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Privacy Laws at the Close of the Year

The Changing Face of Privacy

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Some things have become increasingly disturbing when we're considering privacy laws. Some of the laws coming before our legislature have titles that say one thing, while the law does something completely different. For example Ed Markey look that misused cellphone information earlier this year, and after careful investigation, proposed a law but had nothing to do with it, but titling it the Mobile Device Privacy Act.

One of the latest twists in a story came earlier in December, when see that broke the story that law enforcement was wanting to make yet another amendment to HR 2471 – this one having to do with text messages:

Chuck DeWitt, a spokesman for the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, which represents the 63 largest U.S. police forces including New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, said "all such records should be retained for two years." Some providers, like Verizon, retain the contents of SMS messages for a brief period of time, while others like T-Mobile do not store them at all.

Along with the police association, other law enforcement groups making the request to the Senate include the National District Attorneys' Association, the National Sheriffs' Association, and the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, DeWitt said.

That's a pretty hefty frontline. These are the people responsible for investigating, arresting, and prosecuting criminals. But these aren't people who are tasked with tracking down terrorists, so why force cell phone providers to keep such complete records of everything that is transferred or text message? The standard answer so far has been "homeland security", but that has been coming from the Federal government.

This is a direct reference to our social digital identity. On the one hand, law enforcement argues that not this sort of information is not protected, at least not from them. However, it also illustrates the fact that law enforcement does consider it protected information, by asking to have it written into the laws. It's a paradox, to be sure, but one that is becoming far less uncommon.

The right to privacy is still something we seem to take for granted. As a society, we naturally expect that if somebody is asking for information about us, that they will handle it in the strictest of confidence, just as we were taught as we were kids. The harsh reality however, is that this is farthest from the truth. Today, our identity has extended from the traditional definition of the two a more encompassing sense of who we identify ourselves to be. We are prone to think that what we say is part of who we are, and who we say it to is nobody's business but our own.

Law enforcement organizations were sort of forced into making this request. This is because the Senate just passed a bill to protect email and social media information. Since this bill is similar to HR 2471 it seems likely that the bills will either be merged or one of them simply dropped. The Federal government bill tracker online says that this bill has a likelihood of moving into next year's business, which isn't surprising, and assumes that the world does not end on the 21st.

As an interesting side note, one would think that story in all this data about everybody would take up a lot of storage space. That stuff is all on computers, running over the Internet, or using the same but satellites. And you would be right, too. Last year, one of the conspiracy theories I heard was that the Federal government was building a giant facility out in Utah specifically designed to store everything related to all aspects of digital identity. This conspiracy theory turns out to be true. Laura Poitras turned out a video on the New York Times in August, which deals with the existence of this facility as a given. Her article also furthers this conspiracy theory, claiming that the National Security Agency is already in the process of gathering our digital identities together. This is not a violation of any search and seizure laws, since the law requires that someone looks at the information for it to be considered a search.

It seems unlikely that such a facility would be built on speculation alone. With the fact that there is hardware already in place, it cannot be too difficult to figure out what direction these laws will take.

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