The Worldwide Surveillance And Privacy War (Which You Already Lost)

For years, Congress tolerated or encouraged telephone and internet surveillance of Americans in the US by US government agencies. We all – and that includes the Chinese, for example – now know that, thanks to NSA leaker extraordinaire Edward Snowden. But on Wednesday, Congress was tricked into going on record.

The instigators were two unlikely bedfellows from Michigan, Rep. Justin Amash, a young Republican with a libertarian bent, and Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat who at 84 is the second longest-serving member of Congress. Their proposal would have restricted the NSA’s surveillance activities. And Congress voted 217 to 205 to give the NSA a free hand. Here is the roll call if you want to know how your rep stacked up in the battle over surveillance and privacy.

It’s a worldwide phenomenon. The Snowden leaks have shown that European governments pursue it assiduously [my take… ‘Total Surveillance’ Officially Brushed Off In Germany]. And China’s internet surveillance and controls, among the most extensive and sophisticated in the world, are being pushed to the next level by the new Communist Party leadership, according to a report that Freedom House just released. It points out that “an extraordinary range of tools to contain critical conversations” have been developed by internet service providers and other companies that chase profits in the Chinese market and are trying to stay ahead of the government. And it’s spreading from there. China “serves as an incubator” for these technologies, the report states, and as “a model for other authoritarian countries.”

In the US too, companies do most of the heavy lifting in these data collection and surveillance efforts: internet service providers that use deep-packet inspection to get at everything that isn’t encrypted; email providers that read and store emails; companies like Skype that access even encrypted conversations; or sites like Facebook that have become vast depositories of personal data that users submit voluntarily without ever being able to delete it (though they can keep the public from seeing it). From tiny app makers to giants like Apple or stalwarts like AT&T and Verizon, they’re all part of Big Data. Data is money. And more than money, if governments get it. They all chase after these billions by collecting, storing, analyzing, and using your personal data. And selling it, too.

The latest such non-scandal blew into the open in Japan. JR East, one of the larger passenger train companies in the world, started selling personal data of its passengers that were using prepaid cards that also serve as commuter passes, and it did so without informing the 43 million passengers who used them, “it has been learned.”

Data on these cards include gender, age, date and time of their use at about 1,800 stations in the Tokyo area – entering, transferring, and exiting – along with other transactions. The buyer of this data was Hitachi, which analyzed it and then sold the results to other companies. “It is useful for the marketing strategies of businesses, and the potential demand is great,” explained a Hitachi official. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism Ministry is investigating, but there are doubts that anything illegal was done; this is just normal business.

Some physical aspects of surveillance can get pretty close to your skin. Retail stores increasingly use video systems that process the images in real time with facial-recognition technologies. And suddenly, your favorite shop knows when you – in true name – check out a display, and it analyzes your behavior in the store and sticks that data into the digital dossier it’s putting together on you. As data storage has become nearly free, our data will outlive all of us. And it gets brokered and combined to become one of the most valuable assets on earth. Which led “Luke” to tweet:


Then there is the curious case of Anthony Weiner. While running for mayor of New York, he was outed again for having emailed to someone other than his beloved wife some pictures of those parts of his anatomy that should have been behind a fig leaf – after having resigned from Congress for a similar “embarrassment” in 2011. This time, he’d deluded himself into thinking that by using the alias “Carlos Danger” for his Yahoo email account he’d have any kind of privacy. Comedy shows are having a field day at his expense.

This will blow over. Perhaps people will forgive him again, and maybe his political career has a future, but the internet will never forget. So be it. He was running for office. Voters want to know who they’re voting for. But if Joe, the guy down the street, gets caught doing something illegal or just “embarrassing,” or if a dentist gets a bad review by someone with an axe to grind, it too will end up on the internet. Even years later, a basic search can dig it up – without possibility to defend against.

Alas, Big Data is the sector of unlimited opportunities: it creates problems then offers solutions to the very problems it creates. For a price. So the guy down the street won’t be able to expunge the record, and the dentist might have trouble getting rid of the review, but a whole industry has sprung up to deal with these peccadillos in the search results and manage online reputations.

Even the most fervent proponents of “privacy is dead” are managing their online reputation. So, Filmmaker Cullen Hoback approached Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outside his home, camera rolling, and asked, “Do you still think privacy is dead? What are your real thoughts on privacy?” Apparently worried about his own privacy, Zuck told Hoback to stop filming, which he did. Zuck relaxed and encouraged him to contact Facebook’s PR people. The exchange was caught on video as Hoback continued to film with a camera built into his spyglasses.

“I just wanted him to say, ‘Look, I don’t want you to record me,’ and I wanted to say, ‘Look, I don’t want you to record us,’” Hoback explained. The scene is part of his documentary, Terms and Conditions, which vivisects the user agreements and privacy policies that everyone accepts in order to do anything online, and which allow companies to collect, store, and share massive amounts of user data. “I think the craziest thing about this whole experience is that I didn’t realize I was making a horror film,” he said.

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