August 18, 2013

Privacy vs. security issue a hot topic that's not going away

By STEWART DENENBERG Technology and Society

---- — I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me today, Friday July 19, as I sit on my deck, temperature 95 F in the shade, sweating out yet one more column. You can if you wish but I don’t want you to. I do this not only to let my editor know that I don’t always write the column the night before but to call your attention to the fact that the Privacy vs. Security issue that I discussed in last month’s column is a news story with legs (that’s what we in the news biz call “persistence”) and I want to continue it in this column even though you won’t be reading it until August 17 when, if the current trend continues, the temperatures will hover in the 135 degree range. Or not — they could be in the 30s and I would not be surprised.

To mix a metaphor, lots more words have flowed under the bridge/over the dam since we first learned from Edward Snowden’s leaks to the Manchester Guardian about how the NSA was, if you’re of the liberal or libertarian persuasion, invading our right to privacy and if you’re not then “enhancing our security” might be the way you would describe it. In either case, Snowden’s actions may have the unintended side effect of uniting the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives, the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress under the banner of “Freedom to be Left Alone”.“

By the way, I just want all my readers to know that I’ve decided to move me, my fan and iced coffee from the deck down to the basement where it’s a frosty 80 degrees and I should be able to concentrate better. Please, please do not worry about me. I’ll be fine. I’m fine, really. Ok, where was I? Ah, yes, the story with legs.

The Aug. 1 edition of the Press-Republican published an Associated Press story that the surveillance had “three hops” to it. That is, NSA could, if they felt it was necessary, search your phone calls for up to 40 people and, for each of those 40, 40 more, and for each of those 1,600 oblivious souls, 40 more — resulting in up to “12.5 million” searches. By my calculation: 40+(40x40)+(40x40x40) is only 65,640 searches — nowhere near the 12.5 million but still enough to get excited about.

If you feel that your privacy is in jeopardy, there are several things you can do:

Sign an online petition against this surveillance at: at:

If you are web-savvy you can use a proxy or anonymous remailer service.

You can use self-destructing emails similar to the mobile photo apps, but this app may still be in the review.

In more recent developments, on July 24, 2013, Representative Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan presented the House this question: “Do you oppose the suspicionless collection of the phone records of every American?”

Here’s how they answered: 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats agreed (they voted Yes) while 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats disagreed (they voted No). So the vote was 205 For and 217 Against (12 members did not vote) ( It’s easy to conclude that if our Representatives truly represent us there is no consensus on this question.

While I basically oppose dragnets, I have mixed feelings on this issue. When I receive an automated call from my credit card company questioning purchases I have made that do not fit my spending “profile” should I be enraged that my privacy has been violated or thankful that they’re looking out for me? Frankly, I’m thankful because I know about and have agreed to this policy. In the case of the NSA vs. Snowden, to be honest, I was not surprised but I was disturbed that a government agency, even a spy agency, is spying on me under a “law” that I didn’t know existed. One of the hallmarks of a representative democracy is transparency, is it not?

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at