By Ian Ségal
14 July 2019
The world we live in has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The information age has incubated a growth of exponential discovery, paving the way towards optimizing the quality of life and strengthening our country’s competitive edge in the world. Yet, while the evolution of cutting-edge technology has improved our lives with a better standard of living with the transparency of information, we are discovering that this age is garroting our necks by tearing down walls protecting fundamental freedoms of one’s space. Our employers are not alone in conducting surveillance of our daily activities from perusing our electronic mail to monitoring our phone calls with digital recordings of our activities. Federal, state, and local authorities, with the aid of advanced tools, have also embarked on overseeing and collecting data on the activities of its citizens. Without laws in place to protect the confidentiality of Americans, the government and corporate America are sparring with freedom on the vanguard of violating its citizens’ most rudimentary right, their privacy.
"Data collection and dissemination are unchecked predators padding through the province of privacy." — Ian Ségal
Businesses, large and small, have an inherent right to protect the physical and intellectual property of their organizations. The people closest to handling these assets are in fact the employees of a company—everyone owning a different level of responsibility to such property which in most cases exists as electronic data or communications. This has become the impetus for corporate America to exercise its watchfulness and support their argument to proactively secure their properties. Without any laws or regulations to keep private and public companies accountable for crossing the proverbial line into what is legally acceptable surveillance, many corporations have blatantly compromised people’s rights to their privacy (Gellman and Adler-Bell, 2017). Examples of such violations have included but are not limited to the installation of cameras in restrooms to actively monitoring employees undressing in locker rooms with video surveillance. The corporate claim for such actions has come from employers contending that they were trying to discourage theft and other illegal activities in the workplace. But such obtrusive means of monitoring the activities of people have raised eyebrows and sparked countless questions and concerns from the public.
In addition to video surveillance, corporations inconspicuously monitor their employees by tracking their activities on computers, telephones, and similar devices. It has been estimated that employers eavesdrop on over 400 million calls made by workers every year (ACLU, 2019). While no federal regulations exist to protect people’s privacy, businesses and government alike have been free to exercise electronic monitoring of Americans without any accountability to laws. In the years following the news leaks by government contractor Edward Snowden regarding surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications by the National Security Agency, people’s behavior, and vigilance have been considerably altered by this revelation. The release of classified intelligence from Snowden has left Americans divided between whether such national security monitoring benefited or harmed its citizens. This has spawned the incessant debate regarding the legitimacy of compromising the privacy of Americans for the facilitation of thwarting terrorism at home and abroad.
Many Americans found themselves in deliberations regarding the immediate impact of Edward Snowden’s disclosures to the public. As Abigail Geiger (2018) stated, “About half of Americans (49%) said the release of the classified information served the public interest, while 44% said it harmed the public interest, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted days after the revelations.” With America divided on ensuing arguments, the public mainstream became more denouncing of government surveillance. This was the catalyst for then-President Barack Obama to outline modifications to the data collection procedures of the National Security Agency. As Mark Landler and Charlie Savage of The New York Times (2014) pointed out, “President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance poses a threat to civil liberties, announced significant changes on Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records, but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.” This was followed by Mr. Obama declaring he would require court approval each time a government agency requested phone records, except in cases of emergencies—this was left in vague terms—almost like an open-ended conciliation to the intelligence community with room to operate in obscured undefined areas. These political footsteps have been construed as a diplomatic dalliance that the public could not accept.
Over time, the discontent among most Americans harmonized their noise into a more coherent message—the public found it tolerable for the government to conduct surveillance of certain people, but not U.S. citizens. Abigail Geiger (2018) added in her report that 82% of Americans believed it was acceptable for the government to monitor communications of alleged terrorists, and a similar percentage polled said it was copacetic to monitor communications of leaders of the U.S. and foreign countries. Almost all Americans polled agreed that having control over their private information and deciding who can access such was of paramount importance to maintaining privacy. Additionally, most of the same people surveyed believed they lost control over how their personal information was being solicited, gathered, disseminated, and in most cases sold without any authorization. These sentiments have been echoed over the years with a resonance claiming that personal data is now less secure compared to a decade ago—the Snowden revelations hardened these viewpoints.
Since leaking the clandestine activities of the NSA by Edward Snowden, many continue to label him as a martyr while he was forced into asylum avoiding conspiracy charges from the United States government. For over three years, Russia became the sanctuary for Snowden whom others have deemed a traitor for giving up national secrets and compromising the security and lives of Americans at home and abroad. Mr. Snowden’s efforts have affected little change to the approach employed by the U.S. government while it continues to conduct covert monitoring of people. In a website column produced by The Hill, reporter Julian Hattem (2016) quoted Edward Snowden as saying, “Remember, I didn’t want to change society, I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.” But one thing was triggered by Snowden—he emboldened the voice of America to rise to the call to fight for privacy protection after being informed with a new-found knowledge of unchecked government monitoring. America had determined it was time to change itself—it was time to hold the government accountable.
