They’re Reading Your E-Mail: Court Upholds Snooping.

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On ComputerWorld.com, we read:

In a decision that could have broad privacy implications, a federal court in New York Thursday ordered Microsoft to comply with a U.S. government demand for a customer’s emails stored on a company server in Dublin, Ireland. The decision upholds an earlier magistrate court decision.

Microsoft’s closely watched dispute with the government stems from a search warrant in December for one of its customer’s emails. The government claimed it needed the information in connection with a narcotics investigation.

Microsoft refused to comply, arguing that the government cannot force U.S. tech companies to hand over customer data stored exclusively in overseas data centers…

The dispute comes at a time when U.S. cloud service providers are fighting to reassure overseas clients that their data is safe from government access.

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s data surveillance activities have stoked widespread fears overseas about the safety of corporate data in the hands of U.S. cloud service providers.

Microsoft intends to appeal the decision. I doubt that will get anywhere. I don’t think the appeals court will rule differently. Regardless, we can be sure of this: the Federal Government is going to do this with every other cloud-based e-mail service. Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, you name it, they’ll sift through it.

E-mail services are not alone in being targeted. Twitter has publicly complained of being harassed by the government to release information about users. The interesting part: the Feds demand that Twitter not release information on how many requests the government has made. So not only do the Feds want to snoop on Twitter users, but they also demand Twitter keep it’s users in the dark about these incursions.

Here is my basic thesis: The US Government can read / snoop / eavesdrop on any electronic communication that it wants, at any time. They might not actually have quite this extensive of capability to snoop on every electronic communication. In fact, they probably don’t. But my basic assumption is that if it’s an electronic communication, the NSA can see it. The won’t have to get a court order to get to it, either. If the NSA wants to dig something out of your e-mail, they’re going to do it, search warrant or not.

The NSA is not afraid of penalties. The Snowden leaks have demonstrated this. Many Americans are indignant at what has been revealed, but nobody has called for serious change. Hardly anyone is protesting. Only a few Congressmen have actually gone to bat against the snooping programs since the Snowden revelations. This has signaled to the NSA that it can do whatever it wants, and nobody is going to to do anything about it. Congress could stop the NSA by cutting their budget, but this won’t happen. There is no pressure on Congress. So the NSA will continue on it’s merry way.

The main problem facing the federal government in this area is that they have millions, maybe billions, of communications to sift through, while they have only a few thousand humans at best to work within the process. Data collection is heavily computerized, and the cost of obtaining this data is practically nil; but data analysis still requires a human worker being paid a full-time salary, which is expensive. While their computers can collect millions upon millions of e-mails every day, these computers cannot actually impute relevance into these communications. The best they can do is what basically amounts to keyword searches. At some point in the process, a human has to examine the communication to assess it’s relevance. This what most severely limits an agency like the NSA.

The main threat to liberty and privacy is if the federal government gains computer programs that can impute relevance into communications. I’m not sure it’s possible; but maybe it is. If the cost of assessing relevance also goes to practically nil, then you can be sure that the cost of privacy is going to rise significantly. Defending your privacy will become a luxury good.

If the computers can impute relevance into communications, all they’ll have to do is ping your local police to come knock on your door should you be perceived as a threat. If the threat is considered dire enough, they’ll ping your local SWAT team to bust down your door.

Some people might object to this as alarmist scaremongering. After all, most of us have nothing to hide, so what’s the harm? “Let the Feds use snooping,” they say, “to catch Islamic terrorists in the USA.” It’s true that most of us have nothing significant to hide. If I knew the Feds were digging through my e-mail, I would be annoyed, but not scared. I have nothing to hide. While the Feds say they want to snoop only to catch terrorists and organized crime figures now, how do we know that won’t change in the future? What might they decide to start looking for at some point?

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