Tech and privacy: What's next?

Is 2013 the year that should be engraved on the tombstone of privacy? Can some semblance of privacy be reclaimed in 2014, or is it forever lost? We take a look at the aftermath of the NSA spying revelations, as well as some other issues related to tech and privacy.

• Each new report based on the leaks by Edward Snowden seems to indicate the government spying programs know no bounds. We’ve learned — and in some cases, the government has acknowledged — that almost all our electronic communications are being watched or tracked in some way. A report Thursday from the Washington Post said the NSA is building a quantum computer with the aim of breaking almost any type of encryption.

Some key questions for this year: Will tech companies such as Google, Yahoo and more get what they’ve asked for — a chance to reveal more information about what they say is legally required compliance with the NSA — as they deal with what seems to be their inability to protect their information from the government? Will they suffer long-term business consequences?

What about telecom companies’ role in the scooping up of user information? Some have called them negligent for failing to implement fixes that supposedly would’ve kept the government from eavesdropping on mobile phone calls. Verizon has said it will begin publishing transparency reports this year; will the others follow?

There also are security issues related to the spying. Besides the much-cited national-security reasons, there are backlash risks, such as what the Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for this week: the hacking of Skype’s social media and blog accounts. The hackers accused Skype parent Microsoft of selling user data to governments.

And just how much will the government rein in the spying? President Obama recently said he would take into account a review panel’s recommendations to make changes in the NSA’s information collection; citing national-security concerns, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said Obama should reject the recommendations.

• Well-known retailers do it. So do companies that aren’t household names. We’re talking data mining. As most of us know, it’s not just the government that can track the public based on online habits, among other things. Combined with offline purchases and other personal details, data brokers such as Axciom have compiled profiles on more than 700 million consumers, Brandon Bailey reported in the fall. That information is gathered with the help of things such as website cookies, store loyalty cards and publicly available records.

Some of those who shrug their shoulders at NSA spying have pointed out that many of us willingly turn over our information to companies all the time, so why get upset about the government’s collection? But others have pointed out that many consumers may not be aware of the true costs of surrendering their information.

• What will the Internet of Things bring? Will the ability to connect everything to a network be more helpful or harmful? Steve Johnson writes that the rise of connected gadgets and devices is expected to benefit tech companies such as Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and big data company Splunk.

Helpful uses associated with the Internet of Things range from medical alerts to sensors that can warn of dangerous situations on roads or bridges. Also, being informed that you’re running low on milk or eggs.

But anything that’s connected can transmit information, and with whom and where that data is shared is what concerns some people. It could mean near-complete loss of control over what we share. The information could be misused by stalkers, insurance companies, vengeful co-workers or bosses or the just plain ill-intentioned. (Hacked pacemaker, anyone?) A couple of months ago, the Federal Trade Commission held a public workshop to discuss privacy and security concerns — potential regulatory issues abound; they’re complicated. It reportedly didn’t seem to do much good.


Photo: A protester with the organization Code Pink wears giant glasses with the message “stop spying” in Washington, D.C., in this October 29, 2013, file photo. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (4250 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also helps take care of, the Mercury News tech website. Email: