Feb. 27, 2006 – The ever-innovative field of electronic communications that brought us e-mail, cell phones and instant messaging can take a heavy toll on personal privacy. According to a privacy-rights groupâ€™s recently released report, the exponential growth of technology accessible to government and corporate snooping is proof positive that lawmakers must update privacy protections to "reflect the technological realities of a new century."
The study, released last week by the progressive Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), found a growing gray area in which overzealous snoopers take advantage of technologies not envisioned when privacy laws were conceived.
In calling for stronger controls, CDT noted a number of government information-collecting measures in operation because existing laws are inadequate. For instance, the Justice Department recently requested Internet companies for user search records.
And, the CDT said, government officials obfuscate the issue by claiming that advancing communications tools make it harder to track necessary information.
"The government complains that new technology makes its job more difficult, but 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 in a statement accompanying the reportâ€™s release.
"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," Dempsey continued. "Meanwhile, the laws that are supposed to prevent the government from unfairly accessing personal information haven't changed in two decades."
According to the report, the two most-used communications tools â€“ cell phones and web-based e-mail accounts â€“ are wide-open to government spying. Both are vulnerable to intrusion precisely because laws have not kept pace with technological advances.
The law restricting government access to web-based e-mail was crafted in 1986, years before such services became available, the CDT report said. Investigators need nothing but a subpoena to access the accounts, a much lower standard than that necessary to view home computer files, which requires a court-issued search warrant.
Subpoenas can be issued by prosecutors or law enforcement officials and carry less weight in court. The Federal Bureau of Investigationâ€™s highly controversial national security letters â€“ which the FBI issues internally, but which require institutions to secretly turn over the private records of their costumers â€“ constitute one such example.
In order to operate, cell phones constantly send out signals to towers, creating a beacon for those with the desire, technology and know-how to follow. In addition, many cell phones sold in the US are E911 capable, meaning that they carry a global positioning system chip, which uses satellites to accurately determine its own position within a few yards. There are no laws preventing the government form using either location-finding method to track individuals, the CDT found.
Additionally, the report noted, no laws prevent the government from using keystroke-logging software to track what surveillance targets type directly into their keyboards, circumventing encryption and other privacy safeguards.