It’s often said that privacy is dead. Indeed, most of us don’t think much about privacy anymore as we opt for convenience. But recent events suggest that the loss of privacy can have dire implications for all of us. Particularly since the government and others have the ability to know everything, and I mean everything about us.
I have written before about the potential ability of law enforcement, prosecutors, and others to obtain highly personal information about you. And about what you are doing. Indeed a recent unconfirmed report out of Nebraska suggests that that is precisely what is starting to happen.
According to a Lincoln, Nebraska news report and Forbes article, a teenager and her mother were recently arrested and charged with allegedly removing, concealing, and abandoning a dead human body and concealing the death of another person. The arrest occurred after the Norfolk Police Department received a tip claiming the teenager had miscarried in April at 23 weeks of pregnancy and secretly buried the fetus with her mother’s help. The 17 year old is being charged as an adult.
A week after the two were charged, the detective in charge of the case had the bright idea to get and serve a search warrant on Facebook. The warrant sought access to the mother’s and daughter’s accounts. While Facebook could have perhaps challenged the warrant, it instead turned over the direct messages (and presumably public posts) between the mother and the teenager.
The detective discovered messages that suggested the mother had obtained abortion pills for her daughter and gave her instructions on how to take them.
A month later, the prosecuting attorney added two more felonies to the charges against the mother based on the Facebook evidence for performing or attempting an abortion on a pregnancy at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor.
It’s sad when a teenager is being charged with crimes like this. But what’s really scary now is where all this is leading.
Think about all the places private companies collect information about you. Amazon and Alexis know your conversations. Your cell phone provider knows where you are at all times. Your Nest doorbell knows everyone who comes to your door. Your web browser knows where you search on the web. Your car knows where you have been and keeps a record. Think about all the IoT devices you own, all of which are collecting data and providing it to a third party to do with it as they will.
A few weeks ago, on our LegalTech weekly journalist roundtable, we discussed the possibility that you could be stopped at the state lines and asked where you have been or where you are going. And why. But that may not be necessary: there are ample digital records showing that already. And the companies holding those records can’t necessarily be counted on to keep them private or even tell you when your information is being revealed.
I never do anything wrong, so why should I care
You say I never do anything wrong, so why should I care. What if your data was used say to question your right to vote? What if nongovernment entities could use your records to deny you health coverage or employment? Car insurance? A loan. (Donald Trump reportedly once said if you haven’t done anything wrong you don’t need the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Even he has apparently rethought that recently and sees some value in protection against government intrusion).
Far-fetched? Hardly. If Facebook (sorry, I mean Meta) will willy-nilly turn over information to the government, think what it might do with data that someone (like an insurance company) might pay for. And given the rate at which tech companies are acquiring other businesses, the ability for data to be shared among co-owned companies is real.
And this is not to mention the possibility of data breaches and the sale of purloined data that could be used for other purposes. And, of course, there is always the possibility that places you have been and things you have done online could be misconstrued. How many of us have clicked on something by mistake? But that mistake could now lead to an arrest warrant.
The book 1984 was set in a police state where the government knew everything the characters said and did. What we have is pretty close. We have turned over almost all our secrets to private companies who may be only too happy to share them with others and the government. And we did it without a whimper.
Big Brother is not only always watching, we don’t even understand that he is.
What’s even scarier: I’m pretty sure the Nebraska mother and daughter never thought that their Facebook direct messages between each other could be publicly revealed. We every day give away our secrets without really appreciating that we are also giving away our secrets. Big Brother is not only always watching, we don’t even understand that he is.
There is little real protection. The implications for privacy and the use of data for all sorts of purposes are real. Oh, and for those who still say, I live a spotless life, so I don’t care. I would ask you whether you would like to turn over your cell phone and all your emails to me to peruse and then report on. Is that ok?
Just ask Alex Jones.