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PRIVACY: DO WE STILL HAVE ANY REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS?

By Sara B. Morgan, Esq.

With all the recent media buzz concerning NSA phone taps and Edward Snowden’s other allegations regarding government activities, I find myself wondering just what in our modern lives we as Americans still consider, and expect to remain, private.

For example, many Americans broadcast their activities, thoughts, and pictures on various social media sites, voluntarily making public (to varying degrees) parts of their lives which used to be cherished privately with family and friends. While it may be difficult to pinpoint the number of Americans using social media, some research estimates 67% of Americans using the internet are using Facebook, 13% using Instagram, 16% using Twitter, and 20% using LinkedIn1. If any “Joe Blow” off the street can now look at pictures of your two-year old blowing out birthday candles, find out where you work, and read about your political opinions, can we really get up in arms if the government does it?

What about cell phone companies and apps vendors? Many popular cell phone apps, including some pre-loaded software, require the user to agree to a litany of permissions in order to update the software. Some I have seen include:

  • “Allows application to retrieve information about currently and recently running tasks. May allow malicious applications to discover private information about other applications.”

  • “Directly call phone numbers: Allows the application to call phone numbers without your intervention. Malicious applications may cause unexpected calls on your phone bill.”

  • “Record audio: Allows application to access the audio record path.”

  • “Take pictures and videos: Allows application to take pictures and videos with the camera. This allows the application at any time to collect images the camera is seeing.”

  • “Access coarse location sources such as the cellular network database to determine an approximate phone location, where available. Malicious applications can use this to determine approximately where you are.”

  • “Access fine location sources such as Global Positioning System on the phone, where available. Malicious applications can use this to determine where you are, and may consume additional battery power.”

  • “Allows an application to read of the contact (address) data stored on your phone. Malicious applications can use this to send your data to other people.”

  • “Can determine the phone number and serial number of this phone, whether a call is active, the number that call is connected to and the like.”

While it is outside the purview of this rant to address the distinctions between the consumer-servicer and citizen-country dynamic, one must wonder just what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy in today’s society. In order to play that “free” game or use that “free” app, we are granting to some unknown third party the capability to independently dial phone numbers, take photos, determine our current whereabouts, and even record conversations. So, when the government make use of this information, even if in the name of national security, is our outrage, shock, and surprise really warranted?

1 http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/March/Pew-Internet-Social-Networking-full-detail.aspx

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