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Spying on Verizon customers: Where's the outrage?

We've gotten so used to having our privacy violated, we're just not shocked any more to learn that someone is peeking over our shoulder.

June 06, 2013|David Lazarus
  • The National Security Agency has been collecting data on communications involving Verizon customers. Above, a store in New York.
The National Security Agency has been collecting data on communications… (John Minchillo, Associated…)

Verizon customers have every reason to be outraged that the federal government is spying on them.

But they shouldn't be surprised.

The bottom line is this: Consumers in the digital age have no reason to believe their electronic communications are off-limits to government and private-sector entities.

That's a lousy deal — I'll be the first to say it. But it's also a factor of the gee-whiz, small-world technology that enables wireless communications, smartphones and anything-goes social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

"Whenever you have all these bits and bytes floating about, it's very easy for others to get ahold of it," said Rebecca Herold, a privacy consultant in Des Moines. "It's become very easy for a lot of people to access each other's data."

The Patriot Act for years has allowed federal authorities to compile a huge database of Americans' domestic communications. The Bush administration, in seeking passage of the bill, had argued that such information was crucial for keeping tabs on terrorists.

Late Wednesday, it was disclosed that the Obama administration has continued its predecessor's interest in electronic snooping. A classified court order came to light showing that the National Security Agency was collecting data on communications involving Verizon customers.

We're still learning about the scope of the spying program and how many companies may be involved. What's clear at this point is that the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court gave the NSA permission in late April to collect the information, which apparently includes phone numbers and call durations but not the content of the calls.

The Obama administration said Thursday that the data collection "has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States."

For consumers, that makes things tricky. Who are we to second-guess the highest levels of government about national security? It's fair to assume that the president knows things we don't about potential threats to our well-being.

Moreover, it's not as though the big telecom companies didn't warn us this could happen.

Verizon Wireless, for example, says in its customer contract that even if you opt out from having personal information shared with others, the company still may do so "to comply with any laws, court order or subpoena."

AT&T says in its contract that it reserves the right to monitor customers' activities "to comply with applicable laws, regulations or other governmental or judicial requests."

So the question here isn't whether Verizon or AT&T can share information about you with Uncle Sam. They can — and will, if the feds say they want it.

The question is whether the government is overreaching in its surveillance of telecom customers.

In the past, Herold said, government snooping was generally limited to monitoring individuals, such as suspects in a crime.

"This new situation seems to open the door to something much more broad," she said. "It raises questions about whether privacy incursions should be allowed on such a broad basis."

Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University School of Law, said it's perfectly understandable that government officials would want to get their hands on as much information as possible.

"That's them doing their jobs," he said. "That's them trying to catch criminals."

At the same time, Richards said, it's important that limits be placed on such efforts.

"The idea is that government officials shouldn't be able to get everything," he said. "There should be a process that requires the government to be accountable and to prove that they need this information."

In theory, that process exists in the form of the secret court that, since 1978, has given the federal government a resource for obtaining legal authority to spy on people in the name of national security. For obvious reasons, the activities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court aren't made public.

But that's not much in the way of accountability. That's basically telling the American people to trust that their political and judicial leaders are doing the right thing.

There's a long list of misdeeds — from Watergate and Iran-Contra to the current mess involving the Internal Revenue Service — that call into question whether such trust is warranted.

Yet those same misdeeds have, to some extent, made Americans indifferent to privacy concerns.

"There have been so many scandals and so many security breaches, people have come to expect that their information will get out," said Larry Ponemon, founder of the privacy-focused Ponemon Institute.

He recalled the outrage that accompanied revelations that, beginning in 2002, former President Bush had authorized warrantless wiretapping of Americans. Ponemon said reactions to this week's news about the Verizon spying have been largely muted by comparison.

"I'm just not seeing a lot of outcry from my friends in the privacy community," he said.

Maybe he's right: We've gotten so used to having our privacy violated, we're just not shocked any more to learn that someone is peeking over our shoulder, whether that's a hacker, a marketer or the NSA.

If so, that's a shame. When we lose our ability to be outraged over privacy incursions, we've all but invited the powers that be to act with ever greater impunity.

Americans have sacrificed civil liberties in the name of national security. Maybe that's a reflection of the more dangerous world in which we live.

But maybe it's a reflection primarily of our weakening sense of personal space in an era of hyper-sharing and constantly being plugged in.

Your privacy is your own. If you choose to give it away, there will always be those eager to take it.

And they'll do with it whatever they please.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to

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