Archive for June, 2013

Privacy and anonymity on the Internet and in real life are under increasing assault due to companies’ and governmental agencies’ ability to capture incredible amounts of data mainly from Internet traffic, and their ability to track users across websites and services, generally without users’ knowledge.  Once it’s been captured, this data is essentially impossible to erase regardless of whether it is right or in error, and many organizations that have captured such troves of data have demonstrated a weak ability to maintain control of it.

Often this data is used “just” for commercial purposes, but could also be used to threaten to expose users of certain websites or services, or expose holders of unpopular political, social, or economic views, or to prevent people from accessing whatever websites someone in power wishes them not to access.

Privacy and anonymity are different but interrelated, and both are deeply and honorably enshrined in American legal and cultural traditions.  For our purposes,

  • Privacy means other people can’t get information about me (e.g. tax returns or medical records) that I don’t willingly give them, and it’s no business of anyone else’s what websites I go to or what I do online.  To have privacy is part of what it means to be an autonomous human being; if you have no privacy, other people can know everything about you and be able to make decisions for you or predict your actions.
  • Anonymity means I can express opinions, access Internet-based data, or visit websites without anyone knowing who I am in real life, or where I am physically (not being able to find or contact me, in other words to be able to harass, expose, or arrest me).  This should include someone not being able to identify me via some pseudo-me that they have constructed from my presence using cookies, malware, or other hidden identifiers.  Just their not knowing my real name is not enough, to be anonymous is to be unreachable.

I am disturbed by people who, in the wake of 9/11 or because of some other real or perceived terrorist activities, take the position that “only people with something to hide need to hide behind privacy.”  This is nonsense.  We all deserve privacy in our private lives, unless for a very specific reason someone gets a court order to pierce this veil.  Nor is anonymity somehow un-American.  In the early days of our Revolution, Madison, Jay, and Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers under the name of Publius to avoid any untoward personal issues from their views.  Purer and more patriotic Americans never existed than these!

This situation has been brought about by aggressive data capture technologies, and the ability to cheaply store incredible amounts of raw data and quickly process it to correlate, trace, and extract meaning from even the tiniest pieces of it.  Governments, repressive or otherwise, have used court orders to compel Internet-based services to disgorge details on individuals’ use of these services and have also developed network-penetration techniques (hacking) to harass individuals and obstruct their access to data.  Technology has thus leapt ahead of accepted proper use of it, and indeed ahead of the common person’s ability to even comprehend what is happening.

Here is a good, and seemingly harmless example.  If a woman is a regular Target shopper, using a Red Card or consistently using a single credit or debit card, and she becomes pregnant, Target will know that fact by the third or fourth month with a very high degree of certainty, based on subtle shifts in her buying habits.  Not because she’s buying diapers, because she isn’t yet, but by other changes they won’t make public.  At this point they start biasing their ads delivered to her for the purpose of increasing her “lock in” to Target, so that Target becomes her preferred store during the next couple of years.

But if Target can do this, what if an insurance company could buy data on policyholders that would allow them to determine that you are developing some serious health problems, and raise your rates, or drop you entirely,or not take you on in the first place?  Or could the state pre-emptively revoke your driver’s license?  Or arrest you because they felt you were exhibiting signs of radicalism, whatever that may mean?  And worse yet, if any of these things happened to you, would you even know the reason, or would you think it was some accident of nature?

And now we have the evidence that the National Security Agency has for many years, without any warrant or even hint that any wrong-doing was being carried out, been recording phone call details and Internet access data (“metadata”) on a great fraction of the American public on an ongoing basis.  These governmental criminals then look you in the face and say, “we’re not listening to your calls or looking at your data, we’re just recording this ‘metadata,’ you don’t have to worry!”

Let’s look at this metadata.  For a phone call, it would include your number, where you were, were you moving, who you called, where they were, at what time of day, and how long it lasted.  You may say, “so they know I call my sister in Toledo every Friday evening.  So what?”  Well, if they have the metadata on every call you have made for the last several years, they can build a profile of your normal calling patterns to a surprising level of detail.  Now you start calling – even twice a week, say, a lover in San Antonio.  They would be able to see this as a deviation from your usual calling pattern, and they could be alerted, perhaps, and perhaps interested.

So metadata on calls and Internet accesses is far from harmless.  They don’t have to listen to the calls with this kind of stuff at their fingertips.  Indeed, the call metadata is in many ways superior to merely listening in on somebody’s line.  What Target can do with charge-card metadata, the NSA can to a thousand times over with call metadata.

So what they want to do is to record communication metadata on everybody in the country, forever, so they can go back into it at their convenience, and analyze it retro-spectively looking for some hint of wrongdoing.  At this point, we have no personal privacy any more, we are as good as naked on the street.  Even the Chinese or Russian police states don’t (yet) have this power.

So I ask: is this the kind of country we want to live in?

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