S/SW blog philosophy -

I credit favorite writers and public opinion makers.

A lifelong Democrat, my comments on Congress, the judiciary and the presidency are regular features.

My observations and commentary are on people and events in politics that affect the USA or the rest of the world, and stand for the interests of peace, security and justice.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In 2011, how much does the Bill of Rights 4th Amendment protect your internet privacy? You need to be concerned.

For those of us who are members of Facebook, it has been an awakening every time we learn that the application is taking another stab at forcing us to be more open with the details of our lives. So we go back into our privacy settings, tighten everything up and go back to our online social routines.

Unfortunately, almost no one learns about it when our government investigates our online activities, without any legal probable cause for the search. Many of us rarely write a paper "snail mail" letter, which is subject to the government showing probable cause prior to opening it. But, Email in not real mail, according to the government's privacy-invading reasoning. I have nothing to hide in my Emails, but that is not the point. The point is that for many years the Constitution is failing me and everyone else who makes this devil's bargain in the name of national security.

Good for Twitter for standing up to the government on our behalf. Theirs is not a revolutionary position. It is a logical and defensible argument that takes on the government's Orweillian "what you don't know can't hurt you" policy.

Social media is what makes it possible for Tunisians to stand up to their government. Asking for our own reasonable online privacy here in the United States does not mean we have to take to the streets. We just have to notice and speak up.
Amplify’d from
Earlier this month, news broke that the government got a court order to force Twitter to reveal the private account information of some people associated with WikiLeaks. What is unusual about the situation is not that the government obtained such an order, but that we found out about it at all. Our government routinely gains access to Americans’ private online information through secret court orders. Worse yet, these proceedings are one-sided, with only the government presenting arguments. In a legal system based on openness and adversarial process, this has led to troubling results that threaten our privacy.
The public has been largely unaware of this trend, due to the secrecy of courts and the failure of corporations to put up much of a fight. When the government wants someone’s private online information, it files an application under seal asking the court for permission. The government presents its arguments, but there is no one on the other side — because the person whose information is at stake does not know it is happening and because corporations have little incentive to spend time and money objecting. Even worse, the government’s applications are sealed until someone requests they be unsealed, and since the person under surveillance typically never learns about it, these applications usually stay sealed forever. The net result is a system in which individuals’ electronic privacy is regularly put in jeopardy, with no chance to fight it, in a context vastly favorable to the government.
Regardless how one feels about the Fourth Amendment’s applicability to email, we should all agree that it’s problematic when controversial issues of law are routinely decided in secret, one-sided proceedings. The current system of secrecy works perfectly fine for the government, so it is especially important that companies and courts take initiative to combat excessive secrecy. Twitter is to be commended for taking the rare step of asking that a government surveillance request be made public. Other companies should follow suit. Courts have a role to play, too. Even if investigative details are rightly kept secret, in general the law of surveillance should not be a secret law. Courts should require the government to file its legal arguments in public, and should make their own decisions to grant or deny applications public as well.

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