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Accessing citizen's personal data - is it acceptable?
over 2 years ago

Personal security is a critical component of one’s life. Recent developments in the information technology sector have brought communication ever more closer, and made a mobile phone an essential part of our lives. Further developments have seen the owning of a smartphone, a once expensive and luxurious commodity, a necessary and affordable gadget. These devices have become not only basic communication tools, but tools for making transactions, storing important information, and business transactions among others. Through mobile telephony, vital information is stored and passed over every second; information that works positively or negatively, when it falls in other people’s hands.


Recent spates of terror, starting with the 9/11 incident where hundreds of people lost their lives, have forced governments to want to steal a peek into the information its citizens pass along their devices. With growing concern over not only the foreign terrorists but also domestic terrorists, the question of how far a government would go to protect its own lingers. This paper discusses two opposing arguments on whether it is acceptable to the government and its agencies to have access to personal information through hacking.  


The need for encryption of personal information Vis’ a vis’ the need for national security

The need for security in the world today has become a serious issue especially following recent spates of attacks around the world. Developments, especially in information technology, seem to have exposed the world to an awkward position where so much information is stored online and within ease of reach for anyone with the right skills and technology.


 Smartphones are an essential part of human lives now than ever before. Humans use these devices to store a lot of information, most of them of a personal nature such as personal conversations, music, notes, photos, videos, calendars, financial information, contacts, health data and our movements. Smartphones have taken over from human lives from basic planning to complex work such as transactions and financial planning. Recent developments have explored better ways of utilizing such phones to achieve better things such as remotely driving cars, opening doors, flying drones and integration with bank accounts.


The fact that such information is available online makes the need to protect such information more necessary. Hackers, criminals and unworthy individuals with the ability and necessary technique have the potential of accessing such information and using it for personal gain, usually without the permission of the owner. As a result of hacking, banks, for instance, have lost huge amounts of money from individual accounts due to passwords and usernames picked unknowingly from their client mobile phones.


The use of encryption by mobile phone manufacturer’s to protect its customer’s information has worked albeit not sufficiently to assist protect consumer information. Manufacturing companies such as Apple have over time put the safety needs of its customers at the front since compromising the security of its customers’ information not only hurts the customer but also works negatively for the security of the company.  Mobile customer information is so valuable that advertising agencies prey on such information through data mining to do profiling and subsequently influence personalized advertising. Terror organizations, on the other hand, utilize such avenues to get information on government plans and potential targets as well as steal money from individual accounts to facilitate their activities.


Following the 9/11 terror attack in the country and the subsequent passing of the patriotic act a few days after the September 11 attacks, the need to open up access to private information to the government has grown. The patriotic act capitalizes on exceptions in the constitution and expands them from requiring that government intelligence agencies apply for warrants before engaging in such acts of collecting information privately. It allows for such intelligence agencies to track and extend pen-trap orders beyond the acceptable standard to emails and web browsing from an individual’s computer. It allows for the federal bureau of investigations for instance to monitor and seize documents and personal records from businesses, internet providers, political groups, religious outfits, public libraries and medical offices, in instances where the justification is terrorism related.


According to section 213 of this Act, intelligence agencies are allowed to make sneak peek searches in people’s homes, their mobile equipment and their computers for criminal investigations. Although for such a case they need to apply for a warrant, a simple justification such as a reasonable cause for delaying notification usually linked to certain adverse effects is reason enough to warrant for such infringement on one’s privacy.


The government believes that prying on the information shared via personal accounts; email, telephone, text messaging and social media, provides an easy platform on which to meet security issues head on. By analyzing such data, intelligence agencies are in a position to prevent the occurrence of certain common forms of crime such cyber-terrorism, assist in investigation through possible leads emanating from such data, as well as making their work easy by immediately identifying culprits. This works well to reduce the time it takes to solve crime all over the country.


