What is the Return on Information (ROI) on tracking terrorists?


Lawmakers and tech titans united?  What possibly could align such a crew?  War?  No.  The environment?  Sadly, no.  Citizen and consumer well-being?  Not exactly.


Well, fear and greed.  Last month representative Zoe Lofgren presented a new bill that requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before accessing cloud data, such as email history or location information of individuals.  Why?  The talk track is fear: fear that law enforcement may abuse the ability to access information to do their job.  But it's also about greed.  Warrants are expensive to acquire, monitor and track, which means more government dollars required to issue more warrants. 

And lo, the majority of large tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Twitter, and Google support the bill.  The Digital Due Process coalition, an organization in support of stricter controls on who can access digital and mobile information, is also a large supporter of this bill.  Why?  Fear that the government might make tech companies do things they don't want to do?  Or is it about greed?

Mobile privacy laws are already in effect, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986.  Yes, the laws are convoluted and outdated to tackle the large amount of private information that is shared in digital communications today.  We as digital mobile beings have evolved.  No surprise that our approach to data access should evolve too.  Witness the fundamental changes in the way people communicate online, including email, location data, social networking, and cloud computing. 

But are the tech titans accessing our digital information without our consent for more than greed?  Should we fear our talented technologists?  Should we fear our own government?

Yes, if we have a  reason to fear.  Bad folks have a reason to fear both those that can collect and analyze data, and those that can enforce the law by utilizing said data.  But what about the good folk?  The 99%?  Should we fear our government?

If you have a friend or relative in law enforcement, you might have some idea of just how many controls are already in place for accessing personal data.  Turns out it's a lot easier for the bad guys to access and use cloud data than the good guys.  New requirements such as those proposed by Zoe would, from the ranks of the law enforcers, "hinder the ability to do our jobs."  Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa recently stated that requiring search warrants to access data would “limit (law enforcement's) ability to obtain information necessary to catch criminals and terrorists who use electronic communication."

Who's right, Zoe or Chuck?  Chief Location Officer says both are approaching the mark.  Yes, the Justice Department needs information.  And information needs are growing.  But personal information on anyone without cause?  No. 

What are the limits?  Seven years ago. CNET reported on the Justice Department’s tracking of digital data, such as location, without a warrant.   Today, cell phone tracking, including minute-by-minute location data, is an expected and necessary component of criminal investigations.  And while the statistics and reports are limited and thus under constant debate, cloud and mobile information access has helped all agencies enforce the law under the Justice Department.  There is, some Senators report, a demonstrated ROI, a Return on Information.  Especially when tracking really bad and really sophisticated evil-doers.

In 2011, the Justice Department took the idea of cell phone monitoring to a new level by asking for new laws that require mobile providers to collect and store location data and other information about their customers, in case law enforcement needs to access historical data as well.   Some conjure up a notion that constant, inescapable government surveillance is the result.  That, whoa, "Big Brother" is watching you.  But access does not mean action.  Having the capability to see your information doesn't mean that anyone is accessing it, or doing anything with it.  Unless of course there's a) fear or b) greed involved.

The Justice Department is concerned with a) fear.  Fear that bad folk, terrorists and law breakbreakers, will do bad things.  The tech titans like Apple and Google are more concerned with b) greed.  How can money be made by providing goods and services to all the folks (mostly good folks)?  We all accept that Google and Facebook make money off us by using our information when we search or poke friends.  It's a fair trade for billions of us: not paying anything in exchange for information about what we do online or on our phones.

In the United States, a warrant is an order directly from the Department of Justice that data and information is needed and must be provided, even if it trumps a commercial agreement in place between a company and a customer.  Like tapping a phone.  And even today, if a judge issues a wiretap order or a warrant, he or she does after a rigorous and "innocent until proven guilty" process.  Requiring a warrant shifts authority, and control, from the private sector (your search engine, your smartphone maker, your location service) to the government (the FBI, the DEA, your local sheriff).  Companies, ones with very robust privacy policies, including the tech titans and platforms like Google, Apple, Facebook and Locaid, want very clear, specific laws in place.  And so do consumers. 

What do leading Chief Location Officers want?  We want all parties, our consumers and the governments who represent them, to agree on data access protocols and procedures.  We recognize that ubiquitious accord will not be attained for quite some time.  So we will continue to "do the right thing."  And urge our politicians to conduct a robust and balanced debate.  And that may take time. 

The question will remain for generations: how to balance the Age of Big Data with the Age of Privacy?  What is the ROI of tracking the bad folk?  And does it balance with the ROI of providing the good folk, in a good way, with the goods and services they demand?