- - Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Freedom, among other good things, is the right to be left in peace. But with privacy under assault, it’s a right frequently and eagerly trampled. With many of their personal transactions conducted online, Americans are learning that their private business is being vacuumed up without their knowledge. When security breaches occur, victims appeal for government protections only to discover that the feds are spying on them, too. Strong legal barriers to intrusive behavior are urgently needed against prying eyes and ears.

Yahoo is the most recent technology mega-firm exposed as failing to guard the personal information of its customers. The company, headquartered in Silicon Valley and best known for its web portal and search engine, sheepishly informed customers last month that 500 million Yahoo accounts had been hacked.

Most damaging to the customers is the record haul of passwords taken by the thieves, which are even now being run at the speed of light through computer banks at banks, credit card companies and other commercial sites in search of hits that give hackers access to the financial records of Yahoo customers.

Naturally, the company took responsibility to rapidly notify account holders of the vulnerability. Umm, well, not exactly. The breach occurred nearly two years ago. Yahoo looked after itself first, offering customers only slow-motion cybersecurity. Similar break-ins exposing hundreds of millions of accounts have occurred in recent years at retailers such as Target and even tens of millions of employee records at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. About the only Americans who haven’t been burglarized are those living off the grid in the backwoods, preparing for doomsday.

Insult is added to injury with the revelation that Yahoo designed a software program last year to enable U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct searches of its customers’ incoming emails. “Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company tells the news agency Reuters. Apple, on the other hand, put up a celebrated fight early this year when the FBI demanded the key to unlock an iPhone used by the San Bernardino terrorists. When the U.S. government appeals to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a court order granting a sweeping request for cyberspying, the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures is effectively erased from the Constitution. Some privacy.

No one likes to ‘fess up when he screws up. That’s why both Democrats and Republicans in Congress must pass legislation that lays out the requirements for cybersecurity to protect Americans from both hackers and the federal government, and mandate when and how customers are told when the systems fail, as fail they eventually will.

The interests of consumers, financial services providers, retailers and law enforcement intersect over how to keep the internet safe, making it difficult to enact effective laws. But Congress must find a way to do it. October is Cyber Security Awareness Month, so now would be a good time to get serious about it.

Losses from cybercrime climbed from $100 billion in 2013 to $400 billion last year, and are forecast to surpass $2 trillion by 2019. “The cloud” is an unlimited storehouse of valuables in the 21st century. Businesses like Yahoo, entrusted with taking care of the valuables, must bar the door against not only criminals but against nosy governments as well. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis got it right about privacy. “The right to be left alone” he said, “is the right most valued by civilized men.”

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