With the public demanding a closer look at the methods used to enforce national security, America was awoken by their angst regarding widespread solicitation of personal information. What was found to be most concerning to Americans is that the government can do much more to safeguard people’s data by regulating corporations with laws and guidelines but to date has not (Madden, 2014). The collection and dissemination of personal information have been irresponsibly collected and, in some cases, unintentionally skewed or altered creating harmful results for U.S. citizens—credit scores were negatively impacted. When considering several different methods of communication, most Americans agree that there doesn’t exist one mode through which they feel very secure when sharing private information with another trusted party or organization (Madden, 2014). As a result, and in the absence of government regulations to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens, the people’s attention has been focused on a new area of concern—the government compelling U.S. corporations to share confidential information they collected from their customers—the people.
Only a couple years ago a federal court ordered Apple Inc. to assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone mobile device used by a suspect in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California in December 2015. Not to be coerced by the government, Apple challenged the court order to ensure that the confidentiality of iPhones belonging to other customers would remain protected. This incited a contentious debate across the country regarding how far Americans are willing to let their technology vendors go when it comes to protecting privacy versus cooperating with the government (Maniam, 2016). With the attention of the public moving back and forth between the federal government and corporate America, it has become further evident that corporations have demonstrated deficiencies when it comes to protecting consumer data. However, the government hasn’t been the only entity interested in acquiring personal data on U.S. citizens.
Companies have continued to increase their momentum in mining more and more data on consumers without considering a plan for keeping information secure from cyberattacks. They have collected basic information such as contact names, addresses, employment, web-surfing behaviors, and purchasing activity—all desirable to the shadowy world of identification theft. Other organizations have gone further to harvest more sensitive data such as credit card account numbers, social security numbers, and patient information from healthcare organizations such as hospitals and insurance companies—this has become the honeypot for cybercrime. With a continued gathering of this type of data, cybersecurity breaches across the Internet have increasingly compromised the security and data integrity of such companies as Equifax, J.P. Morgan, Uber, Home Depot, Target, eBay, and Anthem (Armerding, 2018). Such breaches occur daily with over a billion user accounts compromised over the past ten years. This influx of nefarious intent by global hackers has produced not only heightened awareness but increased apprehension within the public mainstream. Most Americans no longer feel confident that their data is safe in the hands of the organizations that collect it. Additionally, U.S. citizens question why the government hasn’t overseen the viral nature of collecting, distributing, and protecting personal data from business enterprises and pirating malfeasance. This has created many battlefronts on the war in safeguarding one’s right to privacy while securing a person’s confidential information. The Internet is not so dissimilar to the frontier lands of the wild west period of the 1800’s absent of any law enforcement to police and protects the greater user community.
With the ongoing collection of private data on Americans by the government, businesses, and miscreants across the World Wide Web, a new developing approach to surveillance and data collection has evolved out of computer laboratories and into the public ecosystem. Across social media platforms such as Facebook and Google, we have seen a steady urgency in enhancing the private data collection of people by appending their records with a collection of digital facial imprints. This science dating back to the early years of science fiction theater has become all too real—we have officially entered the world of facial recognition. Although there are many benefits of facial recognition technology for people and businesses, we have not seen any governance regulating any adherence to consumer privacy. Facial recognition technology is currently being used by the FBI (nationwide) and departments of motor vehicles (on the state level) for both security and public safety efforts. Additionally, it has also become a tool favored by U.S. Customs agents and police law enforcement throughout the nation. In the private sector, we have seen widespread use of facial recognition deployed for marketing, customer service, photograph tagging, video-gaming, and security access to a myriad of electronic devices with a focus on mobile technology. With the arrival of this new cutting-edge innovation, another area of privacy questioning has arisen with acute concerns.
In the advent of any new technology, such innovation typically presents a plethora of expanded privacy risks that call for both governance and risk mitigation. Facial recognition data has landed at the forefront of privacy challenges for both the government and companies to address. Everything from consumer knowledge and consent through civil rights and loss of anonymity lead in areas of potential security considerations seeking remedial action. Sometimes misidentification facilitated by facial recognition systems can pose additional risks for people mistaken for incorrect identification in a criminal investigation. But more importantly, what remains high on the list of public worries stems from access and control—like all personal data with a history of breaches and misuse, this has become the focus of public distress. To date, there is no federal law that specifically addresses facial recognition data collection and usage. Areas that require lawmakers to draft legislation include but are not limited to preventing the use of facial recognition to discriminate against consumers, repurposing the data for other uses than those disclosed, and sharing of such data to third parties without the affirmative consent of the consumer (Future of Privacy Forum, 2015).