The downside to this is that the government would be required to formulate special information systems or force manufacturers to open up their system to include their encryption to allow them to access such data at will. The government requires specialized equipment that would flag off potential threats through individual data files. Although this gives the government an unlimited access to information, it goes beyond the norm and allows for access to information for individuals who may not be involved in any way in terrorism related activities directly contravening the fourth amendment.


Where hacking is a necessity; the San Bernardino case

The San Bernardino case, a shocking and outrageous mass shooting incident, works on citizens’ feelings, entrenching fear and vulnerability in the general population. Such incidents play directly into the government’s plan to make use of such laws as the patriotic act which allow for the infringement of people’s rights to privacy to get information. The loss of lives and the possibility of the re-occurrence of such incidents around the country pose danger to the entire population. This makes it easier for the people to trust the government into allowing it to look through their personal information.


In this case, due to the extent of the damage, and for the sake of investigation, a request by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for information in the possession of Apple with regards to the terrorists was complied with. Further instructions to create a new version of software that allows for the investigative agencies to recreate and analyze data from previously used phones would open up the world of mobile telephony to backdoor access from such agencies. Such access would open up individual privacies to prying eyes that would not limit their search to criminal activities but to anyone the world over.


The threat to data security

Although it is a good thing to develop such software to assist rebuild phones and retrieve valuable information, there is no guarantee that such software would not be enhanced and used to hack other phones and computer equipment. According to Apple, the key to a sound system is the protection that surrounds it. Current security protocols involve forward secrecy, a concept where security keys are deleted immediately after use. By creating a system that bypasses all the security systems available, the government will be exposing mobile telephony consumers to a security breach that would otherwise prove to be a bigger security nightmare than recent terrorist acts. Government action to allow for such phones to be opened electronically can be duplicated by con artists who pilferage such systems and steal valuable information.


Government motive to use the Writs Act instituted in 1978, to force manufacturers to develop programs for them that would allow them to make wire-taps, intercept messages, access financial information, and location, access your camera and microphone without prior knowledge of the individual means removing as many security features as possible. This would also mean that a program designed to brutally open a smartphone by trying all sorts of combinations would be developed specifically for that purpose, a task that would take time, huge resource input and be tested by a large contingent of developers worldwide. 


Just as governments have the resources to access such software amid reduced security features, so are terrorist groups. Terrorist groups would use this newly opened platform to access the same data that the government is interested in and use it to hit back. Politicians, businesses, and the ordinary citizen would have their lives opened up to the public with their pictures, SMS, emails and phone calls poured out to the public at will. Such information leakage would throw the public into more confusion and panic than it is at the moment.


Protect yourself against hacking

It is important that the war against terror be all inclusive with the security agencies and the public working together. The public needs to volunteer as much information as possible. Through the provision of distinct untraceable channels of communication, the government can receive tip-offs from members of the public without such information being filtered off by hackers. This shows a commitment to routing out terrorism, a factor that motivates the government to work harder at providing security for its citizens.


The American public needs to be vigilant at all times. Each individual in possession of a smartphone needs to lock his phone with well-crafted passwords. In instances where they use the phone for important transactions such as bank transactions, it is necessary that such access codes are not saved in the phone and such activity is erased immediately after use. In addition to this, it is imperative that one gives out only that information which is relevant and necessary to a situation. Personal data should not be given out anyhow, but only on a must basis. 



Although terrorism and criminal activity force the hand of the government to push down laws meant at opening a backdoor to mobile telephony and access to individual data files, this is not necessarily the solution to the rising security needs. This would only work to reduce the security measures instituted to take care of personal information by the manufacturing companies, whom the government already rely on to provide such security.

The introduction of acts and laws to infringe on people’s privacy especially after the September 11 attacks is a god move to rid the country of terror. Since not all Americans are terrorists, it would be irresponsible and a breach of trust to peek through all accounts to find a terrorist. Such liberties need to be used sparingly on criminals and their associates to collect evidence for prosecution and preventing attacks and not spying on ordinary citizens.

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