Walker: Big Brother is Watching

Published May 5, 2011

Our government has increasingly got things upside-down when it comes to information technology policy, and this topsy-turvy, reality-inverting attitude is especially evident with respect to privacy issues.

Legislators at the national, state, and local levels seem increasingly oblivious to the pervasive invasion of personal privacy wrought by law enforcement agencies. Instead they fuss over do-not-track legislation to mandate something most major browsers already provide— Internet users’ freedom from companies tracking their online habits without permission.

Lawmakers are all about putting more restrictions on business while giving government free rein to do whatever it wants. Government surveillance has proliferated exponentially since Popeye Doyle claimed to have viewed a perp picking his feet in Poughkeepsie in the 1971 film The French Connection.

For example, Chicago’s Operation Virtual Shield is the most extensive video surveillance network in the United States, linking more than 3,000 surveillance cameras to a centralized monitoring system with a zoom capability so strong that monitors can read the text of a book. Yet because Illinois has some of the nation’s toughest eavesdropping laws, if citizens attempt to film police officers in action using a video camera or their cell phone, they can be charged with a Class 1 felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

In Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Police more than two years ago regarding the CelleBrite UFED, a device able to extract call histories, number directories, text messages, downloads, geotags, and hidden and deleted phone data from cell phones.

A U.S. Department of Justice test revealed the CelleBrite could download all video and photos from an iPhone within one-and-a-half minutes. CelleBrite can bypass password protections and works on 3,000 different phone models, according to a recent report in The Detroit News.

The police pledged to comply with the FOIA for a whopping $272,000 deposit just to get the ball rolling. All told, the Mounties expected the ACLU to fork over $544,680 for State Police CelleBrite documents.

Ignoring such outrageous usurpations of citizen privacy, politicians distract attention by attacking the private sector with do-not-track legislation. Modeled after the “do-not-call” registry for telephone solicitors, do-not-track would outlaw monitoring of Internet visitors’ online habits. That sounds good at first, until you realize it’s already possible to opt out of such tracking voluntarily. Additionally, the use of behavioral advertising provides a valued and targeted service to Internet users as opposed to an otherwise buckshot approach.

No one denies the value of Internet privacy, but it cannot be attained through the one-size-fits-all approach promulgated on the national level by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) and on the state level in California with a similar bill introduced by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach).

Left unsaid by the politicians promoting these bills is the economic harm do-not-track legislation would impose on Internet advertising. Companies spent more than $22 billion in 2009 on online advertising. Those expenditures allow Internet users to enjoy many services for free, including emails, news, and social networking. Tighter restrictions will more than likely require the institution of fees to ensure continued access. The laws would force the consumer to pay for services they now get for free.

Government interference in the carefully nurtured relationship between Internet advertisers and potential customers resembles the meddlesome in-laws who break up otherwise-perfect marriages. A better option would be to leave the kids alone to work out mutually acceptable solutions, such as the do-not-track options all three major browsers have included in their most recent versions.

Under the guise of protecting privacy, legislators are pulling a bait-and-switch. “Look,” they’re telling us, “we care about your privacy so much we’re willing to waste time and resources on something totally unnecessary and potentially to your ultimate detriment in cyberspace while completely ignoring your personal privacy rights in the real world.” It’s another shabby big-government scam.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.