Irony underlines 2 privacy stories

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With all the privacy promises and assurances we receive from doctors, hospitals, banks and utility companies, you’d think most of us would feel confident that our privacy is safer than ever.

But with the growing ability of big institutions, big government and big corporations to gather data comes the growing realization that personal information is too often misused, stolen or just plain lost.

We learned last week just how easy it is for the most sensitive of personal information – names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers – to end up in the wrong hands.

A Veterans Administration bureaucrat took a laptop computer and some disks home, which were then stolen by what appears to have been a common burglar. Now, vital information about 28 million Americans is missing.

Both of Maine’s U.S. senators have called upon the VA to adopt tighter computer security procedures. But, at least in this case, it appears that the horse has already left the barn.

About the best 28 million Americans can now hope for is that the thieves who took the computer files don’t know what they have. That, however, seems unlikely, given all the publicity surrounding the high-profile theft.

Worse, the federal government has made clear that it’s up to the veterans themselves to detect whether criminals are making use of the information. Millions of individuals will now live with the added anxiety of watching and waiting for thieves to strike.

Also, within the past two weeks, USA Today reported that some of the largest phone companies in the nation have been funneling the calling records of their customers to the National Security Agency without court-approved warrants.

A group of 21 Mainers and the American Civil Liberties Union were quick to demand answers. They petitioned the Maine Public Utilities Commission to investigate whether any of their phone or e-mail records have been transferred from Verizon to the NSA.

In response, Verizon argued that the PUC lacks the authority over NSA records in a “highly classified” program. Verizon also argued that it is not permitted to confirm or deny whether it has turned phone records over to the federal government.

Most Americans realize that government agents need some special authority to monitor the records and phone calls of suspected criminals.

But, with the advent of supercomputers capable of storing, sorting and monitoring billions of bits of information, comes the possibility that the government is sifting through massive quantities of information on ordinary, law-abiding Americans.

With that comes the uncomfortable realization that the game has changed, that government surveillance has moved to a new level and that the arrival of the “Big Brother” society is one step closer to reality.

Congress has shown only a modest willingness to explore these issues. Almost any form of national snooping seems to fall under the vague, blanket assertion of “national security.”

There is a subtle irony underlining both of these recent stories. While one agency of government is prying into our private lives to protect us from terrorists, another has mistakenly made millions of Americans more fearful and vulnerable.

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