On the backdrop of the recent celebrity private photo leak, the debate on Internet privacy and personal information secrecy heated up again. The concern for privacy on the Internet originated from the beginning of computer networking. However, the definition of Internet privacy is not so straightforward. Basically, Internet privacy can be of two forms. One form is called “Personally Identifying Information (PII)” and the other form is called non-PII information. In case of PII, personal identifying information such as, age, gender, name, phone number, email address, etc. are considered as private information. In terms of non-PII, users’ website visiting information, tracking, cookies, etc., which do not directly disclose their personal information are collected. These PII and non-PII information can be easily hunt down using modern online tracking software. Experts also argued that privacy no longer exists, “Privacy is dead”. Some also suggested that the attraction of online services is to deliberately broadcast personal information on purpose.
The issue became controversial when National Security Agency (NSA) was empowered with warrantless surveillance after the deadly 9/11 attack. Under this program, NSA was authorized by executive order to monitor the phone calls, Internet activity, text messaging, and other communication involving any party believed by the NSA to be outside the U.S., even if the other end of the communication lies within the U.S. Critics, however, claimed that the program was in an effort to silence critics of the then Bush Administration and its handling of several controversial issues during its tenure. Under serious criticism from publics and activist groups, the Bush administration purportedly terminated the warrantless “tapping” program in January 2007 and returned review of surveillance to the court. In 2008, Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which relaxed some of the original FISA court requirements.
After the terrorist attack of 9/11, the debate on privacy and national security was highlighted again. A group of activists strongly criticized the surveillance programs undertaken by NSA, CIA and other government agencies, whereas other group of people supported these programs on the ground that these surveillance programs are actually keeping ourselves safe from terrorists and online criminals. International security expert John Mueller argued that the immediate fear and anger generated after the 9/11 attacks allowed the construction of a surveillance system that has remained mostly hidden from public scrutiny and public opinion. In his research, Mueller has calculated the increased cost of domestic security operations at more than $1 trillion since Sept. 11, with little scrutiny, oversight or evaluation to determine whether they’re actually making Americans safer. Mueller said that surveillance is needed for national security. But there should be an acceptable balance among surveillance, transparency, and privacy. The latest celebrity nude photo hacking attracted much attention form the Internet privacy activists and the general publics. About five weeks ago, a group of unidentified hackers leaked thousands of nude and intimate photos of more than hundred celebrities. These photos were allegedly hacked from the celebrities’ iCloud accounts. However, Apple denied the attack and claimed that iCloud is safe if you use “strong password”. Nevertheless, this major event generated huge anger and fear among celebrities and the general people, pointing out the fact that nobody’s personal information is safe on the Internet. Furthermore, privacy advocates strongly criticized government surveillance agencies for their incompetence on finding out the criminals. These agencies are accused of secretly spying on public information, but they are unable to finding the groups behind this massive hacking, even after a month. Tech giant Google is also on the brink of facing a law suit for not taking actions to remove those hacked private photos from their database. Recent report revealed that these leaked photos with thousands of unpublished celebrity photos are being sold in the online marketplace.
National security and public safety are the issues that should not be compromised under any circumstances. Nonetheless, exaggerated surveillance efforts on the public without their concern is also not accepted in the modern society. Beside these surveillance programs, government agencies should be also strong enough in preventing cybercrime and Internet privacy theft. Recent massive photo hack showed that our information is not safe online. It is also not an issue of “leaking” or “scandal’, rather it is a “sex crime”, as mentioned by Oscar winner actress Jennifer Lawrence, who is also one of the victims of that event. It is always hard to find a perfect balance between security and privacy but strong law can make it happen in the future. Government agencies are responsible for maintaining such balance and bringing back public trust on their surveillance programs.
BONUS: 5 tips for staying safe on the web