Expert addresses threat to privacy in light of digital culture


Private industries are collecting information from citizens at a rate that outpaces privacy laws, believes Katherine Stern. 

Stern, senior counsel at the Constitution Project’s Rule of Law Program, said as of 2014, one third of the world is online and that number could rise to two thirds by 2020.

Alec Walen, undergraduate director of the Program in Criminal Justice at Rutgers,introduced Stern, who spoke yesterday at an event, entitled “C.J. Colloquium: Secure in our Persons, Houses, Papers, and Effects: Rebooting the Fourth Amendment for the Digital Age.” 

Constitution Project’s Rule of Law Program helps find solutions to the most difficult modern constitutional challenges.

The event, which took place at the Livingston Student Center, was sponsored by the Program in Criminal Justice and the Evangelides Fund of the Department of Political Science.

“What are the implications of this digital culture?” Stern asked. “In the context of privacy, who owns people’s personal information?”

Along with government surveillance, including GPS tracking, fingerprint and voice recognition, smart dust and surveillance drones, the private industry collects “personally identifiable information” to target consumers.

Smart dust, according to CNN.com, are tiny sensors that would monitor everything on Earth.

“We want to know what you want before you know you want it,” Stern said, quoting a Google representative.

She said people click “accept” all the time without knowing what they are agreeing to, which leads to this superficial feeling of notice and consent.

Stern spoke about the National Security Agency’s telephone records program, questioning whether or not the government should continue collecting people’s telephone metadata. 

“Say you were running for office and the government for some reason somebody wanted to expose the fact that you called a suicide hotline several time in the last year, that would absolutely end your campaign,” she said.

These are the types of things to worry about when the government is allowed to collect intimate, daily conversations and have the freedom to analyze these conversations.

U.S.  President Barack Obama spoke about this on Jan. 17 and said he was willing to give up the bulk collection program without blocking the NSA or the FBI from accessing the information they need.

She questioned the government’s motive for being so willing to give up this program. She suggested that maybe doing so is the best option so that they can keep collecting other data that people still do not know they are collecting.

Walen said Stern addressed whether reports of the “death of privacy” have been somewhat exaggerated.

Stern posed the question of what the downsides are from moving from one third of the world being online to two thirds, from one-twelfthof our day spent online, to eight-twelfths.

“Is it going to reach a boiling point where it’s starting to feel like we’re all hooked up to machines,” she said.

Addressing the issue of privacy, Stern said what needs to be figured out is how to give individuals the privacy they need.

“Privacy is something that is very diverse and individual, everyone has a different level of need for it,” she said. “Privacy ultimately is about the expression of individuality and of choice.”


By Sabrina Szteinbaum

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