Jon Mills is a professor and dean emeritus in the Fredric G. Levin College of Law. Among his many roles, he served as former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and as the founding director of UF’s internationally recognized Center for Governmental Responsibility. He is author of many books, including his latest, Privacy: The Lost Right.
When you find yourself on a dark street in a dangerous area of your city, you probably keep a wary eye out for trouble. Conversely, when you sit in front of your computer screen with a cup of coffee in your home or office, you probably feel completely safe and secure. But wait. We are learning that cyberspace, like any community, has its own mean streets and they aren’t always clearly marked.
Cyberspace — whatever that is — has its own predators, spies, abusers and liars. Like the real world, the online world includes bad people and shady deals. We have recently learned that our government was probably illegally spying on many of us, despite its enormous power to spy on us legally. But as long as you trust the government at all levels, you should have no worries. And, what about all the information we gladly place on the internet about ourselves.
Let’s start with the government. Spying is a well-established function of government and has been for thousands of years. Sometimes it involves finding terrorists or criminals — we like it when that happens. But, there are other times when governmental power has been abused at the expense of its citizens. Remember Richard Nixon’s enemies lists that targeted journalists? How about McCarthyism when professors, actors and others were spied on and politically persecuted? We don’t like it when government bullies its citizens.
It’s interesting to note that government is much better equipped to spy today and has been given more authority to do it under policies such as the PATRIOT Act. Over the past eight or so years, under the very real threat of terrorism, Congress has authorized unprecedented intrusions into the privacy of American citizens, including warrantless searches, secret courts and immunity to companies that provide our confidential information to the government.
Technology has made privacy intrusions much easier to accomplish and more difficult to detect. The lists that required so much time to develop in the Nixon and McCarthy eras are now compiled by a good search engine quickly and without notice. Who subscribes to socialist magazines? Who contributed to liberal causes? Who attends meetings of the ACLU? This information is instantly available. Today’s spies are software geeks, not guys in dark shades.
Beyond government spies, some of the greatest privacy violations are facilitated by voluntary disclosures. The recent controversy about Facebook’s treatment of information as theirs is important, but the information willingly shared with others has a substantial potential for damage as well. In a Facebook environment when an individual shares information, even with a limited group, what expectation of privacy is there really? What if that shared information is forwarded to others? Realistically, once information is shared on the Internet, it’s no longer private, like it or not. Your information, once you put it out there, may be forwarded to others who may not be as discreet with it as you would want. When a prospective employer slides a MySpace or Facebook picture across the desk to you, you may not have known it was available or that it had even been taken. In addition to shared information getting away from the user, many Facebook users don’t set their profiles to private, leaving them open to viewing by anyone, friend or foe. And, there are websites devoted to digging up information from social websites. Spokeo.com says it “will find every little thing your friend (or enemy, as the case may be) has said, done and posted on the internet. Nothing is secret…”. We are also subject to instant searches of all public information related to each of us. Zabasearch is committed to making that information available. Zaba CEO Nick Matzorkis says public information online is “a 21st century reality with or without ZabaSearch.” The amount of individual information publicly available is staggering.
We need to be aware of that reality and not think of cyberspace as a pure and wonderful new world. Because when we’re online, we’re wandering a neighborhood that has predators, spies, abusers and liars We need to keep our eyes open for trouble, even when we’re having coffee in our living room while surfing the net.