Instead of continuing with the Sisyphean task of trying to stem the surveillance of our lives by private and government snoopers, regulators concerned with privacy should approach the problem not by dealing with the snoopers, but by informing and educating the public, those who are snooped on.
There is a legal test, the expectation of privacy, in use in the courts, which holds, for example, that one cannot expect privacy in the trash one has put out on the street, and that one can expect more privacy in a restroom in a public building than in other commonly used rooms in that building. Now that digital technology has invaded just about every aspect of our lives, the arena in which expectation of privacy comes into play should be expanded beyond lawyers and the courts, and regularized.
A clear guide to the degree of privacy one can expect from different ways of communicating would make the communicator, not the host of the communication, the first line of defense of privacy protection. The enforcement of privacy would then be simplified and strengthened, coming into play only when those regularized privacy expectations are violated.
Here is a very rough idea of what might be done: Various activities could be rated, zero through five, for their expectation of privacy. For example:
Internet activity; unencrypted e-mail – 0
Activity on highways, urban streets and wherever people (with i-phones) congregate – 0
Text messages – 1
Encrypted e-mail – 2
Cell phone voice communication – 2
Travel on unsurveilled roads – 3
Faxes – 3
Landline-to-landline communication – 3
Face-to-face conversations in a public space – 3
Mail and other enclosed communications via public carrier – 4
Face-to-face communications in a private residence – 5
The degree of authorization required for a violation of privacy would vary according to the rating. None would be required for internet communication. (As long as corporations are allowed to mine our internet activity and our e-mails, there is no rationale for keeping the government from doing the same, pace Edward Snowden.) Any public official could authorize interceptions in class 1. Law enforcement supervisors could authorize them in class 2. Violations of privacy in classes 3, 4 and 5 could be authorized by judges of ascending degrees of jurisdiction.
The public pretty much has given up on any expectation of e-mail and internet privacy. Regulators should do the same and, instead, concentrate their efforts on those areas where the public still expects some privacy.