Subversives, fugitives and drug dealers have operated under the assumption that all phones are tapped for as long as there have been phones. This is even more the case with today’s digital communication. The safe assumption is that every line is tapped, so when engaging in any form of electronic communication, it’s good to heed the advice given in The Anarchist Cookbook way back in the 1970’s: “If you can’t say it in front of a cop, keep it to yourself.”
So now we learn that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and analyzing all the data they can grab. This should come as no surprise. If the data is there, they will mine it. They always have, and they always will. I’m not saying that it’s right. It’s actually contrary to every sacred principle this nation was built upon. But it is what it is.
Most of us knew all along that the emperor was walking around naked. Now that the official media has finally noticed, they’re going bat-crap crazy talking about it. Let me throw a few random thoughts into this cacophony.
Hypocrisy patrol part 1: There’s a certain crowd that is outraged that was completely OK when Bush and Cheney were doing it. If spying on our personal data is Bad now, it was Bad then.
Hypocrisy patrol part 2: There’s another crowd that is shrugging its shoulders and saying this is no big deal. These are the same people who were outraged when Bush and Cheney were doing it. If spying on our personal data was Bad then, it’s Bad now.
To be fair, there is a significant group of politicians and pundits who are consistent. Some extreme right-wing authoritarians say it’s no big deal, just as they did ten years ago. Some liberals and libertarians are outraged, just as they were ten years ago.
To the “shruggers”: There’s a big crowd I call the shruggers, because they spend most of their time shrugging their shoulders in resignation, saying things like, “It’s no big deal,” or, “We have to do this to catch the Bad Guys,” or, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
Let’s take a look at that slippery slope and see where it leads:
Bad Guys sometimes meet in motel rooms. Since we have to monitor everybody’s communication to keep track of what the Bad Guys are up to, and since a lot of that communication takes place in motel rooms, we therefore must monitor what goes on in motel rooms. Are you ready for the NSA to mandate microphones and cameras in all motel rooms?
The technology now exists (and many car rental companies are using it) to closely track the cars we drive. A black box in the car can continuously track our speed, location, and other data. So if you say you have nothing to hide, does that apply to how fast you drive, where you go, and whether or not you make a complete stop at every stop sign? The next time you get pulled over by the police, are you ready for the officer to use his computer to learn more about your car’s movements than you can remember yourself?
Hypocrisy patrol part 3: The authoritarians and the shruggers are willing to tear up the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution in the interest of “national security.” So even though the Fourth Amendment is expendable, most of these same people believe that the Second Amendment is a sacred document that should never be violated in any way.
So domestic spying and mining of our personal data is OK, but to require background checks to keep felons, crazy people and terrorists from buying any kind of gun they want… that’s stepping over the line? I’m sorry, but if the Second Amendment is sacred, so is the Fourth. And if the Fourth Amendment is conditional, so is the Second.
Who gathers and holds the data? In public places in the UK, there are security cameras everywhere, maintained and monitored by government police and security units. Most American cities don’t do that yet (though many are starting to). The American Way is for security cameras to be owned and operated by the private sector, and government authorities need a proper court order to access the tapes.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, it was a department store camera that recorded one of the bombers leaving the backpack with the bomb in it. Public surveillance cameras were not necessary to solve this crime.
In our home town of La Crosse, a downtown shop keeper and his son were recently found murdered in their store. It was private surveillance footage that provided the evidence police needed to make an arrest.
So we don’t need an army of police spies tracking our every move in real time. The private sector is already recording everything. If the police have a legitimate need to see what was recorded by a specific camera at a specific time, then they can get the proper paperwork to do so.
Corporations have been gathering and mining our data for years. Under the PRISM program, the NSA is gathering data from corporations like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook and others. In theory, the government has a lot of restrictions and limitations on what they can do with our information. The corporations’ rights are explicitly defined in the End User Agreements that none of us read but click on anyway.
What we look at, what we search for, what we click on, who our friends are, where we go… all of these points of information are collected by private businesses whose job is to “monetize” that information, that is, to turn it into a marketable commodity.
Recently I had some issues with a power supply for a laptop, so I did a search for repair advice on that particular power supply. The very next day, ads for a replacement power supply (that exact make and model) began appearing on mundane web pages I read all the time. So instead of the generic t-shirt ads I had been seeing, the WalMart of the Internet was trying to sell me a replacement power supply.
That’s just one obvious example of how these corporations use the footprints and breadcrumbs we leave behind as we travel the Internet. But the data mining techniques these companies use is sophisticated enough for them to know things about us that we don’t know about ourselves.
Privatizing national security: Edward Snowden didn’t work for the NSA, he worked for a contracting organization hired by the NSA called Booz Allen Hamilton (majority owned and controlled by the Carlyle Group). Given the Carlyle Group’s association with names like Bush, Baker and bin Laden, I think giving this kind of spying authority to such a shady outfit is a Bad Idea.
NSA employees are government workers who take an oath to uphold the constitution. Booz Allen Hamilton employees are not… they only answer to the people who sign their checks. Just as private contractors like Blackwater (now hiding behind the name Xe) have no place in our military, contractors like BAH have no place in our intelligence apparatus. Government work must be done by people hired by the citizens… workers who are sworn to uphold the constitution.
Any information stored on a computer (emails, browser cache and history, documents, pictures, system logs, everything) can be accessed by anyone with “root access” to that computer. In some organizations, this can be a LOT of people. But as someone who has been one of those people, I had no interest in snooping around in other people’s files… I had too many other things to do. But I tried to be transparent about what I could see if I wanted to. It’s good for people to know this.
What you must know is that security can’t be guaranteed for any unencrypted data on any computer that you don’t physically own.
What to do? Data is recorded every time you use a telephone, a computer, or any other device that connects to an external network. It’s depressing that it’s so impossible to avoid, so the best we can do is to be aware of it and act accordingly.
I think there’s a business opportunity here for anyone who can design a mail/messaging app that encrypts content in transit. Encryption is a good practice for any sensitive data that’s stored on someone else’s server. Some day, I’ll post a how-to on basic encryption for documents.
Getting completely off the data grid is a tough proposition. That means not using computers, phones of any kind, credit cards, cars, or any public utilities. It would mean living in a cabin in the woods, rarely travelling, and conducting all business in cash. In other words, you’d have to live like the Unabomber, and he got caught.