Thursday, September 12, 2013

Digital footprints may embarass or worse: US privacy and technology laws could land practically anyone in jail

Flickr, Casey Konstantín
We’ve all done questionably illegal things in our lives (allegedly), whether partaking in recreational drug use in college, sipping on alcohol in our parents’ basements well before reaching the legal drinking age, or other dubious acts we feel best left tucked away.

Whether in admittance or not, sometimes we leave digital footprints behind of these activities. Facebook messages, phone records, photos, tweets, texts, and immature YouTube videos can be collected, stored, mined in a database, and searched at the government’s convenience.

Though our activities may not be illegal, they most certainly can be embarrassing and, if left unchecked in the vastness of the Internet, can tarnish a reputation.

With our culture so obsessed with sharing our lives in the digital world, one has to wonder if what we share is truly private.

If recent allegations are true, the National Security Agency and its PRISM initiative can collect and store whatever digital data it wants on us. Now imagine the capabilities it gives federal prosecutors.

Prosecutors already have immense unchecked power. Look at the case against Aaron Swartz, who was charged with downloading academic papers. The prosecutors were seeking the maximum penalty for Swartz, asking for more than 50 years in prison for his sentencing. He committed suicide on Jan. 11, 2013.

Disproportionately, a first-time offender of producing child pornography faces a maximum 30 years in prison. The more you know.

“There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” John Baker, a retired Louisiana State University law professor said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

If everyone is a criminal, what is there to stop our government from abusing its power?

The intersection between our digital lives and prosecution stems from what we do online.

Have you ever connected to an unsecured Wi-Fi network just to check Facebook? Used a fake name online? Let a friend burn a CD?
Inadvertently violated a website’s terms of service? All of these acts are prosecutable under the broad and often abused Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; the same Act that was used against Swartz.

If you couple the NSA’s broad surveillance of Americans with the abusive powers of prosecutors to charge whoever they want for laws never known to be broken, are we really left with the freedom we were so promised?

Whether Congress really cares about our privacy or lack thereof has little to do with the perverseness of the whole idea that nothing we do online is private. Major reforms are necessary with both the surveillance state and federal prosecutors’ wild-west tactics before we can truly feel secure with our government’s doing.

Granted, there are those that say if you don’t do anything illegal you don’t have anything to worry about. Clearly, with an unfathomable amount of federal laws on the books, we have to wonder if any of us are safe.

Originally published in The Eastern Echo