Learning from the Mob

The time has come to restrict all communications to face-to-face mumbling, preferably standing next to a waterfall and only during hurricane force winds.  It appears we have a thing or two to learn from the Mafia about protecting our communications.

Even the shallowest of dips into the subject of electronic privacy (its absence) is enough to shake us to the core.  When the question of what the government can or cannot access without telling you came up in recent conversation, we were stumped but suspected that there were new dangers  to our personal privacy of which we were unaware.  It was only a short step from there to consider what the government can and can’t find out about the activities and locations of our executives and other employees without asking permission.  What we discovered suggests that there are unforeseen reputational risks to electronic surveillance that have yet to be explored.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) lays out the current state of play on a platform it calls The Surveillance Self-Defense Project .  The project not only makes a compelling case for routine legal encryption but also highlights the capriciousness of the government’s position on some key privacy issues as well as the arbitrary nature of privacy regulations governing different kinds of messaging and different carriers.

As we expected, the government has to comply with a rising level of disclosure and burden of proof as it seeks deeper content, but these vary in some strange ways.  The government’s interpretation of  The Stored Communications Act, according to EFF, for example, is that logs of searches on search engines have no protection at all.  Furthermore, even though the act offers strong protection to content “in electronic storage” the government has a curiously restricted notion of what that means.  Thus, again according to EFF, “The government doesn’t consider already-read or opened incoming communications to be in electronic storage (for example, emails in your inbox that you’ve already looked at, or voice mails in your voicemail account that you’ve saved after listening). Nor does the government consider messages in your sent box or messages in your drafts box to be in ‘electronic storage.'”

With the rising tide of GPS-enabled devices and platforms, concerns about location privacy and the rules governing it suggest that we should be undertaking a constant review of reputational threats presented by Internet-based technologies.  The satirical website Please Rob Me launched earlier this year made fun of those of us determined to let the world know by GPS when we weren’t home. The Surveillance Self-Defense Project suggests that we have many more issues to worry about.  Let’s meet by the fence next to Runway 4.

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