Tuesday, we were looking at some of the reasons Hillary is doing less well– even in states trending her way like Florida is now– than she could be doing. While I was writing the post, I got a note from Ted Lieu about the Yahoo revelations. And, the malaise of some millennials who are smart enough to know they're not voting for the narcissistic racist and psychopath but are reticent to commit to Hillary are just uncomfortable with her old school, conservative attitudes about issues around national security state surveillance– or, as Lieu referred to the Yahoo revelations, “big brother on steroids.” He said “it must be stopped.” She should too, unless she wants to spend the rest of the campaign pining for those millennial voters. As Lieu said, a government “directive to Yahoo to write a software program and search all of its customers’ incoming emails for certain content is a gross abuse of federal power… Law enforcement and the NSA did not have warrants for the hundreds of millions of customers that had their privacy violated.” Justin Amash (R-MI) was as disturbed by this as Lieu was. But you know who felt even stronger about the revelations? Yeah… Ed Snowden. He was tweeting up a storm as soon as the news broke:
His first reaction was to urge everyone with a Yahoo email account to close it. Sounds like an excellent idea to me. He also brought up that “With Verizon buying Yahoo, who was revealed today to be spying on all of their customers, this seems relevant.” Very relevant. Did anyone think it was worth mentioning at the VP debate a few hours later?
In the Afterward to Michael Gurnow's 2014 book, The Edwards Snowden Affair, Gurnow wrote, “Somewhat predictably given Clapper’s adamant defense, the NSA hasn’t changed its policies; it has merely tightened its security. Instead of conducting surveillance in a manner that won’t plague an employee’s conscience and spur another Snowden to action, the agency instituted an information lockdown. Shortly after the disclosures stared appearing, a two-person data extraction rule was instituted.
Perhaps the greatest cultural signifier of Snowden’s impact is seen in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Shortly after the world saw Snowden’s face for the first time, sales of the 64-year-old classic skyrocketed. It witnessed a 5,800% overnight increase in sales. The novel went from 7,397 to 125 on Amazon’s bestseller list.
…[T]he public has only heard of the questionable means Washington goes to acquire data directly from communication sources. What is not being talked about is the intelligence it obtains from civilian data mining enterprises. These businesses come in two flavors: Private data collection companies and corporate retailers. The latter consists of commercial retail and fast food establishments. Considering Microsoft, Yahoo, AT&T, Google, Sprint and Verizon’s relationship with the federal government, it is not unreasonable to assume the data these two types of businesses collect is also sequestered by Washington.
Target’s ability to determine a young woman was pregnant before she knew is the tip of the spying iceberg. For example, many cell phone owners forget wifi usage is a revolving door. Most give little thought to accessing and using a store’s wifi, not realizing the company’s systems may be programmed to exploit the Internet connection. Once a connection is made, customer data– including gender, address, telephone number and a consumer’s personal interests (via Internet searches and an individual’s social network pages, which are frequently left open for convenience)– are recorded. In retail outlets, a corporation’s programming may also be set to track a person’s movements throughout the building and catalog the individual’s browsing habits. For the customer, the result is customized advertisements and coupons; for the company, consumer analysis is completed at a fraction of the traditional cost. Sadly, advances in technology permit businesses to supersede any attempts at protecting one’s privacy. Much like the U.S. intelligence’s ability to stalk a phone that is turned off, corporations are now able to access phones even if they aren’t deliberately connected to a store’s wifi.
The other and much darker side of corporate surveillance is data mining companies. These include firms such as Acxiom, Datalogix, Euclid, Federated Media, Epsilon, Digital Advertising Alliance, BlueKai and Network Advertising Initiative. Acxiom, the leader in the industry, has over 190 million profiles on American adults.
These entities make it their business to collect every conceivable type of knowledge about U.S. citizens. They first scour the Internet for any information a person is willing to make known before proceeding to public records. Yet these techniques are time and labor-intensive. Both data mining companies and corporations have a surveillance tool which is much more thorough, revealing and, most importantly, automated. They hire software engineers to design and implement third-party cookies. Unlike a first-party cookie, which initiates a discussion between a user’s computer and a specific website, a third-party cookie is equivalent to someone eavesdropping on a person’s power lunch conversation and selling the transcript to a competitor. One method software designers use to hide third-party cookies is by embedding them in advertisements. When an individual enters a website with an ad, a third-person cookie is set. If the user moseys over to another website with an ad by the same company, a notice of the individual’s continued interest– including the time, date and computer’s IP address– is sent to the business. By this time, the third-party cookie is controlling a person’s computer. When someone looks at shoes on a retailer’s website and then checks the local news, only toeerily find an ad of the footwear in a sidebar, a third-party cookie is at work. Third-party cookies essentially track and stalk Internet users. Aside from the invasive privacy violations, there are drastic, long-term psychological effects which result from the repetition of third-party cookies’ advertising. Many were confused by Snowden’s objection to surveillance on grounds that it stifled creativity and free thought. When an ad is designed to reappear time and again, it is reinforcing an idea or brand image in a potential consumer’s mind. The Familiarity Principle states a person becomes more comfortable and accepting of an image the more frequently it is encountered. This is basic biology. Familiarity instills trust, often at a subconscious level. Though customers believe they are expressing freedom of choice by picking Brand X over Brand Y, they may be unaware they saw Brand X in a sidebar while browsing online recipes the week before. They purchase Brand X without realizing the subconscious motivations for doing so. They have literally been brainwashed.
