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TMCNet:  Policy's ambiguity threatens personal privacy

[February 26, 2013]

Policy's ambiguity threatens personal privacy

NORMAN, Feb 26, 2013 (The Norman Transcript - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication Faculty and guests were treated to a candid and troubling glimpse into the rapid expansion of surveillance methods through popular digital media Monday evening.

Ashley Packard, University of Houston-Clear Lake professor and author of Digital Media Law, joined Chris Soghoian, ACLU principal technologist and senior policy analyst, to provide expert insight into the vast legal liberties certain entities exploit to silently track the daily activities of the Internet's billions of users.

"Here in the U.S., our laws are very ad hoc regarding privacy and (are) very reactive," Packard said. "We have laws protecting our health record information, financial information, electronic information. But most of those laws regulate how the people who have that information can use it, not what information they can gather in the first place." Though this concept may seem relatively harmless or even defensible from a law enforcement standpoint, the ambiguity of current digital privacy policy has created and continues to create boundless access to increasingly detailed personal information.

"I think one of the reasons the surveillance state has been able to advance as far as it has, both in terms of the scale of surveillance and the extent to which the government can delve into our most private affairs, is because the public doesn't know what's going on," Soghoian said. "It's much easier to spy on a population that doesn't know it's happening or assumes 'it's not happening to me.'" Packard and Soghoian detailed how surveillance of satellites, international Internet cables, security cameras or individuals' email and social media accounts requires little to no clearance and, once accessed, can be easily dispersed or compromised.

Citing NASA's security breaches in 2011, Packard and Soghoian also discussed the vulnerability of information in individuals' background checks -- released by individuals on the assumption their information is secure.

"The only two things protecting your privacy are the law and the transaction cost of surveillance," Soghoian said. "Where the transaction costs of invasive surveillance have traditionally been high, Congress hasn't felt the need to regulate. Therefore, where there is no legal framework and suddenly wholesale violation of privacy becomes cheap, the law doesn't protect you and technology doesn't either." Packard and Soghoian both expressed grave concerns over burgeoning facial recognition technology, predicting serious abuse of this technology through security cameras.

"Facial recognition is the scariest thing on the horizon in terms of technology and breach of privacy," Soghoian said. "We could get to a point where you'd walk through the door of a business and the owner would have access to a whole dossier of information about your purchase history, credit score, etc., without your knowledge.

"We could see a number of companies in the coming years providing this service to anyone who comes to them and these photos could come from DMV databases that you cannot opt out of. Our only hope is regulation." Moreover, Packard said there is no limit to the number of cameras that can be installed.

"In public places, you cannot have an expectation of privacy, so an entity can put up as many cameras as they want," Packard said.

Monday evening's presentation was made possible by a collaboration between the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage.

Caitlin Schudalla 366-3541 cschudalla@ For local news and more, subscribe to The Norman Transcript Smart Edition, or our print edition.

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