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Tech Advances Raise Tough Questions on Privacy

1/20/2014 12:00 AM Eastern

The following is an excerpt from a Jan. 17 speech by President Obama announcing changes to the National Security Agency’s surveillance program:

[The] same technological advances that allow U.S. intelligence agencies to pin-point an al Qaeda cell in Yemen or an email between two terrorists in the Sahel, also mean that many routine communications around the world are within our reach. At a time when more and more of our lives are digital, that prospect is disquieting for all of us.

[T]he combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats. But the government collection and storage of such bulk data also creates a potential for abuse.

 

[T]here was a recognition by all who participated in these [data collection] reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone. But all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher. Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect.

When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed. Whether it’s the ability of individuals to communicate ideas; to access information that would have once filled every great library in every country in the world; or to forge bonds with people on other sides of the globe, technology is remaking what is possible for individuals, for institutions, and for the international order….

The power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do …

As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment rather than government control.

September