Privacy in the Digital Age

To many in the tech community, yesterday’s State of the Union address was significant, to say the least. Channeling his inner JFK, President Obama spoke of our nation’s ‘Sputnik moment,’ a time where we need to step up and take on our toughest challenges in a new digital age. As with the dawn of the space race, the United States has lagged behind other nations in its technological development. But with the resources at our disposal, and the classic American quest for excellence, last evening’s speech marked a new day where we can move forward in our digital development as a nation. And at the core was President Obama’s vision for a new age in technology, led by us.

What privacy issues arise in a new digital age in America?

He called for innovations in e-commerce, digital infrastructure and math and science education. He called for investments in green energy and light rail. He even mentioned Google and Facebook in the same breath as Edison and the Wright brothers. It was a poignant speech at a time where America is at a crossroads. It was full of lofty and worthwhile goals, all of which are difficult to argue against. But it wasn’t the language in State of the Union that concerned me yesterday. Rather, it was a not-nearly-publicized-enough Department of Justice testimony to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security that made me pause.

Just hours before President Obama spoke to us about a technologically advanced American future where nearly every citizen will be connected to the digital age, the Department of Justice gave just a brief look into that American future as it pertains to crime and surveillance. In the name of making criminal investigations easier, Jason Weinstein, deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division, has aligned the Obama Administration with many Congressional Republicans, calling for increased data retention from internet service providers. In his testimony given on behalf of the DoJ, Weinstein spoke of the increasing difficulty that law enforcement officials face while dealing with the digital aspect of crime and the problems posed by the anonymity of the internet. While he did stop short of making specific recommendations, it’s hard not to see the writing on the wall here.

In his prepared remarks, Weinstein noted that today’s lack of data retention is ‘extremely harmful’ and that mandating ISPs to collect data is ‘fundamental to the department’s work in investigating and prosecuting almost every type of crime.’ I feel like we’ve heard this all before. Similar words have been spoken as government officials attempt time and time again to curb privacy in the name of security, like when former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advocated for this same mandate in 2006 or when his boss, former President George W. Bush defended the NSA’s massive collection of phone data. The American public deemed those proposals and practices unacceptable, and we should do the same this time around.

Even the discussion of designing legislation that would force ISPs to collect and store data on each and every one of its users, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime or are under investigation, is troublesome at best. Combined with President Obama’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, a draft of which proposes the creation of a ‘digital ID‘ (although I admit it is a little early to speculate on this, I believe it’s fair to at least think about in this conversation), one has to wonder what direction we are going in when it comes to digital privacy. With great power comes great responsibility, and if we are to begin working towards a new American digital age, we, and our elected leaders, need to be prepared to face the responsibilities that come with the formation of that age. Shortsighted policies that limit the basic freedoms we enjoy show an immature and underdeveloped sense of responsibility. We can do better.

While I’m usually one to favor initiatives that make crime fighting easier and more accurate, I almost always stop short at the invasion of basic American rights. Whether it is wiretapping our phones, keeping track of books we buy or check out from the library or keeping records of any other aspect of our lives, security is almost never a valid argument in favor of invading the privacy of Americans. While the internet poses an entirely new set of issues and difficulties in investigating crimes, privacy remains as one of the hallmarks of American life. Infringement of that privacy is not only illegal, but it weakens the fabric of our culture and our nation’s being.

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