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SXSW

SXSW: Trump Might Not Be Completely Paranoid When It Comes to Surveillance

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Consumers have to take an active part in protecting their own privacy as connected devices proliferate, but tech marketers and their employees can play a role as well, privacy advocates said at a SXSW Conference talk about the Fourth Amendment and technology on Friday.

Scenes of people parting with that privacy have come into focus lately with reports of international arrivals in the United States, including U.S. citizens, being asked to provide their smartphone passwords before they could leave the airport.

"We're carrying more and more of ourselves that is searchable when we cross a border," said Mike Godwin, a media attorney (and creator of "Godwin's Law"). "I've traveled internationally a lot and I come back in the country and I leave the country, and I find myself increasingly thinking about what is on my computer and what is on my devices as I cross borders."

Mr. Godwin urged the audience to take a tough look at everything on their devices, including emails and apps, in light of their potential examination by border officials.

The conversation came as consumers carry and bring home more and more connected devices that generate enormous amounts of information. Earlier in the week, WikiLeaks posted documents that it said revealed "C.I.A. hacking tools" to target smartphones. In February, the Bentonville Police Department sought a search warrant for access to interactions between a murder suspect and his Amazon Echo device. Consumers often don't realize that the apps they use are coughing up location data for marketers' use, albeit typically in anonymized and aggregated ways. And, the panelists pointed out, the regulatory environment hasn't even evolved enough yet to treat email as private.

But tech companies' power can cut both ways, including in favor of privacy, according to Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Companies have this ability to act as a buffer, act as somebody who can help everyday Americans," she said.

Sean Vitka, director of the Fourth Amendment Advisory Committee, asked the audience how many people present work at tech companies and have communicated with their employers about they handle consumer data.

"People having those conversations from within is incredibly important," Mr. Vitka said.

Initial reports on the latest WikiLeaks dump implied that tech companies might not be so good at safeguarding privacy, reading the documents to mean that the C.I.A. could crack even encrypted messaging tools such as WhatsApp and Signal. But closer examination showed mostly revelations of C.I.A. techniques to go after individual phones and access messages through keyboard tracking software, for example, not signs that the agency can decrypt messages on a large scale.

Any discussion of tech and inappropriate surveillance wouldn't have been complete in March 2017 without touching on President Trump's recent allegation via Twitter that former President Obama had wiretapped his campaign.

Without suggesting that Mr. Trump had been "wiretapped" in the traditional sense, Mr. Vitka said Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act "collects on so many people that it is hard for me to imagine that President Trump is not reflected in those databases." Section 702 is designed to target non U.S.-citizens but inevitably turns up contacts with others, he said.

"This is not to defend Donald Trump's tweet, but it is to point out that sometimes things are not as crazy as they sound," Mr. Vitka added.