Mobile Apps and the Privacy Debate

It’s hard to imagine Al Gore and Ted Cruz ever agreeing on anything, but when it comes to blanket government surveillance of American citizens without probable cause, they’re on precisely the same page.  At issue is an NSA program called PRISM (“Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management”) that bills itself as a “data tool” designed to collect “foreign intelligence.”  According to national security reporter Marc Ambinder, however, “PRISM is a kick-ass GUI that allows an analyst to look at, collate, monitor, and cross-check different data types provided to the NSA from Internet companies located inside the United States.”

It’s not supposed to be used against U.S. citizens – not “intentionally,” at any rate – but perhaps what’s most surprising about all this is how unsurprised most of us are to find out about it.  Most of the internet didn’t even seem to care.  And should they?  We volunteer insane amounts of personal information on social media, retailers know you’re pregnant before your parents do, and if you think nothing is scanning your e-mails for content, just take a look at the ads in the margins.  We’ll wait.

Is there any way to avoid this federally sanctioned peeping?  We know our e-mails and phone calls are fair game, but what about messaging apps?  The Huffington Post reports that apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, and Tango are “not immune” to government scrutiny, but there’s a key point here that makes all the difference.  For the most part, these services only turn over information when presented with a court order that spells out specific justifications, which is a significantly more tedious process than is pure data mining.

The same goes for privacy apps like Burner and Vumber.  While such apps can secure user-to-user data, both companies say they’ll turn over the records to the government “if subpoenaed.”  A subpoena takes time, money, manpower, and justification, none of which is true of a data dump.

It’s possible that these latest revelations – which really aren’t anything new – might lead to an arms race between snoops and encryptors that will lead to more sophisticated privacy apps and more sophisticated spying tools.  In the meantime, however, the best thing you can do is read (and understand) the privacy policies of everything you’ve signed up for or, failing that, buy a lot of postage stamps.

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