Spoutin' Off: Don't trust anyone to safeguard your privacy
By Michael Rau
May 15, 2006
The story that the federal government has been collecting the domestic phone call records of millions of Americans says the NSA has been aided by AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth.
It was also reported this week that search giant Yahoo has asked the federal government with help in dealing with it's "China problem."
To what am I referring?
Last September, a report by Reporters Without Borders, an international journalism watchdog group, said Yahoo complied with a request by the Chinese government to provide Internet records of a dissident named Shi Tao. He eventually was sentenced to 10 years in prison for "revealing state secrets."
Yahoo is now saying it is not to blame and they have to comply with the Chinese. The company argues it's the responsibility of our government to compel the Chinese to change their politics and policies.
Is it just me, or is there truly a delicious irony here?
It isn't even relevant whether or not you agree with the administration's positions on domestic spying. How can we say it's OK for us to engage in these practices, but no one else can? The administration says we can trust them to treat all of this personal information with utmost respect and it's only necessary because of the war on terror.
For the sake of argument, let's say this is true. How about the next administration - or the one after that? Is it OK for anyone who becomes the next president to authorize the same thing? Do you trust any and all of our presidential prospects to handle your most personal information with the same respect?
We're deep in the middle of the information age. Even if you don't use the Internet, all of your personal data is stored somewhere in digital form. Should the government have unfettered access to this?
And what does it mean when corporate America becomes a willing participant (some might call them an "agent") in providing this data to the government?
We've discussed some methods, such as "Web beacons," which Web sites use to gather information on your online habits. We've also delved into how such devices, embedded in Web pages, can be programmed to actually invade your computer and install all kinds of malware.
My favorite of these is keystroke loggers. These literally record every single character you type and send that record back to a pre-programmed IP address.
What if these records were freely offered to, or collected by, the government? Are you still as comfortable with giving up your right to privacy?
Regarding Yahoo, it should be mentioned that both Google and MSN also have faced similar scrutiny in regards to their dealings with the Chinese government. Google, in particular, has been especially vocal in defending such practices, saying that it's the price you pay for doing business in China.
I'm sure that most businesses kowtow to the Chinese to some extent or another in exchange for access to their markets. What makes the case of these three Web-based companies particularly troubling is that their stock-in-trade is information.
Worse than that, these companies aren't helmed by idiots. They certainly knew what the repercussions of their disclosures would be.
I guess willingly providing these people's personal information at the expense of their rights and freedoms is just the cost of doing business, right?
And why would you expect these same companies to have any compunction about providing like information to the U.S. government? What makes you think they haven't already?
Regarding AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth, I don't personally don't do business with any of these companies, but had been thinking about trying out Verizon's fiber digital TV service when it becomes available. I will most certainly reconsider that idea.
All I'm saying is that if you trust all the people in our government and all the people in these companies with any and all of your personal data, you're much more sanguine than me.
If that's the case, then you're fine. But if you're like me, you recognize the differences between what China's all about and America's all about, and you value your privacy, your personal freedoms, and your civil rights, you might want to say so now.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com
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