Digital privacy: To tweet may be sweet, but it’s not private!

How private are our communications in the digital age? From Twitter to Facebook, email, and searches on search engines, our private communications are being opened up.

Privacy? What privacy is there- really- with social media? Image courtesy of

While this should not be a surprise, somehow Twitter users were outraged in March 2011 when in US federal court in Alexandria, Virginia made tweets available to a government prosecutor:

A U.S. magistrate judge ruled the government may collect Twitter users’ private records in its investigation of whistle-blower Web site WikiLeaks.

But this ruling affected more than just Twitter as it opened up government and law enforcement access to other online media:
Prosecutors trying to build a case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are seeking Twitter messages sent by supposed WikiLeaks supporters, and possibly message information from Facebook, Skype and Google.
The case was challenged by both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, the latter of which protested the ruling:

ACLU attorney Aden Fine said Friday’s ruling “gives the government the ability to secretly amass private information related to individuals’ Internet communications.”

“If this ruling stands, our client may be prevented from challenging the government’s requests to other companies because she might never know if and how many other companies have been ordered to turn over information about her.”

In a culture where every thought is posted from what we had for breakfast to what we feel about our job or our spouse or politics, we should not have any expectation of privacy… or should we?
If we make a private Google search on our own computer at home should we have an expectation of privacy? What about a Facebook post that you limit to only your closest friends? Twitter is open to anyone to follow, so should it be open for data mining? What about online reviews, emails, and more?
Should any and all communications we make be accessible to law enforcement? Then what about to recruiters and potential employers who have access to many of the same data mining databases that the police have? Should they be able to see private emails and posts?
The American Bar Association has published the “Electronic Surveillance of Private Communications” which are standards meant “to assure the right to communicate privately, either in person or by technological means, and to determine under what conditions law enforcement, electronic communication service providers and other persons should be permitted to acquire, use and disclose such private communications.
According to these standards,
A “private communication” is a communication which is made under circumstances in which a reasonable expectation of privacy exists. For these purposes, a reasonable expectation of privacy may exist for a communication being transmitted by a communication service provider, or temporarily stored incident to that transmission, despite the fact that it is transmitted to more than one recipient, and despite the lawful access of the provider to the contents of that communication.

Some exceptions to requiring a judicial order to gather these private communications are made when “a law enforcement officer reasonably believes that an emergency situation exists which involves substantial and imminent danger to human life, the officer should be permitted to conduct electronic surveillance without a prior judicial order.

That sounds reasonable. But what about for applying for a loan or a job? Should your posts, searches, text messages and other emerging media “private” communications be accessible to the bank or your employer? Does it depend on the loan  amount or the employer or job type (for example, a security job, or your child’s nanny)?
Many believe the battle against privacy in the United States was lost back in the 1980’s with the emergence of powerful marketing databases, particularly the co-op databases that are shared among many other marketers. Catalogers in particular have been very successful at using this stored purchase, demographic and behavioral data on customers.
However, this level of detail into every aspect of one’s private life is new with social media.
Unfortunately, history shows us that the law always lags behind technology; thus,  early adopters of new technology may find there are more consequences to their jumping into emerging media than they would have thought.
So unless the laws radically change (and in this post 9/11 age that is doubtful), while to tweet is sweet, you should not expect it to every be private…. nor any other digital communication.
SOME QUESTIONS FOR MY READERS: What are your thoughts? Is the expectation of privacy in digital communications a lost cause?

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