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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: After secrecy of PRISM, why bother with 'privacy policy' notices?

Uploaded: Jun 30, 2013

The other day I received a large pull-open mailer from my cell-phone provider, Verizon Wireless, labeled "Important Privacy Information." It was about "How Verizon Uses Information" and its Customer Proprietary Network.

In the context of disclosures about federal scanning of everyone's Internet and phone usage, I chuckled at its irony and almost tossed it away. On careful reading, I found it was warning me that if I didn't want to be part of its CPN I needed to notify Verizon within 30 days, after which I would be receiving materials from Verizon and firms related in some way to Verizon.

I had just finished watching a news update and reading a Time magazine piece on Edward Snowden's disclosures of deep-secret information about how the National Security Agency is compiling information on virtually every individual and business in America.

This subject is of some personal interest, as I handled media coordination for the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy, known as CFP1, held in Burlingame in 1991. I also was involved with several subsequent conferences in between stints as a full-time journalist. The conference, chaired by Jim Warren, then of Woodside, brought together an astoundingly broad range of perspectives, from a privacy zealot from Australia, youthful hackers/crackers and law-enforcement officials to representatives of the FBI, Secret Service and even CIA.

The multi-day conference spawned multiple dialogues involving people who rarely if ever had contact with each other, outside of some adversarial brushes from an institutional distance. One then infamous cracker (an illegal hacker), John Draper (aka "Captain Crunch") at lunchtime beckoned Warren and me over to his hotel-restaurant table to introduce us to "my arresting officer, and prosecutor."

The Australian privacy advocate warned that the foundations of our freedoms were being "white-anted" -- a term that stopped me cold when I was transcribing his comments for what became a book on the topic. The book, still online, became one of the first textbooks for college courses on the new subject. After repeated emails, I learned that "white ants" was an Aussie term for termites.

Another prophetic image emerged from a subsequent CFP conference planning session, when I relayed to conference Chair Bruce Koball and others a comment from a friend: "I'm not interested in computers!"

"Well, she may not be interested in computers, but there are a lot of computers interested in her," Koball instantly replied. A variant, "You may not be interested in computers but there are a lot of computers interested in you," became the motto of that conference. I still have a T-shirt with a keyhole-and-eyeball logo over the motto.

After two decades, the shirt is badly faded and frayed.

But not as faded and frayed as Americans' privacy rights, I fear. One of the early organizers of the CFP conferences concluded when asked a few years back that the battle for any meaningful privacy has been lost, forever lost, stamped out like many ill-equipped resistance movements of years, even centuries, past.

In the face of highly focused, well-funded interest groups -- the marketing industry, law-enforcement, national security in the vanguard of an army of lobbyists -- we've been truly white-anted in the privacy front.

The intensity of focus never materialized on the pro-privacy side on a scale to mobilize the termite inspectors and exterminators. The "opt-out" policy in Verizon's mailer won the debate over opt-in/opt-out that was a hot topic in the early 1990s. In virtually every aspect of our lives, our data tracks are being monitored and utilized in unimaginably complex ways.

But the PRISM program is so vast, so secret, so pervasive of everyone who uses telephones or the Internet that it is staggering. Under the mantel of tracking terrorists and saving lives, anything is permissible, it seems -- even to abridging the historical constitutional right to associate and assemble. As the Arab Spring has shown, online is today's assembly hall, or living rooms of early Christians with fish marks on their doors.

We may have more to learn about Snowden's motives or intent in taking the federal contract position. I am not in any way defending him or his actions.

But it is increasingly clear that the international manhunt is rapidly supplanting news coverage of the extremes of PRISM itself. Snowden is now painted as the one damaging U.S. relations around the world -- not the secret spy program itself under which innocent millions are being scanned with questionable supervision and unknown guidelines.

For the national media, which tends toward "pack journalism" anyway, it is far simpler to cover an exciting manhunt and bad-guy story than to probe the details buried in piles of documents.

But there's still the bottom line reality: There are a lot of computers interested in all of us -- and vastly more of them today.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He writes regular print columns for the Weekly in addition to his Town Square blogs.