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Protecting Privacy As One of Our Freedoms

It's ok to care about your privacy even if you have nothing to hide

Happy 4th of July! On Independence Day, we Americans commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and celebrate our freedom.

Where does privacy fit into our concepts of freedom, independence and democracy? Under what circumstances do we feel that our right to privacy – our “freedom from unauthorized intrusion” has been violated? How comfortable are we with government surveillance in the name of national security and prevention of terrorism?

Can we be patriotic and at the same time voice concerns about reports that our government is spying on a vast number of calls, text messages, and emails – both of Americans and foreign citizens? Can we love and be proud of our country and still speak up against the creation of a surveillance state?

Can we respectfully disagree with Eric Schmidt’s famous quote on privacy: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Yes. It’s ok to care about your privacy even if you have nothing to hide.

“Freedom and order are not incompatible…truth is strength…free discussion is the very life of truth.” -Thomas Henry Huxley

Surveillance Survey Highlights Concerns

A Consumer Reports national survey from March of this year found that nearly 60 percent of adult U.S. online consumers are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that NSA surveillance of their personal data online violates their privacy rights.

Of those consumers who expressed concern about NSA surveillance online:

• 61 percent said they were seriously concerned about their personal e-mail

• nearly half had serious concerns about tracking of their online behavior; and

• about 40 percent were concerned about the agency spying on the terms they use on search engines or on text messages they send and receive on their smart phones.

Is American privacy and freedom from government surveillance an uphill battle?

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recently (PCLOB) found to be constitutional the NSA bulk collection program that involves collecting internet communications data from service providers and from the internet’s basic infrastructure. The independent privacy board earlier this year called on the government to halt its program of collecting bulk phone metadata. In this report, the PCLOB approved as “legal and effective in protecting national security” the NSA’s collection of foreigner’s internet communications.

The correspondence of Americans is often included in this collection. As NPR’s coverage points out, the broad scope of the NSA’s surveillance program allows for Americans to be monitored, even if their connection is incidental at best.

While the PCLOB acknowledged that privacy is a universal “human right,” its report doesn’t provide a justification for how the mass collection of the foreigners’ communication is in line with this belief.

Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found the report “legally flawed and factually incomplete.” The American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said the report was “weak” and “fails to fully grasp the civil liberties and human rights implications of permitting the government sweeping access to the communications of innocent people.”

A U.S. government issued transparency report on surveillance requests in 2013 under national security authorities (such as FISA, FAA, and the NSL statutes) also raises concerns about the clarity and scope of actual surveillance disclosures we can hope to receive. Many have criticized the report as difficult to interpret and difficult to compare to previously-issued provider reports.

New information has surfaced that the NSA appears to be targeting users of privacy services such as Tor. According to leaked source code obtained and analyzed by journalists and others in Germany, the NSA is tracking people using or interested in using online privacy protective tools and services. This raises First Amendment concerns as well as questions about the NSA’s legal authority to track users in this way.

After a fourth month investigation, The Washington Post is reporting that the “incidental” collection of the data of American citizens by the NSA is more widespread that originally believed. Communications of “ordinary Internet users” outnumber that of legally targeted foreigners in the NSA intercepts. In fact, “nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents.” This reporting calls further into question the PCLOB’s conclusion that the NSA’s actions are reasonable.

Reflect on your rights:

1. Be grateful for the freedoms we enjoy.

A gratefulness practice includes appreciating our freedoms in our thoughts, words and actions.

“When you practice gratefulness, there is a sense of respect toward others.” Dalai Lama

We can respect our government, be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy, and take steps to ensure such freedoms are valued and protected. This includes the freedom from unreasonable surveillance.

2. Express your independence:

Don’t be afraid to question our government. Continue to inquire about the intent, scope, and oversight of the NSA surveillance program.

3. Be proactive.

Speak up if you believe the government has overstepped their bounds. Do you think there should there be new laws implemented to curb the NSA? Are you concerned about how the NSA programs are impacting America’s reputation abroad? You can learn more about the EFF’s actions to oppose NSA surveillance here and about the ACLU’s position here.

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