Data brokers take their information, organize it into concise little profiles, and offer it to anyone with an open checkbook. This includes the obvious customers, U.S. government and corporations, but they have other steadfast clients. Many “people locator” websites purchase data mining profiles and resell them to the general public. For a nominal fee, anyone can access a person’s birthday, place of birth, current and past residences, family relations, social security and phone number, educational background, email address, place of current and former employment, and medical, property and court records. Medical insurance firms are curious whether a potential client prints Internet coupons for over-the-counter headache medicine and pays in cash to avoid a rate-hiking paper trail.
Employment agencies want to know an applicant’s hobbies and proclivities without having to ask. Loan companies are interested in a candidate’s choice of recreational locales, be it a casino, truck rally or library. Once this data is combined with receipts from many of the major corporations, buying habits are then merged with wants and desires. The result is a very concise, detailed picture of an individual’s possessions, activities and goals. This is then compared to established buying patterns. The end result is daunting. The owner of an analyzed profile knows who a person was, is, and is going to be. Corporations refer to this as market research. Privacy advocates consider the process an infringement upon the Fourth Amendment and argue third-party cookie usage violates the last sanctuary of privacy, one’s thoughts. Orwell’s prophecy is modestly conservative by 21st-century standards. The main character in Nineteen Eighty-Four believes, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”
The surveillance debate has intensified since June 5 and lent new perspectives upon the concept of the safety technology can provide. The underlying political issue is who has the right to particular varieties of information. The public believes there are two types of conversations, public and private. The intelligence community doesn’t agree.
In the Internet Age, a person can “Like” the activity of fishing enough to let the world know by making it public knowledge on one’s Facebook profile. The individual can also choose to obtain a vanity Facebook URL by confidentially submitting one’s telephone number to the social networking site. The phone number is used for authorization purposes to verify the request is coming from the Facebook account holder. Though it is not placed online, the number is nonetheless (questionably) stored on the company’s servers. David Omand, former head of GCHQ, has no problem with collecting the publicly-known fact Bob likes fishing along with his cell number via Facebook’s FISC order permitting the U.S. government access to the information.
For the watchers, there is no line dividing what an individual puts on the Internet and what people have privately entrusted to another party, be it a website, bank, doctor or telephone company. Government spies also scoff at the notion of intellectual property rights. Bought-and-sold politicians agree. If something is publicly or privately posted online, it automatically becomes the property of the website’s owner. (This is also why most businesses permit and encourage employees to use their company-issued phones and email accounts for personal communications– the firms have legal license to review an employee’s private network and communications, because they own the devices and programs and therefore the data on them.) It is an absurd proposition analogous to stating an individual surrenders rightful ownership of a vehicle to a bank when it is parked on property whose tenant has yet to pay the mortgage in full. This policy refuses to acknowledge the resources and labor provided by the Facebook account holder, i.e., the computer used to access the social networking site, time it took to create a profile and mental ingenuity in deciding how and what to say about oneself. It is understood that the website has issued the venue which, in turn, makes the information available worldwide but the skewed exchange undermines the statement that profiles are “free.” No profit sharing is offered the user. Without account holders, social networking sites would be empty voids on lonely servers and not multinational corporate affairs.
In the surveillance communities’ opinion, everything is public domain and no one has the right to ask “Do you mind?” to someone eavesdropping on a conversation. Their argument is that if a person doesn’t want what is being said to be known (by whomever), the individual best not speak at all. In the cloak-and-dagger world of data mining, the person having a discussion cannot reasonably expect privacy, because the individual is voicing one’s thoughts, period. It does not matter whether they are spoken in confidence and directed to a particular person, much like an email is addressed “To: Bob” and not “To: Bob; Bcc: The NSA.” If the speaker is naïve enough to say something at a volume where a microphone can detect it, it is de facto public knowledge. Whereas government surveillance only exchanges the recorded conversation with its own kind, corporate surveillance broadcasts the discussion to anyone who is willing to pay to hear it. In the surveillance world, the only guarantee of privacy is dead silence.
The U.S. government knows the difference but deliberately ignores it. It does not want a distinction to be made, because it would restrict its power and the power of those who fund political campaigns: defense contractors, telecoms, Internet companies, corporate retailers, fast food enterprises and multimillion-dollar data mining firms. The last thing the U.S. government or private business wants is account holders to have control over their own information. Snowden’s skepticism of political solutions is understandable. The people who were hired to watch the watchmen did a poor job. American citizens were told their rights were being protected as a secret oversight court rubberstamped itself into extraneousness while never bothering to see what the NSA might be hiding. Regardless whether a new law is created or a task force is assigned, it can be expected that parties in possession of private information will continue to swear a consumer’s data is sacrosanct and they would never dream of violating a client’s privacy; all the while information is being steadily placed on the open market, swapped and surveilled. Every data mining opt-out form absolves itself by including the clause that the representative business cannot guarantee a person’s information will not conveniently fall into the company’s lap at a later date. If a causal web search produces an individual’s home address alongside the resident’s place of employment, a robber can look up the employer’s hours of operation and know when the house will likely be vacant. When situations like these are presented to those in power, the ball of accountability is bounced back and forth as witnessed when the U.S. government and telecoms pointed the finger of blame at one another after Greenwald exposed Verizon. No one is held accountable, violations continue and people are put at risk. Snowden was correct once again. Current surveillance practices make us less safe.
Regardless of how futile a circumstance may appear, it is instinct to try to defend oneself from perceived harm. Both businesses and private citizens reacted to the disclosures, some rather violently.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis