceptable for the NSA to track phone calls without court approval.

These are two different things, so different that it's not really a point of comparison -- or rather, it doesn't actually have any implications.  A person can believe it's acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to wiretap, but ALSO believe it is UNACCEPTABLE for the NSA to wiretap WITHOUT court approval.  That's perfectly rational.  ("In 1985, I disliked broccoli; in 2013, I enjoy eating apples.")

On the other hand, this is extremely contradictory:

• 52% of Republicans today believe it is acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to track phone calls.
• When the Bush administration introduced its surveillance program in 2006, 75% of Republicans believed it was acceptable for the NSA to track phone calls without court approval.

Unless the decrease is due to the fact that these Republicans prefer wiretapping without court approval (doubtful), it's obviously just partisan.