January 21, 2014

NSA Debacle Raises Issues of Privacy, Cornell Professor Says

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Amid a climate of controversy regarding the National Surveillance Agency’s methods of data collection, Prof. Stephen Wicker, electrical and computer engineering, says he is concerned about the lack of transparency within the government and the NSA.

NSA activities have been the subject of speculation and highlighted by the press since June 2013, when ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret information on the agency, which revealed a global surveillance system managed by several countries, according to Wicker.

In a speech last Friday, President Barack Obama addressed proposed changes to the program’s procedures.

According to Obama’s address, access of phone records would be shifted from the intelligence agencies and government to other owners, though Wicker said most phone companies already hold the data.

Wicker added that the court cases Smith v. Maryland and ACLU v. Clapper have created precedent to label this phone data as unprotected by the Fourth Amendment.

A proposed change would require prior court approval to access phone records, although in “cases of emergency” the agency would be able to access pertinent data easily, Obama said.

Wicker said that he was concerned about the shift from collecting phone records to collecting metadata — small information gathered from all forms of electronic usage, such as location, page views and user preferences.

“Metadata tells more about your personal preferences, beliefs and actions than the content of your phone calls. The collection of metadata can lead to the chilling of political speech, as well as identity theft and manipulation,” Wicker said.

Wicker noted that cell-phone users can prevent identity theft and manipulation by being more careful with their data.

“We don’t have much control over what the NSA collects, but we certainly can choose apps and service providers that have the better privacy policies,” he said.