Life, liberty and the pursuit of privacy

by Anthony Berteaux, Staff Columnist

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For those of us who grew up in the American education system, we have all been engrained with the idea that American citizens have the unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our Founding Fathers called it a right granted to us by our “Creator” and justly enforced by governing organizations. It’s this very idea that has supposedly sustained the ideal American lifestyle engrained toward freedom and justice for all.

However, what constitutes as a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can get muddled as age-old documents struggle to remain relevant in our rapidly advancing information age.”

Living in the infancy of the Internet Age has brought on much debate about whether or not our right to privacy includes protection for what we do online. The exponential advancement of technology in the past three decades, from the internet to all-knowing smart phones, has made our thoughts, ideas and personal lives so profoundly transactional online that it becomes difficult to conceptualize a concrete definition of privacy and individual privacy rights.

To some, privacy is an individual right—a right that becomes forfeited when personal information is disclosed on the web. To others, privacy is a collective right granted to all regardless of how you use information services.

Up until very recently, most Americans have lived under the illusion that our right to privacy was being collectively protected under the Bill of Rights, enforced by our justice system. Understandably, our interactions with technology also seem protected by Amendments in the Bill of Rights.

The First, Third, Fourth, Ninth and 14th Amendments all touch on our intrinsic right to the privacy of our beliefs, home, persons and possessions. However, what we need to realize is privacy as an idea is changing in the face of technological advancement. Our ignorance to this ever-changing nature of privacy has led to the illusion that we are all granted the right to control our private lives.

This illusion was shattered on June 5, 2013 when Edward Snowden released documents that revealed that the National Security Agency was behind a series of mass-surveillance programs that infiltrated the general public’s phone calls, emails, social networks, personal messages, texts, search history and any other type of information associated with online identity.

This was merely the tip of the iceberg as programs such as Prism revealed the NSA was in works with major tech companies, such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook, to maintain surveillance of the public without a warrant or permission. The violator of our privacy wasn’t a con man stealing our credit card number, it was the very organization that was supposed to protect our right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These programs were activated to ensure security for our country and detect acts of terrorism before they happened. As we see the NSA cooperating with corporations such as Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, it becomes clear privacy rights are becoming less about privacy itself and more about control of information.

A country where citizens live in fear of communicating a potentially anti-American message is not a country that exercises freedom of speech. The NSA’s invasion of privacy is about control. It establishes control in an area where we are supposed to exercise freedom.

We do have a right to privacy to our computers, phones and emails, regardless of whether we live in the U.S..

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The point isn’t whether the information gathered by the government is relevant to criminal behavior. The point is it’s being gathered without disclosure and without permission.

The common excuse among those who are indifferent toward the NSA surveillance is, “I don’t have anything to hide.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything to hide and it doesn’t matter if you’re a two-year-old. Bottom line is, you’re being victimized by having your emails read and phone calls listened to without a warrant or your permission. It gives way for the government to chip away at other basic human rights. It gives way for us to be treated as less than human.

This isn’t the first time our privacy rights were infringed for the sake of security. In the heat of the civil rights movement during the 1970s, eight ordinary citizens stole FBI files that revealed a covert FBI-sponsored mass-surveillance program known as COINTELPRO. The program was tasked with spying on African Americans and human advocate groups, especially those who advocated for African-American rights. The FBI routinely checked the mail of their targets and phone calls. Sound familiar? A memo to one of these human advocate groups allegedly said, “Neutralize them in the same manner they are trying to neutralize and destroy the U.S.”

Once upon a time, simply being black was enough reason to be spied on. Today, being online is enough reason to be spied on. The question of whether or not we need to stand up for our privacy rights isn’t even a question, but it’s a statement that has an eerie historical resonance.

Whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden speak up for a reason. History repeats itself and those of us living in the information age have a chance to stop injustice and truly fight for a right for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The question I have to ask is this: will you heed Snowden’s call now or later?

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