Privacy and Government

Privacy and Government

Now that both political parties have settled (or almost surely settled) on their respective Presidential candidates, the debates setting out each party’s agenda are expected to begin in earnest. One issue that hasn’t yet made it to center stage involves privacy and government. If you are a follower of political issues, you will remember not too long ago, when there was a controversy regarding the National Security Agency allegedly gathering everybody’s telephone records – everybody’s – and storing them electronically just in case they needed to check later on, as to who was telephoning whom. It turned out the allegations were true, and the question naturally arose whether such a “fishing expedition” could be carried out legally, absent a particular purpose and a particular warrant.

I have given the idea of privacy and government some thought, and have come up with five questions to ask our government officials. Here they are.

  1. What methods of massive gathering what types of data from the networks and devices I use myself, are currently legal without a specific warrant, and what data gathering is currently illegal for government agencies?
  2. What methods of massive gathering of what types of data are currently not only theoretically possible but also feasible? Note that this is not the same as question one; there may be some methods that are feasible but not legal, and vice versa.
  3. What methods of massive gathering of what types of data are currently actually being used by government agencies from the networks and devices I use myself? Just because something is legal and/or feasible, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s being done. And just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it’s not being done.
  4. I’m sure that I am not cleared to know the answers to 1, 2, or 3 above; such knowledge, if broadly known, might jeopardize highly classified “sources and methods” of intelligence gathering. So question four is, who exactly is cleared to know the answers to questions 1, 2, or 3, if they ask? Newspaper editors and OpEd column writers are not, and neither is the general public. Is every Congressman or every Senator, or every Cabinet member, so cleared?
  5. Who gets to decide the answers to questions 1, 2, 3, and 4 above? How many of these decisions are made by, or even known to, the President himself? Or made by / known to certain (but surely not all) of our elected representatives in Congress?

Privacy does matter, and there is a constant need to review and to update the notion of privacy from that envisioned by our founding fathers in the Eighteenth Century to be applicable to the technology of the Twenty-First. As we face the next election, we should each ask ourselves, which of the answers above would you like to leave up to Donald Trump, or up to Hillary Clinton? That question itself should surely give us pause.

Robert Scott