Civil Liberties in the Digital Age

In the digital age that we live in today, we are constantly exposing our personal information online. From using cell phones and GPS devices to online shopping and sending e-mail, the things we do and say online leave behind ever-growing trails of personal information. The ACLU believes that Americans shouldn’t have to choose between using new technology and keeping control of your private information. Each week, we feature some of the most interesting news related to technology and civil liberties that we’ve spotted from the previous week.
How Can Smart, Ethical Individuals Form Dumb, Amoral Government Agencies?

How Can Smart, Ethical Individuals Form Dumb, Amoral Government Agencies?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 12:16pm

Yesterday I set forth some reflections on our giant national security establishment, and how we should think about it. I argued that one very useful way of conceptualizing it is not as a result of politics or personality, but as an institution, which to the first approximation is best thought of as a mindless, amoral, and self-perpetuating primitive life form.

And by saying that, I do not mean to disparage any of the individuals who make up those bureaucracies. I live in Washington and am friends with many government workers who are excellent, thoughtful human beings.

But when you gather many human beings into an institution, that institution tends to take on a life of its own. Most of the individuals who make up the gigantic national security state are reasonably intelligent, and many of them no doubt are exceptionally so. But when you aggregate thousands of intelligent human minds together in a bureaucratic organization, the ironic result is that the collective is sometimes dumber than its individual parts. By the same token, there is no particular reason to think that bureaucracies attract a disproportionate number of amoral or immoral individuals—they surely form the same bell curve as any other group of humans when it comes to characteristics such as empathy, sensitivity, and conscience. But the collective set of such humans can exhibit a marked quality of amorality, as exhibited for example by the willingness of security bureaucracies to do horrifying things such as continue to detain people at Guantanamo who are known to pose no threat to the United States.

Complexity theorists have a concept called emergence, which refers to the fact that when large numbers of individuals

How to Think About the National Security State

How to Think About the National Security State

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:00am

The United States has grown a gigantic national security state. According to one analyst, our overall annual security budget is now more than $1.2 trillion. And we now know that includes at least $75 billion for “intelligence.” In the wake of Edward…

ACLU at DEF CON 21!

ACLU at DEF CON 21!

By Noa Yachot, Communications Strategist, ACLU at 10:04am

It's DEF CON time! The preeminent hacker convention kicked off yesterday in Las Vegas, and a team of ACLU experts are there. If you're in town, come visit us in the vendor area, where we're on hand to chat about what has been a pretty eventful year…

Activists Leverage Stronger EU Privacy Laws to Seek More Information on PRISM

Activists Leverage Stronger EU Privacy Laws to Seek More Information on PRISM

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 3:03pm

A group of European activists yesterday filed complaints with European data protection authorities against Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype, and Yahoo alleging that the companies are violating EU privacy law by cooperating with the NSA's PRISM…

Ignorant Armies Eavesdropping By Night?

Ignorant Armies Eavesdropping By Night?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:11am

As revelations continue to pour forth about how the talents of thousands of brilliant math and computer experts are being utilized by the National Security Agency, we also saw last week the release of a report to Congress that attempts to defend the…

Call Logs? Try Kilowatts: Reports Reveal Demands for California Energy Data

Call Logs? Try Kilowatts: Reports Reveal Demands for California Energy Data

By Matthew Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Fellow, ACLU of Northern California at 4:34pm

Amid recent revelations that the NSA has been secretly spying on phone records and the Internet activity of people in the United States, transparency reports filed by the California utilities companies and obtained by the ACLU of California show that…

Who Decides?

Who Decides?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:32am

I’d like to make one major point about the NSA surveillance scandal that many people have made indirectly, or implicitly, or seem to have assumed, but have not stated baldly and explicitly. That point is how this incident has laid bare the arrogance of our national security officials.

Because there are really two separate issues behind last week’s revelations. The first is, how much surveillance of the American people should the government conduct? The second is, who should decide how much surveillance of the American people the government should conduct?

And on that second question, the government has arrogated to itself the power to make that decision, unilaterally, in secret, on behalf of the American people.

In his only comments on this scandal, President Obama said,

The Burdens of Total Surveillance

The Burdens of Total Surveillance

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 1:33pm

Last week’s Washington Post report that the CIA had requested that Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev be placed on a terrorist watch list raises an interesting point about total surveillance societies: in addition to all their negative implications for citizens, they actually bring some disadvantages for the authorities as well.

It’s not clear what information the CIA’s request was based upon, but reportedly it came from Russian authorities. It is also possible that Tsarnaev’s communications were flagged by US agencies such as the NSA. Either way, it seems as though there’s a real possibility that Tamerlan’s name came to the attention of the authorities through some dragnet-style surveillance technique.

If so, the conundrum for the authorities is this:

Do Young People Care About Privacy?

Do Young People Care About Privacy?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:00am

Everywhere I go, I hear some variation of the claim that “young people today just don’t care about privacy.” This is something that people widely seem to believe is “just true.” The latest claim to this effect comes in the form of a new poll, the release of which was trumpeted with unfortunate headlines like “Millennials don’t worry about online privacy.”

In fact, the poll, which was conducted by the University of Southern California’s corporate-partnered Center for the Digital Future, showed no such thing. Although there were some differences between younger and older respondents,

Newest Word to Take on Orwellian Overtones in Internet Age: “Trust”

Newest Word to Take on Orwellian Overtones in Internet Age: “Trust”

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 5:44pm

What could be warmer and fuzzier than “trust”? Between two human beings, it’s a hard-won bond that binds them together. In society, it is a currency that helps create a prosperous and efficient economy and culture, as thinkers such as Francis…

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