Clif Notes: Hello, Big Brother Data
Many of you have heard (probably ad nauseum) of Edward Snowden, an employee of a contractor to the National Security Agency who took it up upon himself to divulge a number things about NSA's intelligence gathering activities. The information has caused quite an uproar, not only within the United States, but also in other countries. But Snowden is not the main topic of this column. Some think that he is the highest form of traitor. Others think that he is some sort of hero figure. (Personally, I think he's a narcissistic little pinhead.) Let's talk instead about how people have reacted to the information "leaked."
The word that I think that best describes most people's reactions to finding out that an intelligence agency routinely gathers data about their phone calls, emails, and other Internet activity is "hysteria." Former Senator. and Vice President Al Gore called it "obscenely outrageous." (Really, Al? As the self-labeled "inventor of the Internet," why didn't you foresee this and put in a few protections? I'm just asking.)
Of course, there was the initial attempt to downplay the entire thing by pointing out that only metadata was being collected. In other words, they were gathering information about who called who from where and when, but nothing about what the conversations were actually about. You know, the typical "nothing to see here; move along" technique. But later comments from various officials suggests that they actually do store content but, honest, don't read any of it without a court order. Trust us. Really. (I guess this is what Star Wars fans would refer to as the "these are not the droids you're looking for" defense.)
Although the revelations first concentrated on phone traffic, Eddie later "revealed" that the NSA was also tapping into the Internet backbone and monitoring what passes over that — email, tweets, IM conversations, voice, and so forth. That triggered another round of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
And let's not even get into all of the hypocritical frothing at the mouth and posturing that went on about various countries embassies spying on each other. No duh.
Frankly, I have also been shocked and flabbergasted. But my stunned reaction is not to the revelations regarding the NSA's intelligence collecting activities. I am totally taken aback by the number of people who claim to be surprised by this.
The Government is watching our phone calls and Internet activity? People didn't realize this? This surprises them? Really? I have to admit, I am somewhat aghast and disheartened by the demonstration of the population's naïveté. Monitoring communications is nothing new. It's been going on for years. Google "Echelon."
You never suspected that the Internet is being monitored? Google "Hepting v. AT&T" in which we find
"It is alleged in the lawsuit that in 2002-2003, AT&T permitted and assisted the NSA to install a NarusInsight system in its San Francisco switching center (Room 641A), which was capable of monitoring billions of bits of Internet traffic a second, including the playback of telephone calls routed on the Internet, and thus in effect spying upon the entirety of the communication of many or all American citizens and businesses who use the Internet." [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hepting_v._AT%26T]
And that is old technology, folks. One of the things that apparently the masses don't realize (or at least don't think about) is that any time you use electronic communication or data storage and retrieval, you have in fact given up all expectations of privacy. No, that is not the law. It not right. Monitoring your email without a court order is illegal. But since when has being illegal ever stopped government (or Google) from doing whatever they wanted to do?
But hang on a moment. I find all the frothing at the mouth about government invasion of privacy to be a bit hypocritical, or at very least, myopic. Everybody seems to be so bent out of shape over Big Brother. But what about its sibling? Big Data?
Big data is one of the latest "new things" in our information services industry. The gist of it is to collect billions and billions of little data points (apologies to Carl Sagan) and then analyze them looking for patterns, trends, habits, etc. in order to predict, target, and manipulate opinions, purchases, votes, you name it. Big data got a big boost in our last presidential election due to its use to target campaigning activities and its successful prediction of the outcome of the election. The extrapolation of this kind of thing to actual voting practice and it's rather chilling conclusion was foreseen by Isaac Asimov in his 1955 short story Franchise. (And I will point out that the UNIVAC I system successfully predicted the outcome of an election as early as 1952. So I'm not sure what all the self-congratulatory chest thumping is about.)
And where are these billions of bits of data collection coming from? In many cases, you. That's right. You and your activities generate them. Sometimes they are collected by monitoring and observing you as you go about life. Other times you explicitly give them the ability to monitor and track you. Have you ever signed up for one of those grocery store loyalty "discount" cards that they scan every time you make a purchase? You have just given them permission to monitor and track you. Do you use a Gmail address for your email? Guess what? Yup. Content monitored. Twitter? Data mined. Product warranty cards (an oldie but a goodie)? Did you ever wonder about those questions regarding gender, income level, etc. that have nothing to do with the product in question? And when you make a purchase with your credit or debit card, why does the cashier ask for your ZIP Code? Because it helps them target their advertising, that's why. And isn't advertising an attempt to manipulate?
Don't think for a minute that I am suggesting that we ignore or stop trying to curb government intrusion into our life. I am completely against that. But I think it only fair to point out that government is not the only culprit. In many cases we ourselves are co-conspirators in the demise of our own privacy. We are willing to give up our privacy for the benefit of a few coupons, a "loyalty" markdown on a marked-up product, or to get some service for "free." (TANSTAAFL.)
Big Brother is here, and its name is…