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Putting a Value on Privacy

Photo: Alan Cleaver/flickr


A 19 February article by Newsweek (The Snitch in Your Pocket Law enforcement is tracking Americans’ cell phones in real time—without the benefit of a warrant), attempts to revive the debate about the government’s forays into the realm of “Big Brother” (a cliché no mainstream media outlet can avoid).

The FBI, according to the article, has been seeking “unusually sensitive records: internal data from telecommunications companies” that show “the locations of their customers’ cell phones – sometimes in real time, sometimes after the fact.” This information, according to federal prosecutors, is used to trace the movements of suspected drug traffickers, human smugglers and corrupt officials. The story was revived because a few federal magistrates questioned the legal authority for obtaining this information. The report notes that there are some 277 million cell phone users in the US, and that companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint can track their devices in real time. It also quoted ‘experts’ as saying that most people do not realize this.

Lately, according to Newsweek, citing law enforcement officials, court records and telecommunications executives, “the FBI and other law-enforcement outfits have been obtaining more and more records of cell-phone locations – without notifying the targets or getting judicial warrants establishing ‘probable cause.’

There are several aspects of this story that are frightening beyond the obvious. First, the insinuation that most cell phone users in the US do not realize that the authorities have this capability and that private companies are making it easy for them is hopefully erroneous. This should not be news even to the masses, nor should it come as any surprise. After all, it is a story that is as old as the hills and is only being revived because a few judges have slightly rocked the boat of late. More probable is that “most cell phone users” simply don’t care, trusting their government not to abuse its power. Should they trust their government? Should anyone trust any government with such power? Absolutely not. But Americans tend to because they cannot imagine otherwise.

That said, should the same story emerge in another country, Americans would be shocked, and wholeheartedly decry the absence of privacy and the abuse of power. I recall being in Russia and investigating Moscow’s SORM internet surveillance outfit, and the response this rather blatant attempt to read people’s email correspondence met with among westerners. But in Russia, interestingly enough, there were a handful of internet service providers (ISPs) who fought this tooth and nail. They were not so willing (as are their US counterparts) to give up private information on their clients. One particular ISP was threatened by all manner of forces to acquiesce, risking everything.

In the US, according to the Newsweek article, “Sprint Nextel has even set up a dedicated Web site so that law-enforcement agents can access the records from their desks – a fact divulged by the company’s ‘manager of electronic surveillance’ at a private Washington security conference last October. Maybe Russians, having had less experience with privacy, value it more – or at least enough to raise a bigger stink about it when it is encroached upon.