A much-needed national debate about privacy is now underway

This post is adapted from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
This post is adapted from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

It’s been quite a couple of weeks for the national debate on privacy. 

At a press conference earlier this month, President Barack Obama implied that he’ll back the development of technologies to help people protect themselves from the very government he currently heads. But that same week, two secure email systems were shut down by their owners, reportedly because of concern about government snooping. Meanwhile, Google filed a court motion asserting that people have “no legitimate expectation of privacy” when voluntarily turning information over to a third party like Google’s Gmail service.

President Obama said that “As technology develops further, technology itself may provide us some additional safeguards.” He added that “maybe we can embed technologies in there that prevent the snooping, regardless of what government wants to do.”

Yet despite the president’s call for future technologies to protect our privacy, two existing products that do just that were shut down because of potential government snooping. Without providing details, the CEO of Lavabit wrote on his blog, “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down.”

And the owners of another encrypted email service, Silent Mail, apparently shut down their service to avoid having to turn over communications to government agencies. “We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now,” they blogged. “We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.”

Obama’s contradictions

It seems odd to me that just as President Obama promises some “future” fix, the people who are running companies providing a current fix feel that they can’t fully assure that their customers’ privacy is protected from the very government who’s leader is trying to reassure us that the government isn’t snooping on everyone and that he’s in favor of tools to protect us against our own government.

The other irony is that the only reason Obama was addressing the issue and calling for a review of secret surveillance programs is because National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden forced his hand by revealing details about the way the government can track phone calls and electronic messages. Yet Snowden remains a wanted fugitive in Russia.

When asked by a reporter, Obama said, “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.” He added that Snowden is charged with three felonies and that “If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case.”

While I don’t expect Obama to be issuing Snowden any medals, or even dropping all the charges against him, I do wish there was a way Snowden could return to the United States without fear of having to spend the rest of his life in prison. Whatever one thinks of Snowden, one thing is clear: He jump-started an important national conversation that forced the most powerful man in the world to admit that we need to reconsider the way we gather intelligence.

Which brings me back to Google’s admission that you can’t expect privacy from its email service.

One reason a lot of people use Gmail is because it archives their mail, potentially forever. By giving users a lot of free storage space (and charging a modest fee for those of us who go over that allotment), Google is encouraging people to hang on to their mail rather than delete it. The advantage is that your email — which is part of the transcript of your life — is available for you to review any time in the future.

I often refer to my Gmail archives if I’m trying to recall a conversation I had months or even years ago, or if I need to find an old airline receipt when I’m doing my taxes. But as long as your email is on Google’s servers — or Yahoo’s or Microsoft’s or anyone else’s — it’s accessible to anyone able to gain access, whether by legal means or by hacking.

Not only do we have to worry about the current government, but we also have to worry about unknown future regimes. I’m old enough to remember the massive surveillance efforts in the 1960s by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. And I remember my parents’ friends talking about the wholesale invasion of privacy resulting from U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts into the lives of entertainers, government workers and others accused of being Communists or Communist Party sympathizers, if only by association.

Today, in a world where everything is stored on servers — including the names of your Facebook friends — I worry about some future McCarthy questioning people’s patriotism just because they may have once had a suspicious Facebook friend or Gmail conversation or had conducted a questionable search. This is, indeed, a very important conversation.


This post is adapted from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News