Right of privacy in the age of technology

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Wikileaks recently released documents describing techniques that, according to the documents, the CIA apparently uses to hack into digital devices such as smartphones, smart TVs and laptops from Apple, Android and Samsung brands to reach contact information and any digital communication and even to record conversations or video through a device’s microphone or camera even when the device appears to be turned off. The documents also suggest a possibility that the CIA could hack into smart cars, potentially putting drivers in danger. Personally, I find this information that the CIA could have an eye and ear on me at all times to be terrifying and extremely intrusive.

Not only does this scare me because my personal right of privacy would be compromised; it would also make me fear for the future of our digital privacy and our nation. It is not legal for the government to spy on us—unless the situation falls under FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Security Act)—nor is it democratic. The fact that our government may have the capability to spy on us at all times makes our democratic values look like a complete sham. The trust between the American people and their government could be in a very vulnerable position because of this.

According to professor of history and political science David Root, a mistrust between a people and their government could very quickly turn into social chaos.

Graphic by Juliana Rohrmoser

Graphic by Juliana Rohrmoser

“It’s definitely going to disintegrate that trust. What becomes worrisome, then, as well… is that as the peoples’ mistrust of the government grows, the peoples’ mistrust of each other will also grow…. It leads to social chaos and all the problems that come with that. Once social chaos happens, it’s the recipe for tyranny and despotism, because someone will come along and say, ‘I have the answers. I can restore everything back to the way it was.’ That’s the big fear,” Root said. “If you want a blueprint about how this stuff plays out in general, read ‘1984,’ by George Orwell, because that’s what his book is about. It is about [how], as the technology increases, it increases the government’s ability to spy on us and threaten us in various ways. The government needs to restrain itself. For its own good, it needs to set out laws that very much restrain its ability to spy and manipulate various devices, whether they be phones or automobiles, for their purposes. Will government do that? That’s the question. The political power, the power of the people, has to persuade them that if they keep taking privacy away, people are eventually going to revolt on them, kick them out of power and probably kill them. In order to keep your power, you must give up some of your ability to exercise that power, because that will help maintain the trust relationship. If you lose that trust relationship, you’re on the road to tyranny, which is not good for anybody besides the tyrant.”

While these ideas may sound extreme, a brief look through history demonstrates the possibility. And while I am not giving up all hope for my home, I am disturbed with the road the government may be on. I believe the lack of transparency about the CIA’s actions allows ideas of the government possibly “getting rid of certain people by means of smart cars” to seem plausable. I understand the need for secrecy, of course, when the CIA is keeping things from the public to protect the well-being of the nation, but if the government is spying on us at all times, and these documents are authentic and might never have become known to us, what else could the CIA be doing?

According to Root, the future of digital privacy depends heavily on the Supreme Court and whether or not it will look into the situation at hand promptly. The fear is that if the Supreme Court does not deal with the infringement of digital privacy, the government could take advantage a of specific situation to gain legal access to devices.

“It’s going to be something where something very bad happens, and people are upset about it, and the government uses that as its leverage to get a case into court,” Root said. “And the most likely way that plays out is that they are going to wait for something disastrous to happen—some sort of striking terrorist attack or something in which people for that case will say, ‘Yes, we would like to know; so open up the phone’. And then that cracks the door open. And once you crack the door open, it ends up swinging open over a matter of time.”

My hope is that the businesses creating these devices stand up for our right of privacy, because they know that there may soon be an association of governmental spying with Apple and Android products or Samsung TVs. This association would likely result in lower sales, and there’s nothing that will motivate a massive corporation like sales.

The lifestyle of American consumers has helped create our dependency on technology, such as having a small computer with us at all times that holds the answer to nearly all questions. We use our cell phones to drive to places even when we know how to get there. We second-guess our own thinking because we rely on a computer to give us the answers first. The scariest thing about this dependency is that it is almost impossible to get away from these technological devices, and with them comes the possibility that the government could know where we are, what we are doing, what we are saying, and and perhaps even our thought pattern, to a degree, based on our Google history.

Root said that the only way to get away from such technological concerns is to turn to pencil and paper, or a typewriter, for any written communication, because all digital communication puts more information about ourselves out there for someone to keep.

“For a while, I’ve kind of thought to myself, ‘Privacy is just an illusion for those ignorant enough to believe it,’ because [with] any type of digital communication, you are putting out data out there that somebody is able to collect,” Root said. “There’s this big computer out there that knows more about you than you know about yourself. It’s collecting all this stuff—what your diet is, the kind of clothes you wear, where you shop at. It knows everything about you. The only way to keep yourself private anymore is to pull yourself off the grid, but good luck doing that. You can survive without a smart phone, but life is way better with a smart phone. You can get by without a car but life’s easier with a car.  These technologies have benefits to them.”

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