Though President Trump signed into law a bill rolling back rules set by the FCC to protect people’s personal privacy this month, there are some positive signs of progress on the horizon. States can still require that Internet Service Providers seek customer permission before selling profiles of people’s browsing history and app usage to advertisers. Maryland, Minnesota, and Montana are considering legislation that forces telecom companies to get customer permission before they sell their sensitive browsing history, purchases, online habits, etc., to third-parties. This is good news: lawmakers and the people they represent are starting to recognize that stripping people’s privacy protections erodes personal liberties.
Another positive development came this month when bipartisan legislation was drafted that seeks to require federal agents to procure warrants before searching people’s mobile devices at the border when they travel abroad. The proposed law would also protect US citizens from having to hand over phone passwords to re-enter the country. In the legislation, lawmakers specifically cited safeguarding Americans’ personal photos.
This is important. In the past, people’s personal space and privacy extended to the physical sphere of their bodies and some personal belongings. As our world expands to one that is increasingly virtual, we must take the same precautions to preserve our digital privacy as we do to preserve our physical privacy.
It’s simple — real freedom comes from feeling safe and having the ability to set our own boundaries when it comes to privacy. Since our phones collect our activities, relationships, and thoughts; they’ve become extensions of our brains and windows into our personal lives. If people know that they can’t travel without having their phone seized and searched, we run the risk of changing our behavior: some people will stop traveling, refrain from using their phones, and censor what they say and do. This repression threatens people’s freedom to be themselves.
Outlawing federal agents from searching people’s phones and private photos without cause is a move in the right direction. But this law will only protect Americans. It should be extended to everyone around the world unless they are suspected of a crime. According to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, privacy is fundamental:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
Homeland security is critical, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of individual liberties. A Reuters poll this month showed that 75% of Americans are against sharing their Internet activity with the government to assist in the fight against terrorism. At a time when Americans are feeling more insecure than ever about their digital privacy and security, we need leadership to reassure people that our online experiences are both safe and in their control.