Privacy and the price of liberty

Land of the free and home of the spied upon

The author is a writer and comedian who “wrote this on a hopelessly outdated computer.”

In another sign of how upside down things have gotten in the “land of the free,” Republicans in Congress recently passed legislation eliminating Internet privacy protections. This happened around the same time that an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed the Russian government had engaged in a massive campaign of information warfare against ordinary Americans via social media and other outlets. This is akin to finding out there’s a crime ring burglarizing homes all over town, just as your landlord is granted the right to sell photos of inside your living room (and, quite possibly, your bedroom).

The bill, which Trump signed, gives cable and wireless providers the right to sell your personal info, such as browser history, location history, etc., while preventing the FCC from re-establishing the privacy protections that are now being spiked. The phone company shouldn’t be able to share whom you call and what you say over the phone, and the same principle should apply to all communication networks. And yet, as former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler points out, “When you make a voice call on your smartphone, the information [about whom you are calling] is protected … But if the same device and the same network are used to [make] contact … through the Internet, that information … can be captured and sold by the network.”

It should be noted that it’s taken many years for privacy advocates to win this argument; the consumer protections that Congress has undone were set to take effect later this year. Nevertheless, the Russian campaign to sway our election and undermine democracy makes the need to safeguard Internet privacy a matter of utmost urgency.

If you’re still not concerned, consider that Trump’s FCC also halted another Obama-era policy mandating stricter rules (“reasonable measures”) to protect customer data. More companies having access to your personal information, combined with looser standards of protection, means more chances for that info to be stolen, a fact illustrated by dozens of mass hacks (Target, Home Depot, Anthem, eBay, et al) in just the last few years. This famous quote has never been truer: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”