Along with the invention of facial recognition technology we are beginning to see this area expand into other commercial areas such as travel and logistics with the deployment of such platforms in national airports. According to an executive order by President Donald Trump, facial recognition systems will be installed at 20 of the busiest U.S. airports by the year 2021 for all international passengers as well as Americans (O’Flaherty, 2019). With this initiative, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is rapidly managing the project effort to meet deadlines without properly validating the quality assurance of these systems or adhering to any data collection safeguards. With over 16,000 flights scheduled every week in the United States, over 100 million passengers will be affected by this new form of surveillance on a weekly basis—foreigners and Americans alike (O’Flaherty, 2019). And though with the rapid release of a technology still in its infancy, the exposure to error and inaccuracies of analyzing collected data is dramatically increased. But more importantly, there are also elevated privacy implications when collecting large amounts of data at this level. In February 2019, an unnamed company operating facial recognition systems jeopardized the private information of over two million people after leaving a database unprotected (O’Flaherty, 2019). Cybersecurity is becoming more and more crucial in engineering layers of fortification to proactively secure personal data and respond to disasters when such systems are breached—and this is not without heavy investment from both government and business. However, without any laws for the stringent governance of all who collect, create, use, and distribute personal data of people, the hope of forcing government and business into privacy compliance is futile. With this said, sustaining any privacy among Americans will continue to diminish.
The common theme we have witnessed over the past two decades has demonstrated not only that we as Americans have justifiable concerns when it comes to our personal information but an intrinsic right as U.S. citizens to having our data protected through enacted measures enforced by the law. In the absence of such legislation, the federal, state, and local governments along with corporations across the country have taken advantage of collecting and distributing private data of Americans with little to no supervision and accountability for their actions as well as reckless management of this data. With the absence of a federally mandated privacy agency, no overseeing body exists to regulate and govern the use of personal data along with the surveillance of Americans. We continue to face a widening hole in American law without the cohesiveness of legislation that can obligate government and corporate America into compliance with enforceable sanctions against all who would violate such law. Congress needs to swiftly implement legislation to ratify privacy protection and establish a government agency to protect the personal data of our citizens. But in the absence of laws to protect the privacy of people, along with the absence of accountability for those who would violate such mandates, we all remain defenseless with the longing for true privacy being cast away into a world of nocturnal dreams.
ACLU. “Privacy Principles for Facial Recognition Technology.” Future of Privacy Forum, fpf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Dec9Working-Paper-FacialRecognitionPrivacyPrinciples-For-Web.pdf.
Armerding, Taylor. “The 18 Biggest Data Breaches of the 21st Century.” CSO Online, CSO, 20 Dec. 2018, www.csoonline.com/article/2130877/the-biggest-data-breaches-of-the-21st-century.html.
FPF.org. “Privacy Principles for Facial Recognition Technology.” Future of Privacy Forum, fpf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Dec9Working-Paper-FacialRecognitionPrivacyPrinciples-For-Web.pdf.
Geiger, Abigail. “How Americans Have Viewed Surveillance and Privacy Since Snowden Leaks.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 4 June 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/04/how-americans-have-viewed-government-surveillance-and-privacy-since-snowden-leaks/.
Gellman, Barton, and Sam Adler-Bell. “The Disparate Impact of Surveillance.” TCF.org, The Century Foundation, 21 Dec. 2017, tcf.org/content/report/disparate-impact-surveillance/?agreed=1.
Hattem, Julian. “Spying after Snowden: What's Changed and What Hasn't.” The Hill, The Hill, 25 Dec. 2016, thehill.com/policy/technology/310457-spying-after-snowden-whats-changed-and-what-hasnt.
Landler, Mark, and Charlie Savage. “Obama Outlines Calibrated Curbs on Phone Spying.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/us/politics/obama-nsa.html.
Madden, Mary. “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 24 Mar. 2016, www.pewinternet.org/2014/11/12/public-privacy-perceptions/.
Maniam, Shiva. “Americans Feel the Tensions between Privacy and Security Concerns.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 19 Feb. 2016, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/19/americans-feel-the-tensions-between-privacy-and-security-concerns/.
O'Flaherty, Kate. “Facial Recognition at U.S. Airports. Should You Be Concerned?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 13 Mar. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2019/03/11/facial-recognition-to-be-deployed-at-top-20-us-airports-should-you-be-concerned/.
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