From the Editor: Cyberspace Privacy

V. Krishna Kumar

V. Krishna Kumar

Governments, Corporations, Hackers and You

V. Krishna Kumar, PhD

Privacy matters to most people. Despite significant efforts to secure private information, if it is in cyberspace, hackers can hijack and misuse it.  You could also be manipulated in ways that you may not be aware of as Facebook did by conducting an experiment on emotions on their unsuspecting users.  As reported by Yadron, Glazer, and Barrett (2014), “In mid-August, cybercriminals hacked into nearly 1,000 grocery stores around the U.S.” (p. A6).  Recently, the CIA made headlines for spying on computers used by a Senate committee investigating the agency’s interrogation program.  According to Schneier (2014), “By treating the Internet as a giant surveillance platform, the NSA has betrayed the Internet and the world” (p. 096).

Usernames and passwords are the first lines of defense to protect personal information on technological devices.  We are advised to use complex passwords and change them every so often while experts keep developing new password schemes to obtain users’ passwords.  However, Mims (2014) expressed pessimism that security is “an arms race, and if enough people switch to these new schemes, hackers will find their weaknesses” (p. B1).  Hacking can be done remotely or someone could simply walk into your office and insert a USB drive into your computer to download passwords, documents, and user names (Yadron, 2014b).

Fowler (2014) notes that although some companies offer services to secure calls and messages, others offer digital eavesdropping equipment.  Yadron (2014a) mentions a security consultant who can hijack your smartphone and browse through contacts, read text messages, and even install Angry Birds.  It is indeed worrisome when someone calls you using your own phone number.

Weisband and Reining (1995) warned that we “grossly overestimate” (p. 41) that our emails are private in work situations.  Smith (2014), Executive Vice-President for Legal and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, contends that the emails of U.S. tech companies are subject to the same legal protection as personal letters sent by mail and that the government must issue a warrant to obtain them.  But what about your email stored in overseas data centers?  Smith states that the federal government wants them too, but search warrants cannot go beyond the country’s borders.  He further notes that emails stored at overseas data centers are regarded as business records; consequently, they do not have the same legal protection as our personal papers.  The government can obtain business records pertaining to a customer shipping a package, but may not view its contents without a search warrant.  Likewise, the government can ask for a customer’s cellphone records, but requires a search warrant to listen in on the conversation.  According to Smith, Britain passed a law that allows them to obtain emails stored anywhere in the world, including in the U.S., even for those who have never been in the U.K.

The Internet does not forget.  The European Union recently passed the “right to be forgotten” law which requires search engines in the European Union to remove links and/or delete personal information upon request that are “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive” (bolded in original; European Commission Fact Sheet on the Right to be Forgotten Ruling c-131/12).   Per the Fact Sheet, this right “is not absolute but will always need to be balanced against other fundamental rights, such as the freedom of expression and of the media (para 85 of the ruling).”   Leon Watson and Sam Greenhill (MailOnline, July 2, 2014) note that Google will remove data upon request but only after weighing the individual’s privacy rights against the “public’s right to know.”  Thus, it seems that Google is the final “decider” to keep or remove requested data.

Weber (2011) raised an interesting question: Is the “right to be forgotten” a privacy right?  He observes that privacy implies information that is unknown to the public, and deleting a public record makes it private by only making it inaccessible. But, buyers beware deleted information may still be available on a backed-up device or may have been already copied on other websites when it was available.

Clarke (2014) lamented that personal information about “health, location, political views, buying preferences, finances, relationships, and security riskiness” is recorded “hundreds of times a day” (p. R3).  He also notes that we give up personal information knowingly and often unknowingly to many unknown parties.  Unfortunately, despite the popular belief that personal information available on the Internet may be unreliable, people still use it for various purposes, e.g., to deny a job to someone.

Per Clarke, today’s technology can locate us at any moment and by 2040 governments and corporations could easily track our everyday activities.  I suspect that some Internet-savvy individuals could possibly do the same.  The lack of privacy may have such positive consequences as deterring crime (Clark, 2014), but perhaps not for extremists who want to publicize their heinous crimes.  Clark observes that new generations will grow up assuming lack of everyday privacy and that only the affluent will afford privacy, but possibly only in remote vacation locations where no tracking devices have been installed.  Or, perhaps you need to emulate Mahatma Gandhi who lived his life in public without privacy.


Clarke, R. (July 8, 2014).  Say Goodbye to Privacy.  Wall Street Journal 125, Journal Report, p. R3.

Fowler, G. A. (July 2, 2014). Spy Fighter: Dial up the privacy on a smart phone).  Wall Street Journal, p. D1.

Mims, C.  (July 14, 2014).  Here lies the password of Christopher Mims.  Wall Street Journal, pp. B1-B2.

Schneier, B. (2014, issue, 22.09). Break up the NSA. Wired, p. 096

Smith, B.  (July 30, 2014).  We’re fighting the Feds over your e-mail.  Wall Street Journal, p. A11.

Weber, R. H.  (2011). The right to be forgotten: More than a Pandora’s box?  JIPITEC, 2, 120-130.

Weisband, S. P. & Reinig, B. A. (1995). Perceptions of email privacy.  Communications of the ACM, 38 (12), 40-47.

Yadron, D. (August 1, 2014 a). Smartphones—Rich targets for hackers—are next frontier in cybersecurity.  Wall Street Journal, p. B5.

Yadron, D. (August 21, 2014 b).  Antisoftware works too well, cybercops say.  Wall Street Journal, pp.  B1, B4.

Yadron, D., Glazer, E., & Barrett, D. (August 28, 2014). Big banks are hit in cyber attacks. Wall Street Journal, pp. A1, A6.

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