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Letter to the Editor: The Myth of Internet Privacy

Patch contributor Ed Collins shares his views on Internet privacy.

Letter to the Editor: The Myth of Internet Privacy

Is Internet privacy a myth? Yes, of course it is. Hackers, spies, crooks, con artists, and all kinds of charlatans prowl the Internet seeking to take advantage of us through their cultivated skills of dishonesty, cunning, greed, and just plain evil. 

Even the high and mighty can be tripped occasionally. Take the recent case of Army General David Petraeus. One would think that the head of our top US intelligence agency would know better than carry on an extramarital affair with his mistress over the open Internet even though he slyly tried to hide his Gmail access and identity. As head of the CIA he should have known that e-mail content can be an open book for a clever hacker or a skilled law enforcement officer. 

Yet the distinguished retired General embarrassed himself, his CIA colleagues, and his country by confessing his dalliances over the Internet with his fawning female biographer. 

Chances are the General and the woman (both married to other spouses) wouldn’t have been caught unless his biographer/mistress hadn’t sent some anonymous threatening e-mails to a competitive socialite they both knew by telling her to stay away from “her man,” whose name was never mentioned. 

The socialite, in turn felt distressed by the distressing anonymous e-mails and reported it to a FBI agent friend, who in turn passed it up the ladder initiating the possibility of a crime investigation, never realizing the far-reaching implications her action would reap. 

You probably, along with millions of us, have been following all the titillating details in the press recently. President Obama quickly accepted the General’s resignation and the finger pointing and conjecture continues as to who did what – and more important - did it involve a breach of security which is a federal crime. 

Under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, along with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 these two legislative mandates generally govern how far a governmental investigation of electronic content can proceed before a warrant from a judge is required. Usually it is six months or less. However, typically, a subpoena or warrant is not necessary to access e-mails after six months since the law considers these e-mails “abandoned.” 

With dramatic changes such as the Cloud that have taken place in electronic communications since 1986, some believe its time to update ECPA. Google senior counsel Richard Salgado says ECPA provisions no longer reflect the way people use Internet services or the reasonable expectations they have about government access to digital information. 

Government surveillance of the Internet has been rising. In Google’s latest bi-annual Transparency Report for the first half of this year government inquiries to Google for specific user data increased to nearly 21,000 requests from more than 36.000 specific accounts. Google voluntarily complies with about 90 percent of these government requests. 

Does it bother you that some government gumshoe is nosing through your personal e-mail? Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, says it shouldn’t bother the average, honest citizen. 

“The government can’t just wander through your e-mails will-nilly just because they would like to know what you are thinking or doing. But if they are investigating a crime then it has a lot of legal authority to review a person’s e-mails,” Baker told the Associated Press recently.

Ed Collins


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