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Living in a Big Brother world

May 16, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
I don't much like the idea of living in a Big Brother world, where the government can subpoena phone records with impunity. As a reporter it is even more disconcerting that the Department of Justice has so little regard for freedom of the press that it could subpoena hundreds of personal and business phone records for reporters at the Associated Press.

For that reason, Congress badly needs to pass laws that will protect our privacy in the Internet age. It should also quickly pass a law that strengthens a reporter's right to protect his anonymous sources.

"Wired" ran an essay this week discussing the lengths that a government "Deep Throat" would have to go to in 2013 to leak information to a reporter. Email probably won't do it, since former CIA head David Petraeus got caught via incriminating emails sent to his mistress. The FBI can subpoena your phone records, for both land-line and cell phone. A cell phone acts like a GPS unit, tracking your every location. They can subpoena your e-mail messages and when and where the accounts were accessed. They can access your Internet search history and what sites you visited. Your computer records every move you make.

The Wired article has several suggestions for how Deep Throat might communicate with a reporter, none of them absolutely fool proof. You could always buy a cheap laptop computer or pre-paid cell phone and use them only to communicate with the reporter from an anonymous location with a WiFi connection. Even there, cloak and dagger stuff requires extra precautions: leave every other electronic device that could connect to WiFi behind, since they can pinpoint your location with great accuracy. Pay cash for everything. Open up a gmail account that you use only to communicate with the reporter. Oh, and make sure you remove the battery from that burner phone and turn it off.

Of course, Deep Throat can also use snail mail to contact his source, which might be the smartest option. Or, he could do as Jethro Gibbs did in this week's season finale of NCIS and take his source out to his cabin in the woods, a place that has no WiFi connections and is so remote it doesn't appear on any map.

Depressing, isn't it? And apparently the government thinks it should be even easier to track our every move on the Internet. The Washington Times reported last month on a proposal under consideration that would let the government levy hefty fines against Google, Facebook and other companies that refuse to comply with online wiretap orders. Privacy advocates will howl, as well they should, if such a law ever comes to pass. The rest of us should be howling this week too.


Article Comments



May-17-13 8:41 AM

Since that isn't going to be happening, the other option is to pass laws that prevent the government from abusing its power.


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