Navigating Privacy

It's time to restore personal, private data.

The GPS navigation capability in my cell phone is great. I like driving again because I'm never lost. But I don't like the fact that in order to use services I have paid for, my location information, which I consider to be private, might also be used for purposes other than guiding me safely to my destination.

For this reason I was gratified to see the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September 2010 that law enforcement agencies can be required to meet a "probable cause" standard, which is stronger than "reasonable grounds" when demanding location records produced from cell phone usage. I'm also somewhat heartened that Twitter is challenging the secrecy that cloaked a federal subpoena sent by prosecutors investigating the WikiLeaks case.

The road to the current sorry state of personal privacy has been paved with porous privacy agreements and permissive state and federal data privacy laws. In 2002-03, I wrote extensively about my concerns for protecting personal privacy. At that time the USA PATRIOT act was coming into effect with a dramatic lowering of restrictions on law enforcement access to cell phone and Internet records. The subsequent erosion of the Fourth Amendment has resulted in what can only be called widescale domestic spying. According to The New York Times' article on the Twitter case, more than 50,000 NSLs (National Security Letters) are sent each year. These letters are an administrative subpoena not overseen by a judge and don't require probable cause to be issued.

Ordinary citizens access the Internet in traditionally private places: their homes and telephones. The expectation of privacy in both places is incontrovertible. Privacy statements abound with every online service available. Websites go to great pains to promote the idea that online payments made with a credit card are secured against prying eyes. Assurances of privacy are provided at every step of online banking and shopping sites. And our e-mail communications are presumed to be protected by restricting access based on the use of a username and password.

I want that presumption of privacy to be real. I want to be able to use the technology I pay for without the nagging concern that my every movement is being stored and possibly tracked. I want to assume that my free movement in public, whether I'm carrying a cell phone or in my car with a toll payment transponder is protected with a rich, constitutional right to be free of unwarranted search. As I've done before, I'll quote Ben Franklin from before the American Revolutionary War, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. "

The expectation of privacy is so clear when using mobile communication devices (after all, they are produced, marketed and purchased as mobile telephones, not personal tracking devices) and the amount of personal data is so concentrated that our use of these devices deserves far greater protection, not far less. Public debate on the reduction in privacy has been muted in no small part by the fact that a gag order is an automatic rider on each NSL. Without judicial oversight, the security letters pretend to have public support without an actual "sunshine" test.

Since I don't want to become a technology hermit to maintain my personal privacy, it's time again to call for personal privacy to be placed above the convenience of law enforcement and online marketers. There is a reason why shopping bags are opaque, that homes have curtains, that bedrooms have doors and "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." People should have control over what they disclose and to whom, whether face-to-face, over the phone or in the written word.

editor's note: The Ben Franklin quote has been corrected to remove the errant addition of several words.