thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Expect the Sarah Palin E-Mail Privacy Act of 2009

As you probably all have read, U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's private email account has been broken into and some of the contents posted at wikileaks (the server seems to be over capacity at the moment, so I save you the link). I won't get into the content of this personal communication, because I agree with Lauren Weinstein that
"we shouldn't be doing to others that which we wouldn't want done to ourselves. Palin's truly personal e-mail and photos have no bearing on the political situation, yet they've been posted along with everything else. There's simply no justifying this from an ethical standpoint."
Of course, for persons running for an important public office, we have different expectations of privacy than for the everage John Doe, but what is going too far is just going too far.

But apart from these ethical considerations, there will be practical consequences of this event, Here, the opinions are very diverse even among the liberal crowd. Lauren Weinstein fears that "this chain of events plays into the hands of the Palin/McCain campaign". I tend to agree more with Paul Ohm that this event may trigger the preparations of a federal email privacy act in the United States. Ohm argues rightfully:
Congress often enacts privacy protecting legislation only in the wake of salient, sensationalized, harmful privacy breaches. Thus, Judge Bork's video rental records begat the Video Privacy Protection Act and the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker with DMV records led, eventually, to the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act.
Similar things also happened last year in Canada, when the mobile phone records of the Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart were obtained by a reporter through data brokers in the U.S.

Paul Ohm goes on with a prediction I would certainly bet something on:
If I am right about this, expect the E-mail Privacy Act of 2009, and expect it to be a blockbuster. If you're an activist, government lawyer, e-mail provider, or scholar with an interest in information privacy, I advise you to start putting together your statutory wish lists.


Anonymous Jeff Porten said...

This would be very nice, but I'd put the odds of this around the same as Barack Obama giving Angela Merkel a backrub. There are too many entrenched forces (corporate and government) with too much invested in the status quo of free-and-easy snooping on private citizens.

Beyond that, you have one of two possibilities in January: Sarah Palin is the new vice president, in which case the storyline of protecting email is contradictory with government moves to surveill; or Sarah Palin is a Wikipedia trivia answer, in which case the breakin story becomes likewise.

The real way to get a backlash is to publicize exactly what the Bush administration has been compiling on citizens in the last eight years, and what's going on in the AT&T and Verizon sniffers. If it comes out that every phone call is at the whim of random bureaucrats and their datamining, and enough Americans are informed yes, yours too, you might see a backlash. But I'm not holding my breath just yet. The narrative of "solid citizens have nothing to hide" is stronger even than the commonsense notion that all of us have something we'd prefer hidden.

19/9/08 10:43


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