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

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From PRISM to Prison: How America’s surveillance state can land you in jail

As the PRISM scandal continues to unravel with new pieces of information being leaked, it is clear that there is a surveillance issue in America today. We’re led to believe that the prying into the lives of Americans is all in the name of national security—a noble and just cause. Yet, with inadequate and possibly negligent oversight by the FISA court, according to The Guardian, who is to say the program is under control?
Its defenders say that only metadata is being collected while the implicated Internet companies are denying involvement with sly words and an ounce of consumer trust.
Regardless of what information the government is collecting on its citizens, the idea that one’s privacy can so easily be breeched is haunting. It is warrantless, with no oversight other than a rampant executive branch. PRISM alone can be quite unsettling; there are other avenues the government can use to prosecute anyone they want.

Prosecutors have immense power. Look at the case against Aaron Swartz and the steamrolling prosecutors did. With their ability to go after anyone for almost anything, they can easily ruin a life.
Have you ever connected to unsecured wi-fi? Used a fake name online? Let a friend burn a CD? All of those fall under the broad and often abused Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
One can easily argue a slippery-slope scenario that would make Orwell proud, but with the government’s ability to abuse its power, even one person falling victim is a tragedy. Who is not to say that people who speak out in protest against the governemtn can be more easily silenced? We say, “That cannot happen here!” Yet ever year, with FISA, The PATRIOT Act, PRISM, and possibly countless other programs and acts our freedoms, privacy, and liberties are eroding away.
Amache Japanese Internment Camp, Colorado

We are living in a surveillance state

From the Verizon scandal a few days ago to new reports stating of massive Internet surveillance by the US government, can American’s be assured that any shreds of remaining privacy be salvaged?
In a program called PRISM, the NSA reportedly has access to the servers of sites like, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Apple (all of which are currently denying any knowledge or involvement with the PRISM program. In a presentation, which can be seen here, PRISM is said to give the NSA access to email, video and voice chat, photos, secure data, file transfers and more.
NBC News (via The Verge) is adding to the conversation with a report saying the NSA has been extensively collecting the phone calls of every American for the last seven years.
From the trends on Twitter, this will not go away quietly.

This, of course, brings us to a junction in American politics. There are many questions that need asked and the need for many more answers. We cannot let this injustice and invasion of privacy go unchallenged today.  Regardless of the answers given by the government about the success of the surveillance program, without proper transparency and explanation, the American people will continue to distrust Washington.

NSA is collecting your phone calls

As it shouldn’t be any surprise to anyone, The Guardian from across the pond has revealed the NSA collecting phone records of millions of Americans. Of course, no thanks to The New York Times.
While the information collected does not contain the contents of the call, location data, phone numbers, and other telephone metadata are being collected and stored.
It’s not clear if this is limited to Verizon, or if other mobile carriers in the US have been subjected to such intrusions in personal privacy—something the courts continue to erode away.
This will reignite the conversation on governmental intrusion on privacy in America. Without warrant, the government continues to collect and store information about its citizens for reasons shielded by blanket terms of tyranny.