Watching the Detectives Has Never Been More Important

Carl Weinschenk

IT departments and engineering staffs at telecommunications companies need to keep abreast of many things. Most of them focus on bits and bytes and other technical issues. However, it also is their responsibility to track, albeit in a more general sense, how the networks and systems under their care are being used.

The technical community never really has been free of responsibility for what their networks do, and the issue is ever-more urgent as the technology gains power. It also becomes more frustrating, since engineers and technical folks have little control over the uses of what they build and maintain.

CNET has an important story about a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing this week that is scheduled to be chaired Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and will consider updating the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The story discusses a proposal to record and store subscribers’ SMS messages. The issue is whether carriers should be required to “capture and store” text messages.

It is a difficult question. On one hand, it is virtually undeniable that information pertaining to terrorist attacks, violent crimes and other horrific events can be found in texts. Just as certainly, the increasing power of technology threatens to render any shred of privacy an anachronism. For instance, suppose Google introduces a function in which what a wearer sees through Google Glass can be stored and/or transmitted to a social networking site. If the government is allowed to tap into those streams, it would be possible to view and store what a user is seeing.


Not all of this is in the future or uses cutting edge technology. Carnegie Mellon University performed a study on trends on Facebook. This is from the abstract of the study, Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook, published last year in the Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality:

First, over time Facebook users in our dataset exhibited increasingly privacy-seeking behavior, progressively decreasing the amount of personal data shared publicly with unconnected profiles in the same network. However, and second, changes implemented by Facebook near the end of the period of time under our observation arrested or in some cases inverted that trend. Third, the amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users revealed privately to other connected profiles actually increased over time and because of that, so did disclosures to "silent listeners" on the network: Facebook itself, third-party apps, and (indirectly) advertisers. These findings highlight the tension between privacy choices as expressions of individual subjective preferences, and the role of the environment in shaping those choices. (Emphasis added)

This is even more chilling than what is before Sensenbrenner’s subcommittee. After all, there is every reason to believe the law enforcement entities are acting in good faith. The question there is whether the legal right to access, assess and store SMS messages someday will be abused. The Carnegie Mellon study raises the possibility that people setting out to protect their privacy are consciously being thwarted by Facebook.

The technology enabling abuse is growing exponentially. At the same time, people capable of digging into these areas are being trained. In a post at Forbes, contributor Jeff Satell quoted Jerry Oglesby, senior director for global academic and certification programs at SAS: 

“Text mining and social media, unstructured data, is the fastest growing source of data,” he said. “The universities have been a little slow to move in the unstructured direction, although now I am beginning to see they are adding courses that cover unstructured data in their programs.”

The challenges of privacy – how to protect it and even what it is in the modern age – are complex. IT and telecommunications departments won’t be able to answer them. They must, however, recognize the important role they play, and be prepared to make difficult choices.



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