RealTime IT News

Tech Inadvertently Helps Spy Game

The rapid pace of technology is not, as the government argues, making it more difficult to conduct national security surveillance.

Instead, technology is inadvertently making it easier for the government to spy on its citizens, and the laws designed to protect privacy rights are not keeping up, according to a new report issued today by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

"The fact is that digital technology has vastly augmented the government's powers, even without legal changes like those in the Patriot Act," CDT Policy Director Jim Dempsey said at a Washington press conference. "The capacity of Internet technology to collect and store data increases every day, as does the volume of personal information we willingly surrender as we take advantage of new services."

The CDT report claims two popular technologies -- Web-based e-mail and location awareness -- give the government "unprecedented access" to Americans' personal data.

Meanwhile, the report notes, the laws preventing the government from unfairly accessing personal information haven't changed in two decades.

"The gap between law and technology is widening every day, and privacy is eroding. What makes this even more troubling is that most users of these new technologies don't realize they are putting their privacy in jeopardy," Dempsey added.

Web-based e-mail allows users to store gigabytes of mail, photos and documents on the providers' servers. The distinction between storing e-mail on a server and the user's own computer is legally significant, according to the CDT.

"While the government needs a judicial warrant to search a person's computer, it may be able to access that person's Webmail account with only a subpoena, issued without judicial review; without any specific suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the user; and often without notice to the person whose data is being disclosed," states the CDT report.

Cell phones, the CDT contends, serve as "essentially a tracking device" for potential government snooping.

"While a cell phone is turned on, whether or not it is making a call, it is regularly seeking out the nearest antenna and sending to it its identification numbers," the report points out.

The CDT report says there are no existing laws that explicitly set standards for government location tracking, but rather only a patchwork of laws of court precedents.

"Unfortunately the legal standards regulating the government's ability to use that constant stream of new data haven't kept pace with the technological reality," the report states.

The report discusses proposals for updating U.S. privacy laws to permit government surveillance where appropriate but also ensuring innocent people do not lose their privacy simply because existing law did not anticipate technological advances.

"We agree that it is time for a broad-based dialogue about the ways in which technology is undermining traditional privacy expectations," the report says.

"Technology companies should be aware of the issues so they can design products and services in ways that promote privacy and user control. The courts should reexamine the assumptions on which Fourth Amendment interpretations have been based and should be more careful in approving government surveillance requests."

In addition, the CDT claims, Congress should ensure that new government surveillance technologies are subject to appropriate privacy standards.