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What We Learned From The Petraeus Scandal

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The head of the C.I.A is someone that we expect to be discreet: someone who should be able to keep his private life to himself. Shockingly, it is becoming apparent that not even the nation’s spy master is able to protect his privacy from the overreach of the federal government. With more and more details coming to light about General Petraeus’ affair each day, we need to carefully consider the real implications of this scandal. Any outrage focused at those involved in the Petraeus affair should quickly be redirected. There are, after all, plenty of affairs and dissolved marriages in the United States. The real issue showcased in the Petraeus scandal is the startling lack of privacy that we are actually afforded. As each day passes, citizens appear to have fewer and fewer of the rights afforded to them by the Constitution. The Petraeus scandal should serve as a powerful example to the public: nobody’s private life will stay that way for long if the government is interested.

First Amendment Rights

Look at our country at its inception: the first amendment made to our country’s guiding document was intended to protect anonymous speech, and it has been used to establish our fundamental right to privacy as well. Our founders and first presidents believed so strongly in the right to protected and anonymous speech that they defended this country’s most fundamental founding properties anonymously. The Federalist Papers, which are now publically credited to their authors, were first published anonymously. In today’s world, it would be almost impossible to achieve this same anonymity today, especially with such a widely circulated publication.

As the years go by, our fundamental rights to privacy and speech are being degraded: not slowly and subtly, but drastically. Laws like the Patriot Act have crippled the freedoms upon which this country was founded. The government’s ability to pry into the personal lives of citizens has expanded exponentially, via wiretaps, unlawful searches, access to personal communications, and the like. At the same time, Supreme Court rulings continue to impinge on our right to free, protected speech. Rulings have forced groups to reveal lists of their members in several states. Not only does this violate Constitutional principles; it places each of these individuals in physical danger if they are members of a group that their community does not support.

Electronic Privacy

People need to come to terms with the unfortunate truth: anything we say online is traceable and ultimately public. No matter how many steps you take to cover your internet history, it is almost impossible to keep anything secure if someone is determined to uncover it.

Everything that you publish on the internet can be retrieved one way or another: search histories are saved and stored by search engines long after you have “deleted” your internet browsing history— ask individuals like Casey Anthony, whose home internet searches were used as evidence in her murder trial. While these unfortunate truths are more readily apparent to the computer technicians among us, emails do not stay in your inbox. They are stored on servers across the internet, and it is easy enough for talented computer users to retrieve them.  In the Petraeus scandal, FBI officials not only tracked down all of the emails between the lovers, but also related search histories and communications with other individuals. When one government agency spends time investigating the private life of one of its own, it becomes readily apparent that the federal government will not hesitate to interfere in your personal life if it so chooses.

Government Invasion of Privacy

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (1986) says federal prosecutors simply have to issue a subpoena in order to gain access to old emails and communications. 12,300 of these types of requests were made of Google by the federal government in 2011, and Google complied with more than 90 percent of these requests, which were not only for emails, but personal information and data about its users. In other words, if the government is interested in what you are doing on the internet, you are out of luck. Even if you have committed no crime, there is nothing to prevent the government from accessing (and publicizing) these records.

Massive movements like President Obama’s re-election campaign depended on huge aggregates of voter information. This included things like what years you have voted, but it also included even mundane information about your life, which helped campaign organizers target you with specific ads and emails.  Whether the group is one you supported or not, the lack of respect for personal privacy is what is ultimately the most disturbing. It creates a slippery slope for further federal action: if they can obtain whatever technological information about you they please, the scope of their power expands further and further unchecked.

Private Sector Snooping

Unfortunately, invasions of your personal life and private information are hardly confined to the actions of the U.S. federal government. Private companies have learned through experience that the more they know about you, the easier it is to target (and make a profit off of) you. Private companies will purchase information about you—information that you might feel is “private” or “confidential”—and will face no repercussions for doing so. Our privacy is under attack from all directions, and as each new “scandal” breaks, the real scandal should become more and more apparent: we are losing our freedom.

As citizens, we need to re-assert our rights to privacy and to free speech. One of the most important elements of free speech is that it must be safe for individuals. Some of the most famous instances of exercises of free speech depended on the assertion of the right to anonymity. Consider NRA chapters being asked for lists of their members: if private corporations and government agencies can access that information, those groups and individuals can be targeted like never before. The federal government has overstepped its bounds in many areas, but Petraeus’ public humiliation should serve as an important marker for the times we live in: times when our privacy is in peril.

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