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Geri Spieler Headshot

What Price Safety Over Privacy: A Slippery Slope

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How much privacy are we willing to give up ensuring our safety against possible terrorist attacks?

Do we have a choice or has this line already been crossed? Have we become a "Big Brother" society?

Already much of our information has been available online to anyone interested in knowing where we live, our age, real estate information and other personal data.

But way beyond this easy access for the average Web surfer, Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECA) allowed government agencies to read our private e-mails without a search warrant.

E-mails in transit were protected, but once they reached a third party Internet Service Providers (ISP), like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail and were stored, they were no longer protected under the Fourth Amendment.

The outrage created years ago under the Bush administration of warrantless wiretaps was renewed with the civil liberties and Internet rights advocates.

The good news is that in 2010, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the ECA unconstitutional.

It ruled that stored e-mails are secure from government eavesdropping. Because of the ruling, the government has to get a warrant to read the stored e-mails of someone they are investigating.

Including in the ECA, not just e-mails have been freely available to the government without a warrant. Cell phone tracking data is also available to a police investigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union advocacy group conducted a year-long investigation into law enforcement use of cell phone tracking data.

MSNBC reporter Bob Sullivan, author and writer on technology crime and consumer fraud, reported that using the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU found many local police departments around the country routinely pay mobile phone network operators a small fee to get detailed records of historic cell phone location information.

In his article, Sullivan said this data tells cops not just where a suspect might have been at a given moment, but also create the possibility of retracing someone's whereabouts for months. In many cases, law enforcement can get this informationwithout applying for a search warrant.

Most often, Sullivan reported, subpoenas are issued instead, which require law enforcement to meet a lower legal standard.

Digging deeper into the use of our personal information being culled by public agencies, James Bamford, in a Wired magazine article, revealed a top-secret construction project in Utah, named the Utah Data Center that is being built for the National Security Agency (NSA).

The purpose of this massive center is to intercept, decipher, analyze and store huge amounts of communications taken from satellites and cable communications.

The source of this information will come from private emails, cell phone calls, Google searches and personal data trails.

Frankly, I have long ago given up the idea that my life is private. In terms of being a writer who does research online, I must confess I'm a hypocrite when it comes to finding information about people online. I conduct all kinds of online research for a living including finding people.

The difference is I don't have access to much more than a location and birth date. This data is like using the old yellow pages.

I ask the question again: Is giving up our privacy the price we pay for staying safe from terrorist attacks. Does it help?

We may never know what tactic made the difference or missed the mark.