Hidden dangers of the Bush email hacking

Media throughout the country carried news recently that a half-dozen email accounts belonging to ex-President George W. Bush and several of his friends and relatives had been hacked.  The words and images that were pilfered weren’t all that interesting, so all in all it wasn’t a huge story.

But to me, a fan of the vanishing right to privacy, this was still a reasonably big deal. I was struck by the way the former president’s right to chat with intimates, free of eavesdroppers, was barely acknowledged. Comments he had made privately and paintings he had kept from public view were exposed worldwide as if the propriety of doing so was beyond question.

And I think that’s worth considering more carefully.

We’ll leave to the FBI and Secret Service the question of whether the hacking warrants legal reprisal. My interest is in what sort of respect Bush’s privacy deserves from the media that received the hacked materials.

The first report of the hacking came in a Feb. 7 posting on The Smoking Gun, a website owned by Time-Warner that tilts toward what was once called tabloid journalism (Among recent headlines: “Man stabbed as ménage a trois goes wrong,” or “Mom charged for letting son, 3, pump gasoline.”)

The Smoking Gun handled the material well, I thought, by foregrounding its invasiveness.  The hack “exposed personal photos and sensitive correspondence from members of the Bush family…” The site said it had obtained confidential material—including home addresses, cell phone numbers, email addresses for Bush family members—but didn’t republish any of it.

In fact, most of the media I saw seemed aware that this material was pretty personal.

But they then turned around and squeezed every bit of even marginally interesting detail from it: Family concern about the declining health of the Continue reading “Hidden dangers of the Bush email hacking”

Threat to online privacy starts with the way the Internet makes money

There’s something quaint about the ruling last week from an appeals court in Indiana concerning an anonymous comment posted on The Indianapolis Star’s website. The 2009 posting suggested a local notable had embezzled money from a troubled project, and he wanted to sue for defamation.

Trouble is, he didn’t know whom to sue because the author of the posting used a make-believe name. The newspaper wouldn’t help because it believed the writer deserved protection as a confidential news source. The court ruled, essentially, that if presented with compelling evidence that the posting was false and damaging, the trial court could order the author identified.

It’s not the wisdom of decision that interests me. It’s the way that courts, when they address the nettlesome question of Internet privacy, do so with care, transparency, and precision.

That’s what is so quaint. Because those same values have almost no role in the way the big, sweeping contours of Internet privacy are taking shape in the new millennium.

Instead, they’re emerging from a corporate-government kabuki that is as transparent as the online Terms of Service Agreements we users thoughtlessly sign: Giant Internet companies introduce glittering services that lubricate the invisible process of appropriating and sharing information about their customers; then, once outraged users get wise to what’s happening, the companies launch new measures to protect privacy; next, those safeguards are exposed as ineffectual, the government gets annoyed, the Internet companies circle back and try again, settlements are reached, checks are written.

And the corporate search goes on, unstoppably, for clever new ways to flush out, capture and make money from user data. Continue reading “Threat to online privacy starts with the way the Internet makes money”