Digital privacy is an illusion. When you do something digitally, it can be monitored and copied. Corporations do this all the time. —Eric Swedin, a professor at Weber State University
SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone incensed or concerned about the federal government gathering records of cellphone calls and digital communications of U.S. citizens can ponder the words and defense of the practice spoken by the nation's commander in chief Friday:
“You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” President Barack Obama said. “You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Some say that choice has already been made in the aftermath of 9/11, with the approval of the Patriot Act that followed, and the pursuit of security at a time of free-flowing information of all types that gives the nation's enemies — from individuals to organizations to nations — the ability to cause catastrophic harm.
But it's a choice and policy being assessed this week in the halls of Washington, D.C., as well as in the burgs and hamlets of the nation by individuals and families who increasingly use technology to navigate their lives.
"Digital privacy is an illusion," said Eric Swedin, a professor at Weber State University who teaches history, particularly the history of technology. Swedin has also taught computer science and has specialized in information security — such as how hacking works and how to defend a system against hackers.
"When you do something digitally, it can be monitored and copied. Corporations do this all the time," Swedin said.
He said Google, for example, keeps track of searches.
"Google cares not about you as an individual, they care about you as a marketing category and this gives you ads that are discerned from your personal searches."
Swedin said digital eavesdropping into cellphone records should not be a surprise given the wide-open nature of the Internet and the domestic security urgency that gripped the nation in the wake of 9/11.
"You can learn a lot really fast about a person just from looking at that information," he said. "My suspicion, and it is just a suspicion, is that the intelligence community since 9/11 has been totally enamored with something called 'total information awareness.' It is this belief that if you have enough data and the right kind of computer programs, you can find criminal behavior before it happens."
There's been a public backlash, however, to the revelation that a leaked secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court shows the NSA has been receiving data from all Verizon Wireless calls made by U.S. citizens over the last seven years. Government officials said the actual conversations aren't part of the information they're reviewing — a point reiterated by Obama Friday — but the time and duration of the calls, location and "personal identifiers" are captured and analyzed.
Salt Lake resident Linda Freedman is one of nearly 20,000 U.S. citizens who has put her signature on a petition urging Congress to investigate and make its findings public.
The petition was crafted by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, formed in 2009 by former MoveOn.org organizers.
"Personally, I have nothing to hide," Freedman said. "But when it comes to principles, it appears they've been thrown out along with the rest of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I am appalled by the repeated evidence of the lack of integrity of the leadership in my country."
David Colucci, who was enjoying a June morning Friday in downtown Salt Lake City, said he's outraged.
"I think it is a big time invasion of my privacy," he said. "It's not right. I thought, 'Are you kidding me?' I don't want to use my phone. I have nothing to hide, but still, it is an invasion of my privacy."
That resonates with many. Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who also is a research fellow at the International Institute on Counter-Terrorism, said care should be taken before using a broad-brush approach to national security and counterterrorism.
"There is this tendency to say whatever the executive (branch) needs, the executive gets. That is a troubling view," Guiora said.
But Swedin said U.S. citizens should check their indignation at the gate. He said the Patriot Act was supported by most Americans after 9/11 and the revelations this week provide a reality check that many are now uncomfortable with.
"I think what should really bother people is that they have illusions about their own personal privacy and they need to get over those illusions," he said. "We need to get past that illusion of privacy to have a more functional society and better protections, and those protections come from transparency."
He said the bigger issue of concern should be government transparency. If the government, for example, has compiled personal information on individuals, the government should make that information available to all.
"Government has to be more revealing about what they do with the data and what they know about people."
When the United States follows the way of Great Britain with its closed-circuit television cameras capturing all manner of residents' movements — which Swedin predicts will someday be next — the federal government should say it has those videos and let the public view them as well.
"You are trusting law enforcement and government to only use that in positive ways and that means you are trusting an entity of power to self-police, and I don't believe in that," he said.
That was Utah resident Jason O'Keefe's concern.
"How do you put in checks and balances and keep it from getting out of control?" he questioned, "especially since sometimes that can lead to abuse of power and other violations."
Swedin said rather than U.S. citizens engaging in the hand-wringing angst of safeguarding privacy, he said they should embrace societal and government transparency.
"This thought is that it is a safer, more secure society if people know more about each other. It flies entirely in the face of our instinctive reality that this (information) should be private."