Oh technology – we have good reasons to love it and equally good reasons to hate it. Technology makes our life easier, more convenient and in some cases more exciting. The very same technology, however, has the potential to reveal a whole lot about each of us at a very personal level – our health, our financial status, our buying habits, our travel history and habits, who we communicate with, and our social values and views. This data has varying levels of protection and assurances of privacy. We also live in a would where radicalism, terrorism, and criminal violence is becoming ever more common. Government and law enforcement in particular argues that they need access to much of this technology enabled personal (and private) information to both thwart threats and pursue criminals and terrorists. The critical question that needs public debate is ‘How much of our privacy (and constitutionally guaranteed in many cases) are we, as a society, willing to give up to ensure our security?’
Our personal data and information is collected and stored in numerable places:
Smart phones. Most of us own and carry a smart phone. These devices are in constant contact with the service provider through cell towers. In suburban areas they are typically 1-2 miles apart; in urban areas they can be as close as 1/4-1/2 miles apart, and further apart in rural areas. The smart phone is typically in contact with more than one cell tower. Using this data a service provider can in real time track the location of a specific smart phone (or a regular cell phone) and map the history of its location. Further, service providers record and store ‘meta data’. Meta data includes the phone numbers of the caller and the recipient, the time of the call and its duration. Phone calls where one of the parties is outside the US can be monitored, recorded and scan for specific keywords and phrases.
We voluntarily store a lot of personal data on our smart phones. This includes email, medical and financial data, text messages, browser histories, and apps specific to our personality and needs. Smart phones are secured by a password or biosecurity such as a fingerprint. However, law enforcement agencies typically will ask to see and to review the contents of our smart phone. Issues of warrant requirements are still to be settled.
Computers. Many of us use computers on a daily basis. We read and write email, send text messages, browse the web to find answers to our queries, post on social media, etc. Web browsers record and store our browsing history. Emails and text messages are stored. Collectively this data says a lot about our interests, who we socialize with, our social and political values, among other things. Computers can be spoofed and malware can share our personal profiles with others.
Credit cards. We are rabidly evolving into a cashless society. Most transactions are completed with a credit card or some form of electronic funds transfer. There is also a digital record of transactions completed with a check, when the check is cashed. Barter is only a very small contributor. Credit card databases are not currently integrated, but conceptually they could be. This data records not only what kinds of goods and services we purchase, but when and where we did so. This data is already being mined on a limited basis. If you use Amazon you have experienced this. Recent searches and purchases result in personalized ads on their site and email offers.
Security cameras, traffic cameras, facial recognition, license plate readers. Cameras, cameras, everywhere. Commercial and residential buildings are covered with them. The primary purpose is to secure a specific site from intruders. However, they surveil and record scenes from adjacent areas, including public property. On highways and city streets we see multiple cameras to monitor for traffic congestion and accidents. Software technology has brought us accurate facial recognition and license plate readers. Taken collectively it is conceptually possible to track an individual, walking or in a vehicle, or both.
DNA testing. Wherever we go we leave a telltale trace of our presence in the form of biologic material that contains our DNA. Our DNA is unique like a fingerprint. It can be used to prove our presence at a particular place and time. Our DNA is also the source of information on our risk of developing specific medical conditions. This has the potential to influence insurance rates and employment possibilities if shared.
Cloud computing data. Cloud computing and data storage (backup data for example) has become increasingly more common. We allow much of our personal data, many times inadvertently, to be stored there. These huge data centers are assumed to be secure from hackers, but hackers continue to find new vulnerabilities. There is also the question of susceptibility to government issued warrants. Big data servers have been successfully attacked and exposed data that could be used to steal identities and perpetrate financial fraud.
Other. There are other instances where relevant personal data is collected and stored. These include utilities usage history and cable tv viewing history.
There are protections that individual citizens can employ, but generally they come with inefficiencies. Most of us want instant responses with minimal effort. We rarely think about privacy risks. We can use cash and barter. We can employ encryption software, but the government is and will continue to fight this trend and insist on a path to government access (with a warrant).
This issue of how much personal privacy to give up to increase our collective security is very current and certainly far from resolution. It involves constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. The balance varies with each of us. Critical is open discussion and debate among informed citizens – a characteristic of a healthy democracy.