Internet Privacy Discussion Panel

With technology evolving at a rate the Bill of Rights authors could not have fathomed, can Americans really expect a right to online privacy? Should we fight for our privacy? Or wait for aged Supreme Court justices to rule on technology they may not understand? Or should we give up the quest for personal privacy and work for more transparency from the government agencies and corporations collecting our personal data?

Those were among questions debated at a recent panel discussion sponsored by Weber State University's Technology Outreach Center. The center's codirector, Luke Fernandez, moderated the four-person panel.

"Is Internet spying reaching levels of complexity never seen before?" asked Gary Johnson, WSU political science associate professor. "The answer is unequivocally yes. And we have a Bill of Rights protecting us from privacy invasions."

Eric Swedin, History Department associate professor, said data collection by the National Security Agency is legal under the revised Patriot Act.

"Digital privacy is an illusion," he said, adding that business marketers have been collecting data on Internet users' preferences for years.

"Government and corporations should be forced to reveal what information they are collecting and what they are doing with it. We need more transparency."

John M. Mejia, American Civil Liberties Union of Utah legal director, pointed out the ACLU filed a suit questioning the legality of collecting metadata from Internet and cellphone users in the United States.

"The NSA's role is to collect data outside the USA," Mejia said. "You need suspicion for a warrant to collect information, and you cannot issue a warrant for the entire population of the United States."

"They can until the Supreme Court agrees with you," Swedin said.

Mejia said the process of getting government to change a law is very slow.

"The Supreme Court has not ruled on emails yet," Johnson said with a laugh. "The government is miles and miles behind what is happening in society. We also have a problem of our judicial members being a generation or two behind."

He said several justices have never had email accounts.

"What society considers reasonable shapes the law," Mejia said, adding that the amount of "selfie" pictures and personal information "you young kids" post on social media is changing societal perceptions about what information is private.

Johnson said he has seen that trend.

"Younger generations seem less concerned over privacy issues than older generations," he said.

Julie Park, a former WSU privacy officer who now works for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said perceptions of what defines privacy also differ between geographical areas.

"American people don't want private information used in a way that will harm them, versus Europeans that don't want their information collected for any reason," said Park, who noted she was speaking for herself and not her employer.

She said some government information has to be kept secret to achieve national security.

"The question is, how much privacy you are willing to give up?"

Swedin agreed that America must accept reasonable levels of danger if it wants privacy.

"After 9/11, expectations of zero attacks were unrealistic," he said. "The NSA acted like a big vacuum cleaner and grabbed too much data, damaging companies. And there is no evidence it was able to use the data to prevent terrorist attacks."

Johnson said the online privacy issue should spark societywide discussions. Deep data collection on individuals gives too much power to nonelected officials, he said.

Asked why individuals should care about data collection if they aren't doing anything criminal, Johnson said the collection could have a chilling effect.

"Government has the power to squash independent thought. Independent thought is critical to the American way of thinking."

Mejia agrees.

"A lot of stuff you are doing may seem innocent, but there are a lot of laws and statutes out there you may not be aware of," he said.

"We should always be concerned with privacy."

Originally written by Nancy Van Valkenburg of Standard-Examiner