Who Stole My Privacy?

Photo credit: wildfirewire

Most Americans have a healthy sense of skepticism about data collection and surveillance, and hold varying degrees of trust in institutions to responsibly use their personal information. New figures from the quarterly Allstate/Heartland Monitor Poll to be released in full on June 13, 2013, will also reveal that the American public is concerned about data privacy, electronic surveillance, and the likelihood that their personal information is available to businesses, government, individuals and other groups without their consent.

The Poll was completed from May 29 - June 2, 2013, prior to recent headlines focusing on government collection of telephone records within the United States. Collection of personal data is not new for businesses or the federal government. Given the extent to which personal communications and business transactions have moved online, it is not surprising that records of such activities have become increasingly relevant to law enforcement and counterterrorism investigations. What is new is disclosure of the seemingly unfettered scope of data collection, and whether checks and balances are in place to protect our civil liberties.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ensures;

“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”.

The words “unreasonable” and “probable” are key terms because they are subjective. What is unreasonable and probable to one person might be reasonable and unlikely to another person. A female twenty-something, with a college degree, and a smart phone, might not question why the federal government collects information about her phone activity, texting history, and internet searches. However, a man, who recalls coming of age during President Carter’s era, and the introduction of cordless phones and the Internet, might ask whether the federal government is trampling over the Fourth Amendment.

Much of the Gen X and Y populations rely on social media to voluntarily share the what, where, how, with whom, and why of their lives, and today’s youth freely share information via social media without any expectation of privacy. Conversely, many AARP cardholders are not active on social media, however, they are more concerned with protecting their privacy than younger generations.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court explained that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in her own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. But, what she seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected".

Regarding data sharing in 2013, a person might not be able to claim Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Once data is shared, even the strongest privacy settings will not prevent someone from accessing and possibly sharing what you voluntarily disclosed.

Additionally, a reasonable expectation of privacy must cross two thresholds. There must be a subjective expectation of privacy: meaning -- a person must have expected that his/her information would be private. And, there must also be an objective expectation of privacy: meaning -- society would generally consider the information and the way it was stored to be private.

As baby boomers age, and Gen X and Y assume the role of caretaker, technological advances will force society to redefine what is a reasonable expectation of privacy. The new definition will need to share cyberspace with the Constitution of the United States.