Interesting view on what it is the greatest threat to privacy

January 3, 2014 |

In The biggest threats to our privacy the Demoines Register looks at the real and more mundane threats to privacy, pushing through and beyond the complaints about the NSA’s mass surveillance, concerning though that is (as well as surveillance by many other government agencies).

It provides:

Does the government pose the biggest threat to your privacy?

At the time of the American Revolution, the answer was clearly yes. The Constitution’s framers adopted the Fourth Amendment to guard against unreasonable government intrusion into our private lives. The amendment ensures that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

But the Fourth Amendment only bars privacy invasions by government officials. It does not protect against intrusions by those outside government.

That fact is particularly relevant today. Overzealous government employees represent only one of many threats to our privacy. From GPS tracking to internet monitoring, private parties spy on Americans to an unprecedented degree. The consequences affect everyone.

To understand the dimensionsof the problem, it is helpful to compare the government spying scandal with the massive identity theft case at Target.

On Dec. 16, a federal judge ruled that the National Security Agency likely violated the Fourth Amendment by collecting metadata from Americans’ telephone records as part of the NSA’s counterterrorism efforts.

The Obama administration disagrees. It contends that the NSA’s electronic surveillance methods comply with constitutional requirements.

The NSA story raises important issues of constitutional law and national security. The subject deserves public attention and vigorous debate.

But when you are in the checkout line at your local grocery or department store, is NSA spying the privacy issue that most concerns you?

It shouldn’t be. The greatest threat to your privacy is not posed by the NSA. It’s posed by hackers, thieves and corporations.

The Target security breach provides a good example. Just days before the judge’s ruling in the NSA case, identity thieves stole 40 million credit and debit card numbers from Target shoppers. Target still doesn’t know how the hackers gained access to the retailer’s computer systems, but many card numbers are now selling on the black market.

Target is not the first to fall victim to an enormous data breach. In 2006, hackers accessed 94 million credit and debit card numbers of shoppers at T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and other retailers.

The crime sprees keep getting worse. In July 2013 federal prosecutors in New York indicted five defendants for stealing more than 160 million credit card numbers and breaching 800,000 bank accounts, the largest hacking scheme in history.

Computer crime is big business. According to a study by the security firm McAfee, cybercrime costs approximately $300 billion per year. Cybercrime will eventually surpass drug trafficking as the world’s most lucrative criminal activity.

But unlike the NSA case, where the courts possess the final say on the matter, the American legal system offers only a partial solution to identity theft. That is because foreign hackers constitute a growing share of cybercrimes in the United States. Computers enable thieves to reach across the world electronically to commit their crimes.

American courts can’t exercise jurisdiction over defendants overseas without the cooperation of foreign governments. But some governments turn a blind eye to cybercrimes as long as the hackers conduct their attacks abroad. A few governments even aid and abet cybercrime. Consequently, many cybercriminals operate with impunity.

Criminals are not the only ones who seek to exploit our private information. Businesses use our electronic data to shape their advertising campaigns and market their products.

For example, retailers track our Internet surfing habits and purchasing history. They also use the GPS device in our cellphones to learn which stores we visit. Even our private emails are examined for clues regarding our hobbies and personal interests.

You can’t even be sick in private. If you do an internet search for flu remedies, Google collects and disseminates your search terms and ZIP code. That data is then used by pharmacies, manufacturers, and the Centers for Disease Control to stock shelves and track flu outbreaks.

The daily lives of ordinary people have never been subject to as much scrutiny and observation as they are today. The Fourth Amendment may protect us from the government, but it won’t safeguard us against computer hackers or corporate America.

When Americans think about privacy, therefore, they have a lot more to worry about than just the NSA.

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