Big Brother Everywhere

The other day, a friend of mine, who was installing Skype on a new computer, was baffled when Skype suggested all sorts of contacts that weren’t on his Skype contact list but in his address book. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal provided an answer in its article on the voluminous personal information Facebook apps pilfer from users and their friends.

“Apps are gateways,” it said. Address book info, location, even sexual preferences … nothing is safe. And not just of the user but also of the user’s friends—privacy settings don’t stop personal data from being grabbed by apps that friends are using. Turns out, the Skype app picks up address book data along with whatever else it can find.

The app economy is big bickies, as my friends from down under might say, with estimated revenues of $20 billion in 2011. Silicon Valley and San Francisco are hotbeds for app developers, and some of them are getting funded, and a select few have successful exits, such as photo-sharing app Instagram that ended up on Facebook’s shopping list for a cool billion.

At watering holes or events where developers and entrepreneurs hang out, the conversation often bounces across the app economy and the “cloud” it relies on, that notion of amorphous servers that handle your storage and processing needs off site. Yet, the cloud is not amorphous. It is composed of companies with real people, servers, and computers, and some of the people are hanging out at bars, and soon they tell you how they access data their users have uploaded.

Cloud-based services brag about SSL encryption and make you sign in with complex passwords to make you feel secure, but like banks, their employees and data-mining algorithms can access your data stored on their servers to be monetized in some way. That’s the nature of the cloud on the commercial side.

But the government, which has largely been left behind in this quest for personal data, jumped into the fray with different and most likely less efficient methods. Examples abound. The latest—and most worrisome for international travelers—is Glenn Greenwald’s story about the travails that journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras experiences every time she returns to the US. Among her documentaries were “My Country, My Country” which was filmed in Iraq and was nominated in 2007 for an Academy Award, and “Oath” which focused on two brothers in Yemen. “Poitras’ intent all along with these two documentaries was to produce a trilogy of War on Terror films,” Greenwald writes. And that got her on a list of Americans who receive special attentions from the Department of Homeland Security.

Virtually every time during that six-year-period that she has returned to the U.S., her plane has been met by DHS agents who stand at the airplane door or tarmac and inspect the passports of every de-planing passenger until they find her…. Each time, they detain her, and then interrogate her at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke.

They also confiscated her electronic devices, including her camera, presumably searched and copied whatever was on them, before returning them often days later. And she wasn’t the only one. During an 18-month period from 2008-2010, more than 6,600 passengers—almost half of them US citizens—had had their electronic devices searched without search warrant, according to the ACLU.

For the government, that’s a lot of work to obtain the data of only six Americans a day—considering how much information millions of Americans give up every minute by using their smartphones, Facebook accounts, Google products, and thousands of other services, or whenever they click on ads or get on the internet, or simply walk into a store with their smartphone.

It would be much more efficient for the government to automatically grab every bit of information pulsing through the networks and store it on servers where powerful computers can break encryptions, translate foreign languages, and data-mine it ad infinitum. Which, if it isn’t happening already, will be happening soon, according to Wired Magazine: the National Security Agency is building its Utah Data Center in “immense secrecy” as a “final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade” to “intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications,” even domestic communications by Americans. A $2 billion project. Perhaps one of those shovel-ready stimulus ones.

How far will the government go in trying to extract the last bit of information from its people? At this point, it appears to be lagging behind the commercial sector where big corporations and even startups that come and go obtain information because people hand it to them—eagerly or very unwittingly.

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