Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Economist editorial: spot-on about cloud privacy and law enforcement

The Economist has an absolutely spot-on editorial on privacy in the age of cloud computing:

Data privacy: Out of shape | The Economist

The rules on what data governments can demand from communications companies need tightening
Jul 21st 2012 | from the print edition

SNOOPING, like so many things in life, is going mobile and online. In 2011 Google received 12,271 requests for data from the American government and acceded to all but a few of them. American mobile-phone carriers together fielded more than 1.3m such requests. Some covered multiple subscribers. Some were for “tower dumps”, which reveal the phone numbers of everyone—criminal suspects or not—in range of a certain mobile-phone tower at a certain time.

The rate of government requests has been growing: Verizon, America’s biggest mobile-service provider, says it has gone up by 15% in each of the past five years. Large mobile companies now have teams of employees that do nothing other than respond to government requests for data (see article).

This is happening partly because technology makes snooping easier, and partly because the law has not caught up with the technology. In the offline world, governments generally need a judge to sign a warrant to put a wire-tap in place; the same goes for a physical search of property. In the online world, most data—concerning who called or e-mailed whom, or visited what website, though not the content of a communication—is handed over without any such judicial review.

This is not just an American issue; European states are at least as careless of their citizens’ privacy as America. The European Union’s Data Retention Directive requires telecoms firms to store vast amounts of data about their customers’ activities, which may then be provided to law-enforcement agencies. In Britain, a draft Communications Data bill gives intelligence agencies even wider powers to intercept and store such data.

There are decent arguments in favour of giving governments such powers. Criminals, as well as law-enforcement agencies, make effective use of digital communications, so states need to be able to respond in kind. Rescue services sometimes need phone data to locate someone who needs urgent help. And where such information can help catch criminals, it should be made available. But there are also arguments for greater restraint. Communications technology these days compromises people’s privacy more than it used to. Mobile-phone records can reveal where people are, what websites they visit, what they are interested in and what they buy. Law-enforcement agencies should not be allowed unrestricted access to such complete, and intrusive, pictures of people’s lives.

Rewind, please

There is, at least, some kickback. The European law has been found unconstitutional in several member states, and the European Commission intends to revise it. But Britain’s bill seems likely to become law, despite much criticism. In America, the main federal law on the subject was written in 1986, when the internet barely existed. It badly needs an overhaul.

A good general principle would be to afford data stored in a private e-mail account as much protection as letters stored in a locked desk drawer—that is, law-enforcement agencies wanting to get a look at them should need a warrant. Internet and mobile-phone companies, and the agencies that get data from them, must be subject to proper reporting requirements. Only if people know more clearly what information is being collected about whom, and to what uses it is being put, can they judge whether the benefits of greater safety the surveillance state has brought them are worth the huge loss of privacy they have suffered as a result.


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