Stephen B. Wicker is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University and the author of “Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy.”
“President Obama’s proposals contain some positive elements. It appears that the NSA will no longer be in the business of the bulk collection of cellular metadata. This unwarranted collection, literally and figuratively, has been a gross violation of privacy, as such data often reveals more about an individual’s actions, preferences, and beliefs than the actual content of his or her phone calls. The President’s proposal also tacitly acknowledges that the administration’s secret interpretation of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act was flawed. Flawed or not, the cloaking of a massive bureaucracy with secret legal justifications is not a positive long-term strategy for a democracy.
“On the downside, cellular service providers will remain on the hook, so to speak, for retaining their customers’ metadata for extended periods of time. The resulting databases will be a target for hackers, creating a large-scale risk of identity theft. A mandate for data retention also presents an unreasonable burden for an industry that should be focused on improving customer service in general and data rates in particular, as opposed to coping with outsourced spying mandates.
“Cellular technology has been a surveillance technology since its inception. This is an inadvertent consequence of a series of design decisions made several decades in the past. Talented engineers and scientists should be focused on technologies that connect individuals without collecting their personal information. Personal communication should not entail mass surveillance.”