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Summary:

An alarming story about a Senate plan to let federal agencies read your email turns out to have been a false alarm. Unfortunately, fears over online privacy mean such stories travel quickly — and that we’re likely to see the media crying wolf in the future.

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According to a well-publicized report, the US Senate planned to let the Post Office and other federal agencies read your email or Facebook page without a search warrant. Worse, the plan’s backer was supposed to stand up for privacy but instead caved to pressure from law enforcement.

This is scary stuff and could mark a new low point for privacy in America. Thank god, then, that the report wasn’t true. Instead, the “feds all up in your email” story appears to have been the latest attempt to exploit readers’ fears of a growing surveillance society. Here’s a quick look at what happened:

Panic over privacy

Last Tuesday, as Americans prepared to settle into days of turkey and TV, the tech news site CNET published an alarming story headlined: “Senate bill rewrite lets feds read your e-mail without warrants.”

According to CNET, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (D Vt), quietly rewrote a proposed law to give vast new investigative powers to 22 agencies like the Federal Reserve and the FCC. CNET pointed to excerpts from a draft bill to suggests agency gnomes would no longer even need a warrant to read your emails, Facebook musings or Google documents.

CNET’s would-be privacy bombshell soon received appropriate attention, even landing at the top of the Drudge Report. The site, which has a massive audience and enjoys embarrassing Democrats, reported it like this:

Other sites also began reporting on the Senate’s scary new plan to let agencies read our emails.

What really happened

Not everyone, however, took the CNET report at face value. Kashmir Hill, a veteran privacy reporter at Forbes, put it bluntly on Twitter:

Hill soon issued a rejoinder to the CNET report, noting that the bill it cited was just one of many versions circulating in the Senate and was not one being taken seriously. She also pointed out that such a law would come at a disturbing time given the recent flap over General Petraeus’ email. Finally, Hill quoted a Leahy spokesman who said the article was “wrong.”

Other news outlets soon published additional denials from Leahy’s office. Meanwhile, sites like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Politico simply ignored l’affaire Leahy altogether. (For a level-headed rundown of the whole episode, including how the feds can already read your email in some cases, see Wired’s report here.)

Whether CNET was set up by one of Leahy’s enemies or simply jumped the gun in reporting a draft bill isn’t clear. The only response to the controversy from the story’s author, Declan McCullough, was to write a follow-up piece that suggested CNET’s initial story had helped force Leahy to back down.

Crying Wolf

If nothing else, this non-scandal over email privacy reveals how these stories exist in a media sweet spot that taps public fears of technology, the government and big companies. News stories that confirm suspicions about an online Big Brother will always attract an audience, especially as they appeal to both liberals and right-wing libertarians.

Unfortunately, the widespread fears over online privacy also mean that it’s easy for the media to pander to them. Any headline with some combination of “privacy,” “Google” and “government” is likely to track well.

The bigger problem here is that online privacy is a serious issue — every day we turn more of our personal information over to the cloud with little assurances that it will remain safe from companies and governments. But every time the media points to smoke without fire, the greater the chance we will tune out genuine privacy threats.

  1. We should be worried that “draft” such as reported existed at all. What’s the point of writing out juditial oversight at all? Somebody was bored and decided to do it?

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    1. Exactly! I am glad that this happened. This is a good wake up call to anybody in the government who might even remotely be thinking of something like this. It clearly sends them the message that the public will not tolerate it.

      The media usually doesn’t sound the alarm when stealthy government-supported wolves steal our lunch. On matters like these, I don’t see any great downsides to media crying wolf.

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  2. Excellent reporting by CNET and Drudge. You have the real point in your story too: there’s a bill circulating in the senate that would have allowed government agencies to read anyone’s emails without a warrant. This is for sure an alarming revelation about a huge government power grab. If the bill wasn’t taken seriously (and I doubt there weren’t other senators who would support it) it’s in part because of reporting like CNET and Drudge did – and you’re not helping.

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    1. CNN is not helping. GigaOM is jealous so they are not helping. Privacy reporters are pulling their hair out because they get the news out but it just seems like SOME of the public are in denial there’s a surveillance state happening right in front of them. They are guilty of allowing it to happen and go unnoticed.

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  3. While the specific story may have has some inconsistencies with reality, there is no doubt that there are mountains of personal data that are available and unprotected. These are not secure communications but information that we have willing shared.

    Check out this blog and the related article… http://rickscotttechblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/big-data-and-the-erosion-of-privacy/

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  4. If anyone has worked with a private investigator, he or she knows that nearly nothing is private….with or without internet access. I have to pose the question; are we losing something real or something we imagine we have?

    –Deirdre Kamber Todd

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  5. Nice job, Kashmir. Good to see the Forbes privacy maven earning her keep as the go-to source :-).

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  6. Are you mad because there is a momentous occasion where the mass constituency of the United States might be a little raw over the near weekly onslaughts of invasive bills? I get that the reporting seemed overzealous and probably was. However, why aren’t you guys policing FOX or CNN or any of the MSM outlets for privacy news fouls? Because it’s just not there. MSM can not report and you are fine. When CNET reports to overcompensate…

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  7. If you existed in any point in time you’ve done atleast one thing that would make your mom blush. There never was any privacy if you were foolish enough to be viewed, left evidence, or spilled you guts to at least one other.
    The difference now is how easy it is to leave a trail of your misdeeds, and how quietly, even accidently someone else can find that trail, and how easily that knowledge can spread like wildfire.

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  8. What is interesting about this article is that it is too dismissive of something that could have on the face be very serious. The fact that CNET found this story to report on indicates that someone was thinking about ways to allow the government to more easily invade our privacy. We have already seen it with the so called “Patriot Act” as well as other bills that seek to increase government powers beyond what the Constitution allows. President Obama himself has made statements that he would like to act and impose his wishes despite Congress which simply put would make him a dictator by usurping the Constitution. So I am glad CNET reported this news even if it was not a bill under active consideration. The very fact that such a draft might exist is scary enough.

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  9. This topic, in general, always baffles me. Email (delivered via SMTP) never was (since I started using it in 1983), never is (unless you encrypt it), and likely never will be ‘private’ – i.e unreadable by anyone on a server that the email goes through. Email is always sent in “plain text”. Now, whether a second party has access to the email stored at it’s end point is another matter.

    If you want it to be ‘private’ – encrypt it. (there are easy solutions out there.) And delete the email and key once received. As I said on another post, if you want something to be private, don’t type it into a computer. 8-/

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  10. The misleadingly-named Electronic Communications Privacy Act already allows the government to read your email without a warrant, because it excludes emails that have been stored for more than 6 months. The South Carolina Supreme Court recently ruled that the ECPA does not give any protection at all to emails that are not stored for “backup” purposes but are the principal copies.

    The greater fallacy is that laws like the ECPA can protect your email privacy. The laws merely discourage privacy breaches by enabling punishment of people who breach that privacy. They don’t protect your privacy any more than burglary laws protect your property. Stuff still gets stolen, and once your privacy is breached it cannot be regained, unlike your stolen stuff.

    @tf hits the nail on the head. Unencrypted email is not private – period. Laws will not make it private. If you want to protect your stuff from theft, you should lock it up. If you, want to protect your email privacy, you should encrypt it.

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