Should Tech Companies Give Up Your Data to the FBI?

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Why you should care

In times of turmoil, is it privacy or security — not both? 

OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail with OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving the PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show. Our Third Rail with OZY question this week delves into your rights: Should tech companies give up your data automatically to the FBI? Why or why not? We want to hear what you have to say. Email thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week.

There’s a sense in times of turmoil that you cannot have the best of both worlds: privacy and security. In 2001, less than two months after 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 people, the Patriot Act was signed. One piece of the law enabled enhanced surveillance in the name of defense.

The legislation’s key provisions were extended until 2019, while the government’s roar for more access to terror-stopping tools reportedly has been directed at … tech companies, like Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Google and even Snapchat. Quartz reported that Facebook got a whopping 17,577 requests for user data from U.S. law enforcement over a period of just six months in 2015. And today, some American citizens re-entering the country have been subjected to searches of their cellphones and questions about their social media accounts.

It is not just privacy that’s at stake. In other countries, many rights are threatened when the terror alert rises — just this past month, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for restrictions on the freedom of terrorist suspects in light of the attacks in London and Manchester, noting: “And if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it.” So how do we balance the two? Should tech companies give up your data automatically to the FBI or not?

At OZY, we have extensively covered the subjects of privacy, security and the future of both. Take a peek through our archives for some further digging:

The Lawyer Finishing What Snowden Started

The pendulum has swung back at times toward privacy, thanks in part to Alex Abdo. As a former senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, Abdo made his first appearance in 2012 at the Supreme Court. His side argued against government surveillance on foreign nationals without probable cause. The case was dismissed because they couldn’t prove what the National Security Agency was doing — it was that classified. Snowden’s leak months later, he says, proved his worst fears, and brought his arguments greater legal standing. In the process, Abdo led the ACLU’s support of tech companies like Apple, which resisted court orders to unlock an iPhone in a terrorism investigation, and Microsoft, which wanted the government to notify users when it collects their data. Today, Abdo works at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Is the New Patriot Act Making Us Safer?

OZY’s senior columnist and former CIA chief John McLaughlin weighed in on changes to the Patriot Act back in 2015. His verdict: The new way of doing business, where the NSA would have to take its court orders to the phone companies to get access, would make the jobs of intelligence officers more difficult in what he said was “a dubious bargain” for more privacy. Would having more information actually help? McLaughlin wrote that many government workers in the months after 9/11 were sure that if they had had the abilities the NSA later acquired, they would have been able to identify and apprehend some al-Qaida operatives in the U.S. “In fact, before 9/11, we were hot on the tail of a Middle Eastern telephone number thought to have been associated with al-Qaida. But we had no authority to act,” he wrote.

Detecting and Deflecting Surveillance

As surveillance improves, so does countersurveillance. In 2015, we reported that the video surveillance market was expected to grow to $37.5 billion, up from $11.5 billion in 2008. But as a result, countersurveillance also was growing, fueled by tools once reserved for large-scale military operations or high-level business deals — putting the power of privacy back in the palms of some people. Hidden-camera and wiretap detectors, for example, help provide balance between surveillance and protecting one’s privacy — while offering a big business opportunity.

So, what do you think? Tell us your thoughts below or email thirdrail@ozy.com.

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