Should We Have an Expectation of Online Privacy?

By Bruce Schneier
Information Security
May 2009

This essay appeared as the second half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's half is here.

Danish translation

If your data is online, it is not private. Oh, maybe it seems private. Certainly, only you have access to your e-mail. Well, you and your ISP. And the sender's ISP. And any backbone provider who happens to route that mail from the sender to you. And, if you read your personal mail from work, your company. And, if they have taps at the correct points, the NSA and any other sufficiently well-funded government intelligence organization -- domestic and international.

You could encrypt your mail, of course, but few of us do that. Most of us now use webmail. The general problem is that, for the most part, your online data is not under your control. Cloud computing and software as a service exacerbate this problem even more.

Your webmail is less under your control than it would be if you downloaded your mail to your computer. If you use Salesforce.com, you're relying on that company to keep your data private. If you use Google Docs, you're relying on Google. This is why the Electronic Privacy Information Center recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission: many of us are relying on Google's security, but we don't know what it is.

This is new. Twenty years ago, if someone wanted to look through your correspondence, he had to break into your house. Now, he can just break into your ISP. Ten years ago, your voicemail was on an answering machine in your office; now it's on a computer owned by a telephone company. Your financial accounts are on remote websites protected only by passwords; your credit history is collected, stored, and sold by companies you don't even know exist.

And more data is being generated. Lists of books you buy, as well as the books you look at, are stored in the computers of online booksellers. Your affinity card tells your supermarket what foods you like. What were cash transactions are now credit card transactions. What used to be an anonymous coin tossed into a toll booth is now an EZ Pass record of which highway you were on, and when. What used to be a face-to-face chat is now an e-mail, IM, or SMS conversation -- or maybe a conversation inside Facebook.

Remember when Facebook recently changed its terms of service to take further control over your data? They can do that whenever they want, you know.

We have no choice but to trust these companies with our security and privacy, even though they have little incentive to protect them. Neither ChoicePoint, Lexis Nexis, Bank of America, nor T-Mobile bears the costs of privacy violations or any resultant identity theft.

This loss of control over our data has other effects, too. Our protections against police abuse have been severely watered down. The courts have ruled that the police can search your data without a warrant, as long as others hold that data. If the police want to read the e-mail on your computer, they need a warrant; but they don't need one to read it from the backup tapes at your ISP.

This isn't a technological problem; it's a legal problem. The courts need to recognize that in the information age, virtual privacy and physical privacy don't have the same boundaries. We should be able to control our own data, regardless of where it is stored. We should be able to make decisions about the security and privacy of that data, and have legal recourse should companies fail to honor those decisions. And just as the Supreme Court eventually ruled that tapping a telephone was a Fourth Amendment search, requiring a warrant -- even though it occurred at the phone company switching office and not in the target's home or office -- the Supreme Court must recognize that reading personal e-mail at an ISP is no different.

earlier essay: Do You Know Where Your Data Are?
later essay: We Shouldn't Poison Our Minds with Fear of Bioterrorism
categories: Privacy and Surveillance
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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