- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2012

Modern communications are making the world smaller and, in many ways, better. The electronic devices that bring consumers a constant stream of information are, at the same time, increasingly capable of relaying back a record of their activities, shrinking privacy. Americans need to take action if they want to keep Uncle Sam from spying on their smartphones.

Law enforcers are looking for the power to read through everyone’s text messages, the oftentimes frivolous missives Americans launch back and forth among friends and family. A coalition of police groups that includes the Major Cities Chiefs Association has asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine a plan to mandate that Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and other wireless providers save their customers’ texts for two years so the local constable can read through them as desired. The association has characterized the proposal as an attempt to bring the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 in line with 21st-century technological capabilities, according to CNET. Some wireless firms store texts for short periods, while others do not. Presumably, access to text records still would require a court warrant — though the pro-surveillance lobby has been agitating to break down that barrier as well.

Today’s cops certainly need access to high-tech tools to stop the bad guys in a digital age. The problem with forcing service providers to save every text message is that it creates an electronic dragnet. Every texter is treated as a possible suspect, and each message becomes potential evidence. With Americans firing off around 2 trillion texts a year, the storage requirements also would saddle carriers with unwelcome costs. It’s the equivalent of requiring the old-fashioned post office to store a photocopy of every letter dropped in the mail — for your protection.

Another troubling high-tech development could allow outside eyes and ears to zero in on activities inside the home. Verizon is seeking a patent on a detection system that uses infrared cameras and microphones installed in digital video recorders (DVRs) to sense the number of people in a room and the nature of their conversations. The patent, titled Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated With an Ambient Action of a User, would use the information to tailor personalized TV commercials, thereby maximizing chances for subsequent purchases. For example, detection of an “ambient action” such as “cuddling, fighting, participating in a game or sporting event,” according to the patent application, could prompt a related televised sales pitch.

Targeted advertising is the wave of the future as technological advances enable marketers to appeal more accurately to the personal habits of consumers. This is less troubling than the snooping legislation because the free market has a solid track record of killing Orwellian products offered in the private sector. The public wants to watch TV, not be watched by the set-top box. If enough upset consumers switch providers, the message will be heard loud and clear, and the offending hardware will go away.

Because government operates without any market restraints of this sort, the threat to our privacy is greater. Americans need to step up and oppose any attempts to loosen anti-snooping statutes. Freedom is too important to phone in.

The Washington Times

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