OGDEN -- Should the United States government have the right to collect electronic data about individuals, saying it's vital to the anti-terrorism effort? Or do citizens have a right to high-tech privacy, especially in the absence of proof that terrorism is being curbed?
On Thursday at Weber State University, most panelists on the Taboo Talks board on "The Ethics of Hacking" strongly preferred the government stay out of their private business.
"The constitutional protections we have are the right to be left alone," said WSU political science assistant professor Gary Johnson. "What goes on between our ears is our own damn business. These kinds of arguments are a rationalization of the state. You're measuring things that didn't happen. I get to think for myself, what I read and I watch is my own business."
Much of the panel's discussion concerned information leaked this spring by "whistle blower" Edward Snowden, who was subsequently charged with espionage. Snowden, a former CIA and NSA employee, leaked data on programs including the U.S. government's covert mass surveillance project, fueled by intercepting corporate phone and Internet records on individual accounts. The Patriot Act, signed in 2001, allows for wiretaps, surveillance and searches of business records deemed relevant to protecting national security.
Johnson said he sees no proof that the surveillance program did any good in the fight against terrorists. What the program did do was collect information on nonterrorist citizens who had reason to believe their choice of television shows, websites and phone call recipients would be private.
"At the local level we do have this ethical standard of government and sunshine, that sunshine is a good antiseptic, and government should be transparent," Johnson said. "We should know what they're doing with this information. Whether its going to help us with the war on terror, or whether its going to help criminals, these are subsidiary arguments to the basic argument, which is we need to know what government is doing and why it's doing it.
"There needs to be a constitutionally grounded explanation of what they are doing with that information and why they are gathering it, whether it's on a suspected al-Qaida member or Joe Blow. We have no degrees of citizenship."
Johnson said the Constitution never defines privacy, and the drafters never could have predicted a world in which thousands of documents could be improperly accessed and hauled off in a laptop.
Panelists said interpreting law is a function of the courts, but noted that Supreme Court judges tend to be old and presumably far less knowledgeable about modern technology than are its young users. On top of that, courts tend to move slowly, and technology evolves quickly. A specific technology could be obsolete before a court ruling could define its appropriate and legal use.
An audience member asked how we could ever know what the government is doing covertly, and suggested there was no way to fight secret programs.
"Passivity is what leads to problems in the first place," said panelist Tyler Gleave, a Weber State computer science student. "You can't trust government sources, because they alone stand with the most to gain."
Gleave said he could envision a scenario in which a petty government official could use collected information to hurt an individual, perhaps a noisy neighbor or a high school rival. The victim could lose a job or be put in jail based on accusations that would arise after a visit to a suspect website or a phone call to a friend under government suspicion.
Panelist Jason Goltz, a Westminster College ethics professor, called for computer users to create a self-imposed honor code. Goltz seemed the least upset at the thought of governmental information collecting. Goltz said anyone who was treated unfairly could take his or her story to the media.
"The media is a very efficient institution, and I think that if somebody was going to put you away in prison for no reason at all, just on their personal whim, I think it would get out."
Johnson pointed out that the U.S. government has restricted personal freedoms before.
"In 1942, F.D.R., by executive order, imprisoned 100,000 Americans of Japanese American descent, all of whom were American citizens, and put them in jail without any due process of law because they lived in California and they might help the Japanese invade. It was wrong then. It's wrong now."
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.