Big Brother is pinging you

Law enforcement and Google assault privacy. Plus, Patrick's vetoes and Boston school worries
By EDITORIAL  |  July 11, 2012

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Anyone who cares about the right to privacy — especially the privacy of cell phones and other mobile devices — owes Democratic congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts a deep debt of gratitude.

Thanks to Markey, the nation has discovered the mindboggling extent of law enforcement's monitoring of mobile calls, text messages, the location of smartphone users, and (most likely) posts to social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Based on the reports of nine major carriers — including Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T — Markey determined that police and government surveillance is "massive": 1.3 million demands for customer information in the last year.

Some of this information is obtained lawfully with warrants and subpoenas, but an increasing amount of it is harvested under the dubious rubric of emergency circumstances.

AT&T, to take just one carrier, has seen requests from law enforcement triple since 2007. These days, it averages 700 requests a day, with 230 coming without the benefit of any court sanction.

In May, when Democratic senator Al Franken of Minnesota asked the Department of Justice to release the same sort of records Markey later got from the carriers, Franken was blithely told that Justice does not keep records of such requests.

That kind of cavalier attitude is positive proof that most of the federal government is either shamefully indifferent or brain-dead when it comes to privacy rights.

Thankfully, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has its wits about it. The FTC is reported to have slapped Google with a $22.5 million penalty for hacking Apple's Safari browsers so the search behemoth could monitor users' traffic.

If this is not a perversion of Google's code of corporate conduct, "Don't be evil," then we do not know what is.

Google's craven behavior, law enforcement's insatiable appetite for private communications, and the government's demonstrated inability to keep pace with rapid technological change raise deeply disturbing questions.

One of which is painfully obvious: what happens to the records of innocent citizens whose mobile records are inadvertently hoovered up by national, state, and local authorities?

Clearly, national standards for the collection, storage, and destruction of mobile traffic data are needed. So too are enforceable regulations that protect citizens from the rapacious behavior of digital giants.

Given the complexities, how can this be achieved? Through common sense and respecting time-honored American values — the right to privacy; the concurrent right to be notified when privacy is to be breached; the right to say no to data collection; and, for law enforcement requests, the right to legal search and seizure.

PATRICK'S VETOES

Governor Deval Patrick was unnecessarily antagonistic this week when he asked the legislature to accept changes to the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card reforms included in the fiscal year 2013 budget.

To stem abuse of EBT cards, Patrick wants to rely a bit more on oversight of retailers; the legislature wants more restrictions coded into the system. It's a legitimate disagreement, but lawmakers seeking to reduce fraud are not, as Patrick accused them, trying to "make vulnerable people beg for their benefits," or make it "humiliating [for] poor people."

Patrick leveled those charges after signing the budget Sunday — ensuring that the EBT controversy would make headlines, and thus obscure his other vetoes to the $32.5 billion budget.

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