Privacy in the spotlight: 8 million reasons

There is an all-around media frenzy going on about the 8 million GPS location requests that Sprint Nextel received and automatically granted through a web portal to law enforcement agencies during a period of 13 months (Sept. 2008-Oct. 2009).

Everybody is up in arms about it – maybe it was the sheer number, repeated over and over, that made the difference. Even though Sprint Nextel “translated” the extremely generic term “requests” into “pings” when doing damage control, and that explanation brings down the probable number of persons regarding whose appliances the requests were made, I applaud Christopher Soghoian – the PhD candidate and blogger that revealed all that information – for choosing to put that number in the title. It’s an attention-grabber – no doubt about it! – and puts some very much needed spotlight onto the subject of law enforcement’s and intelligence agencies’ access to information that some people would consider intrinsic to their idea of personal privacy.

Although I am of the opinion that the concept of privacy has changed a lot since the advent of the Internet and its latest 2.0 version, I concede that there are a lot of people whose view of it remained the same. But the number is what made most of us look up, I think. There is a good probability of being one of 8 million “tracked” Sprint Nextel customers (out of a total of 48 million), so the issue struck a chord with a lot of people. And it’s good that it did.

It seems to me that when the issue is a touchy subject with the general public, things are always done in the same way – covertly until stumbled upon by a random, or not so random, individual. When the thing can no longer be denied, good excuses for the practice are presented, the first of which is almost always “for the greater good/protection of the public”.

Unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to become desensitized to every issue if introduced to it slowly, so only an extreme (8 million!) can shake us awake. Also, unfortunately, we have a short attention span, so I am predicting this issue will very soon cease to be an issue. Pun intended.

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