Gov’t Watchdog Worried About Consumer Privacy Offers no Solution to the Federal Surveillance State
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Recently, the Government Accountability Office released a report on issues regarding “surreptitious tracking apps,” hoping to identify the problems with cellphone features used for stalking so that regulators and lawmakers are able to find policy solutions that protect the American consumer and his privacy.
Unfortunately for Americans across the board, GAO failed to include government-backed and run surveillance programs as features putting our privacy at risk.
The report, which can be read in full here, claims that the issue with most apps designed as tracking features is that they may intercept a smartphone’s communications, such as text messages, phone calls, and emails. Without the consent of those being tracked, GAO reported, their safety and privacy are at risk.
During a recent interview, GAO’s Physical Infrastructure Director Mark Goldstein said that while many tracking apps that offer services to parents who are concerned about their children’s whereabouts for instance have “legitimate purposes,” but many others are “marketed for what’s called surreptitious use, or where you’re not telling someone that you’re using their phone to track them, and this happens in a number of kinds of cases, for stalking and for other kinds of nefarious purposes.”
Without explaining what he meant by nefarious purposes, Goldstein went on to claim that the biggest safety issue with tracking apps available nowadays is that, if a tracker knows where you are, they “can stalk you, they can harm you.” And while “there are a variety of laws on the books, both at the federal level and at the state level that focus on different components of whether you can sell [these apps],” “millions of people report being stalked every year,” suggesting that whether the laws are in effect or not, it doesn’t matter—criminals will continue to do what they do, whether the law exists or not.
The solution, Goldstein explained, is a combination of government-backed efforts that would allegedly protect the citizen from abuse, regardless of how ineffective current laws are. These efforts include boosting the Department of Justice’s educational programs.
In the past, the DOJ launched the Stalking Resource Center, an agency that trains law enforcement officers, policymakers, victim service professionals, and others on the dangers associated with tracking technology. In 2012, reports claiming that the center did not offer any direct support to victims was mostly dismissed by mainstream media. But the program is still funded by taxpayer money.
According to Goldstein, law enforcement must also get a boost in order to effectively “prevent these things from happening and to penalize, obviously, and prosecute people who break the law in these areas.” Goldstein also added that producing more “legislative remedies” could also help to improve law enforcement effectiveness.
“The bottom line is,” Goldstein closed the interview by saying, “the technology brings us costs as well as benefits.” The fact an individual has access to a cell phone, the government employee claims, is enough to put him in danger. “As individuals,” he continued, ”we have to be alert to that, and as a government, we have to ensure that our citizens are able to use these kinds of devices without fear of something bad happening.”
Instead of micromanaging what app an individual uses on his or her phone, what GAO could have done instead to help protect American consumers was to also carry a research into whether the federal government’s spying programs are effective.
According to a White House-appointed review group as well as the nonprofit organization New America Foundation, NSA’s phone record collection has played an insignificant role in preventing terrorist attacks. But the effects of federal surveillance policies being used as we speak are not always neutral: abuse within the agency continues to put countless of innocent people—and their privacy—in danger.
But will GAO ever look into that? I doubt it.