OMG, they’re reading my email: how the media inflames privacy panic

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(s fb) musings or Google (s goog) 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.