NSA agents aren't the only ones snooping through your personal information

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Dan Plutchak | December 11, 2013

This week's revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency included online gaming in its menu of surveillance techniques should come as no surprise.

The only question I have is, "what will they think of next?"

Its seems that NSA agents would play popular alternate reality games, such as World of Warcraft, to sniff out hidden corners of the game where terrorists could potentially communicate freely using in-game messaging systems.

In stories published by The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica based on information leaked by former security contractor Edwin Snowdon, the NSA warned that the games could give intelligence targets a place to “hide in plain sight.”

There was a time shortly after the September 11 attacks of 2001 that Americans were more than willing to give up a measure of civil liberty to make sure our government had every tool necessary to prevent another horrific attack.

Now, it seems, most Americans (and a few foreign leaders who have had their phones tapped) have concerns that the government has gone too far.

But the concern really is with government snooping, not snooping in general.

In fact, we freely give private companies access to the same personal information that the government needed an army of coders and techno geeks to retrieve.

It was with a touch of irony this week, that I also read Google was among eight companies that authored an open letter to President Barack Obama urging him to direct the NSA to scale back its data collection efforts.

The letter, signed by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, argued that, "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change."

Company officials were responding to news that the NSA had hacked into Google and Yahoo servers to access data without the campany's knowledge.

Good to see their looking out for our personal liberties.

But Google is no innocent bystander. The tech giant came under criticism earlier this year when they argued in a motion to have a class-action data-mining lawsuit dismissed, that Gmail users should have no expectation of privacy.

I bet that came as a surprise to most Gmail users.

"Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient's assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient's [e-mail provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, 'a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties,'" attorneys for Google wrote.

The Wall Street Journal last summer noted that, "The breadth of Google's information gathering about Internet users rivals that of any single entity, government or corporate. Google executives also remain closed about much of its internal data-handling practices, fearing that discussing privacy-related topics might hurt the company with consumers, according to people who have worked on privacy issues at the firm."

A suspicion of government isn't necessarily a bad thing. Just look around the globe to see how governments use personal information to engage in repressive activities.

But government misuse of personal information isn't the only threat to our liberties we face.

Consumers should be wary of any place they share their personal information, because in a modern world, that may be the most valuable currency we own.

Dan Plutchak is the editor of CSI Media, publisher of the Janesville Messenger, Walworth County Sunday and the Stateline News. Contact him at dplutchak@communityshoppers.com, on http://Facebook.com/DanPlutchak or on http://Twitter@danplutchak, http://Twitter@danplutchak


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