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Privacy is Not Partisan

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September 19, 2008

The recent hacking of Gov. Sarah Palin’s email accounts is the latest in a series of events that show how urgently we need better privacy protections in this country – and that privacy is an issue that transcends partisan politics.

Although we face unprecedented threats to our privacy, many Americans still shrug their shoulders and say, “I have nothing to hide.”Government officials use this complacency to pry further into our personal lives, justifying the wholesale capture of all communications between Americans and their friends and relatives abroad, for example, by saying that only the terrorists need fear scrutiny.

Most readers of this blog know this is bogus, and recognize that privacy is a fundamental ingredient to a free society. But for those who think they have nothing to hide, the Presidential campaign has provided at least two chilling examples of how bad actors take advantage of our weak privacy protections. In March, the passport accounts of Sens. Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton were hacked by rogue employees at the State Department.As the ACLU noted at the time, this was more than just a case of celebrity voyeurism. It was a cautionary tale about the dangers of unprotected data in the information age, and how insiders may exploit it when enforcement of privacy laws is lacking.

Just last week, hackers broke into the Yahoo email account of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. As Kim Zetter chronicled yesterday on Threat Level, the hackers were able to take advantage of information about Palin readily available on the internet — her zip code, birthdate, and where she attended high school.

Admittedly, Gov. Palin has a higher profile than most, but this kind of information is widely available about all of us. If you haven’t disseminated it intentionally through Facebook or one of its lesser populated predecessors, it has likely been collected for you by the growing data-broker industry. And as the Government builds larger identity databases like the one mandated by the Real ID Act, you can bet that cases of internal fraud as well as criminal hacking will become ever more prolific.

It’s clear that at a personal and policy level, the candidates cannot ignore our urgent need for a comprehensive national dialogue about privacy.With breaches affecting three of the four names on the major tickets (and don’t think you’re safe, Joe Biden!), our next President cannot hide behind claims of “nothing to hide.”