In Surveillance Reform, Email Privacy Is Only Half the Battle

If a critical mass of privacy is to be built and maintained, awareness of very obvious cultural trends has to be taken into account.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Poll data released yesterday revealed a vast majority of Americans support online privacy reform, but what that means in detail is less clear. According to a new Vox Populi poll, more than 80 percent of people across six states and Los Angeles believe the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a law that permits warrantless searches of emails older than 180 days, should be reformed. 

While the poll data is encouraging, people might get lost in the static of the overall picture. This and other polls place little emphasis on mobile data collection. With more startups popping up every day with dreams of fortune built on user data, the much more critical issue is smartphone and tablet privacy. And the wearable tech market starting to bloom, the issue takes on even greater urgency.

Whether smartphone, tablet, or smart watch, we have our mobile devices on us at all. And, if not in our hands or on our wrists, they are in our pockets, backpacks, and purses, broadcasting our location and other data to Apple, Google, Facebook, and various other Silicon Valley companies. These tech companies know our favorite restaurants and cafes, the type of music and culture we consume, and the image and text-based communications we send on Instagram, Twitter, and other apps. All of this data and more is gold to the surveillance state.

In a 2013 Pew Internet poll, for instance, 86 percent of internet users reported "taking steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints." This ranged from encrypting email to clearing cookies and masking internet protocol (IP) addresses to avoiding using their real name on virtual networks. The same poll found that 68 percent of users believe existing privacy protection laws are inadequate. The poll says nothing of mobile data privacy. 

This is a noticeable hole in other recent polls as well. In an Associated Press-GfK poll, 60 percent of respondents reported that they value privacy over anti-terror protections. A USA Today/Pew Research poll published in January found that a majority of Americans now disapprove of the NSA's dragnet collection of phone call metadata. Where are the poll numbers on mobile data privacy?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw the writing on the wall at least as far back as 2010 when introducing Facebook's then new email messaging platform. "High school kids don’t use email, they use SMS a lot. People want lighter weight things like SMS and IM to message each other," said Zuckerberg, who doubled-down on messaging platforms with Facebook's subsequent purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp.

It's hard to fault the poll's sponsors, Digital 4th, a coalition of groups that includes the ACLU and Center for Democracy and Technologly. On a tactical level, broad online privacy reform is vital, and the national pulse needs to be taken to see where Americans sit on the matter. But if a critical mass of privacy is to be built and maintained, awareness of very obvious cultural trends has to be taken into account. Reform advocates need to look at what apps are being used in the mobile space, especially by younger demographics, and respond accordingly. 

A two-pronged approach to mobile privacy could start with campaigns to educate young and old users about mobile data privacy, and an intense congressional lobbying effort to reform mobile data collection. Because, really, mobile devices and their ecosystem of apps are far more efficient and complete surveillance tools than email could ever be on its own.