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February 12, 2008

Where Government Ends and Business Begins

Some breaking news here in the United States perfectly illustrates what is sure to be a hot topic of debate during the Global Innovation Outlook Deep Dives on Security and Society.

In this article in the New York Times, we see the result of three year’s worth of debate over whether the federal government should have the authority to eavesdrop on American phone calls without a warrant. The verdict: affirmative.

Three years ago there was a brief wave of moral outrage over the discovery that the National Security Agency had been working with the telephone companies to monitor overseas phone calls. The program was limited to eavesdropping on individuals who were suspected of having terrorist ties. But it circumvented a  30-year old law in the United States called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was specifically enacted by the Supreme Court to prevent the abuse of government wiretapping. It uses a secret court to issue wiretapping warrants, and includes provisions that ensure the warrants adhere to the same rigors of any other warrant.

Today the Senate indicated that it would not only allow the federal government to continue these practices, but that it would grant immunity to the phone companies that cooperate.

This last bit brings into sharp relief the intersection of business and government against the backdrop of national security. There are, of course, private businesses that provide security-related products and services to the government. But there are also those businesses that, by the nature of what they do, handle sensitive data that is of great value to federal and local government security efforts. Communications companies, credit card companies, banks and lenders, rental car companies, money transfer services, airlines and transportation firms, internet service providers, even fertilizer companies. The list goes on.

Though these are all legitimate businesses, they are sometimes leveraged for nefarious purposes. And they will all have to decide some day, if they haven’t already, where the protection of their customers’ privacy ends and their cooperation with authorities begins.

But making that decision can get complicated fast. You may value the privacy of your customers, but maybe you work in a heavily regulated business that depends on expensive lobbying efforts in Washington D.C. Or maybe you’d be inclined to help the government’s cause, but haven’t considered the cost of lost business for not protecting customer data.

It is a critical issue, one with no easy answers. It is part government policy, part business policy (especially as more and more businesses use their privacy policies as a selling point.) Your thoughts on this important discussion are welcome.

February 12, 2008 in Security and Society | Permalink

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