November 2, 2010

Privacy at Risk

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It is no secret that today’s college students are more inseparable from technology than any previous generation. Students regularly communicate with hundreds of electronic “followers” to organize and publicize events or share the latest cat video — and all on the same devices that they also use to listen to music, take pictures and phone home. Despite the ubiquity of these devices, too many students fail to know or care who has access to the information they transmit.

Many students expect that the e-mails they send from e-mail accounts are private messages between the sender and the recipients. In most cases, they do remain private. But, the University can, and occasionally does, release the content of students’ e-mails. University Internet Technology Policy allows for the release of e-mails not only when there is a court order, but when there is even a “reasonable suspicion of a violation of law or policy,” as determined by the Vice President for Student and Academic Services. Other IT data, such as browsing history, can be released for similar purposes, subject to the discretion of the Vice President of Internet Technology.

The role of personal privacy in the digital age has yet to be firmly established. While our generation is the beneficiary of the freedom and egalitarianism that the Internet provides, we are also charged with preserving the personal privacy that these technologies threaten. Seemingly every day a new story appears on a social media network mishandling the vast amounts of personal information on its servers. It is vital that we utilize these technologies to their fullest potential without compromising the right to privacy that existed before their inception.

One possible threat to this privacy comes from our government. The Obama administration is currently working to update the nation’s policy for the surveillance of digital communications at the behest of national security officials who argue that their ability to track criminal and terrorist suspects is woefully out of date. As communication increasingly takes place over the Internet rather than telephone wires, the government is having difficulty monitoring emerging security threats. To this end, the Obama administration will soon request that Congress mandate backdoor access for federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept communication that occurs over encrypted networks. This would mean that companies such as Google, Facebook and Research In Motion would have to create backdoor access to Gmail e-mails, Facebook chats and BlackBerry Messenger conversations.

Today’s college students have grown up with technology that was inconceivable when the previous wiretapping legislation was passed. This puts us in a unique position to understand the contours of digital communication and its place in our society. The costs of government overreach are too great for policy to be changed without open, thorough analysis. But if we are to convince policymakers that we need to be consulted, we must pay attention to today’s pressing digital privacy issues.

It is imperative that our generation have a voice in policy formation on these issues of digital privacy. The Obama administration is right to take a fresh look at surveillance in light of new technologies. But leaving the issue to Justice Department lawyers and the Federal Communications Commission without seeking public input — especially from the younger generations that have a stronger reliance on digital communications than administration officials and will immediately feel the impact of any policy changes — invites poor policy.