The idea of privacy has eroded away since people changed the way they communicate. What had been done by ink and paper is now done by 1’s and 0’s moving over the internet. It’s bad enough that marketing companies have profiles of us they have accumulated. Federal law enforcement agencies are playing that game, too.
According to the Associated Press, federal law enforcement agencies secretly seek the data of Microsoft customers thousands of times a year. The AP quotes Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer security and trust, as saying federal law enforcement in recent years has been presenting the company with between 2,400 to 3,500 secrecy orders a year, or about seven to 10 a day.
“The fact that law enforcement requested, and courts approved, clandestine surveillance of so many Americans represents a sea change from historical norms,” Burt will say.
If those requests were limited to investigating terrorist organizations or organized crime, that would be one thing. It’s another for law enforcement to snoop around the electronic communications of members of Congress, congressional staff and, yes, journalists, too.
This really shouldn’t be a surprise. If Facebook notices you did a web search for “hand sanitizer” and suddenly your feed is flooded with ads for the product, should it be a shock that law enforcement agencies would use the same tools?
Facebook’s practice is why some people pay cash for some products. They don’t want Big Tech to know what personal items they use. But with facial recognition technology and other innovations in use as you walk through a store, is anything private anymore?
The thing about law enforcement so casually being given court permission to do so much surveillance is that law enforcement is run by politicians — a group that many people don’t want having access to private data.
In his opening remarks Wednesday at a hearing on this topic, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the Trump administration took advantage of outdated policies on digital data searches to target journalists and others in leak investigations, according to the AP. Nadler conveniently omitted the fact that Republicans made the same accusations about the Obama administration.
Nadler said reforms are needed now to guard against future overreach by Justice Department prosecutors.
“We cannot trust the department to police itself,” Nadler said.
When former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972, the joke was that he got into heaven because he had files on everyone up there. So this problem isn’t new. It predates the era of Big Tech.
Nevertheless, it’s now up to Congress and state legislatures to rein in law enforcement and courts so that investigators have limited access to citizens’ private communications.
As for citizens themselves, maybe a return to sending handwritten letters through the mail will bring us back to something closer to the concept of privacy. It’s a question of how much we value speed and convenience over allowing marketers and others to snoop around in our private lives.