Ridiculous Claims of Respecting Your Privacy After Violating It

Does anyone else shake their head in irritated bewilderment when privacy is quoted as the reason you cannot be told how your privacy has been invaded? The most recent example of such ridiculous reasoning comes from mobile phone service providers who happily collect and store your data for law enforcement to tap, but refuse to tell you the details of how your location information was otherwise shared with the government or advertisers.

Pro Publica reported that four different people requested their own geo-location data from the four largest cell phone providers, but all four mobile carriers refused to release it because:

Verizon: “Verizon Wireless will release a subscriber’s location information to law enforcement with that subscriber’s written consent. These requests must come to Verizon Wireless through law enforcement; so we would provide info on your account to law enforcement— with your consent— but not directly to you.”

Sprint: “We do not normally release this information to customers for privacy reasons because call detail records contain all calls made or received, including calls where numbers are ‘blocked.’ Because of an FCC rule requiring that we not disclose ‘blocked’ numbers, we only release this information to a customer when we receive a valid legal demand for it.”

AT&T: “Giving customers location data for their wireless phones is not a service we provide.”

T-Mobile: “No comment.”

Of course each wireless provider also had a response about releasing the same information to law enforcement, but they all do it. In fact, selling cell phone surveillance records is a big money-making business for mobile phone companies which have special divisions and manuals to assist law enforcement in nabbing our location data without requiring a warrant.

Image courtesy of JD Hancock
Image courtesy of JD Hancock
As you saw, a customer might be granted their geo-locational information if they can cough up the appropriate legal paperwork. This is yet another absurdity considering the Justice Department previously weighed in on the matter by claiming that if warrants were required for all cell phone tracking, that it would ‘cripple’ law enforcement. The government believes [PDF] mobile users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” and historical cell site data will likely be the easiest replacement for warrantless GPS tracking.

The NSA also cited privacy as the reason it couldn’t tell us how many Americans have been spied upon via NSA warrantless wiretaps . . . because revealing that would violate Americans’ privacy. Salon called NSA’s claim to respect privacy “the new reigning champion of oxymoronic newspeak.” Surprisingly, the ACLU asked if the NSA has a valid point before pointing out the “NSA is leaning on a very fine line.”

Is it really true that the agency can suck vast amounts of our communications and have a computer scrutinize them for “suspicious” signals without invading our privacy, as long as a human doesn’t review them? This distinction does not make sense. When it comes to what constitutes an invasion of privacy, the question of whether one’s activities are being scrutinized by a computer or by a human is not the most important issue.

If you were talking on the phone and happened to mention “bomb.” “server,” “terrorist,” or a plethora of other supposedly hot keywords, that conversation would be flagged for a human to review. Then an intelligence official would listen to that part of the conversation to add context and determine if it is a valid threat.

Do you feel less like your privacy is invaded if it’s done by artificial intelligence like computer programs as opposed to human intelligence? NSA James Bamford previously claimed we’re all targets because “in secret listening rooms nationwide, NSA software examines every email, phone call, and tweet as they zip by.” NSA chief General Keith Alexander denied such extreme spying on Americans within the USA; in fact he answered “no” fourteen different times when questioned during a congressional hearing.

Having Intelligence to stop legitimate threats is important, such as if there is any truth to the latest claim that "Al-Qaida is planning to crash a U.S. airline during the London Olympics." What exactly consists of suspicious and potential terrorist behavior is debatable, often ridiculous, and consistently opens the door for more spying. Be it the NSA claiming it won’t hand over information about when or how often it spied upon us without a warrant, or a cell phone provider claiming it won’t hand over your own information, it seems asinine for either to claim some respect for your privacy after violating it.

This story, "Ridiculous Claims of Respecting Your Privacy After Violating It" was originally published by Computerworld.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon