"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Invasion of Privacy–We’re All at Fault

I am republishing the post written a year ago in light of recent NSA revelations.  As I write this (12.17.12) a federal judge has charged the Government with unconstitutional behavior by blanket surveillance of citizens’ phone calls.

I have been concerned with the gradual but progressive invasion of privacy in our lives today.  Surveillance is everywhere, Big Brother is watching like never before.  There are cameras on every street corner, more complicity between internet servers, wireless providers and government, no-fly lists that have been compiled from sensitive personal information such as tax and credit record, and an erosion of individual rights to privacy by the Patriot Act and similar legislation.  The problem is not only with government.  It lies also with us. 

Here are some of the more worrying developments. First, government agencies continually exert pressure on wireless companies to release data concerning geographical location of cell phone users.  Given the proliferation of cell phone ‘towers’ (a ‘tower’ can now be installed in small spaces, such as commercial malls, and is no longer the pine-tree disguised super-tower along major highways), a wireless company knows with much greater precision exactly where you are when you make a phone call (GPS on smartphones).  If government demands access to phone company files to enable them to track a certain individual’s movements, the company must comply.  Currently a subpoena is required; but there are pressures to open wireless data more widely.  For example, Government may want to see all cell phone activity near a mosque in Detroit or Brooklyn.  They claim that there is no violation of individual rights because no voice or text data on any phone identified will be reviewed, and the argument in the courts is whether or not a broader interpretation of individual rights must be applied.

The problem is obvious.  Suppose I happen to use my cell phone in the vicinity of the mosque.  I am actually picking up hummus at a Lebanese store, one which I frequent quite often.  I often call my wife from that store to double check on what she wants.  I then go to an independent book store in a completely different area which has an extensive section on Arab and Islamic studies.  I also go there frequently, because I am writing a series of papers and blog posts on the Middle East.    Finally, by sheer coincidence, I have a friend who happens to live near a residence that is on the FBI terrorist watch list, and I often call him outside his house to let me in.  Government agencies, now increasingly coordinated, put these three phone records together, and I get a knock on the door.

Second, same pressure is exerted by government to coordinate surveillance camera data.  That is, to put together data from municipal cameras which have been installed both as speed monitors and crime surveillance tools.  Because the speed cameras have deterred speeding, they are being deployed more generally, and now are on most major urban thoroughfares.  Crime surveillance cameras have also been successful in tracking suspicious activity in high crime areas.  Thanks to the miniaturization and flexibility of the newest cameras, they can be deployed and redeployed in a different area at very low cost.  A police department can, at the request of citizens in a low crime area, array a system of cameras to assure them that the police are on the job. Signs that say “This is a Crime Surveillance Neighborhood” do not mean that friendly neighbors are peering from behind closed curtains to observe the street.  They mean cameras.

Municipal police and federal authorities routinely demand the surveillance cameras operated by private store owners.  Again, liquor stores and other high-risk business feel comfortable having these cameras, and the police use them as a useful tool for tracking intruders and robbers. 

Where cameras are not in use, GPS trackers are.  Every time I go through a toll from Virginia to Maine using EZ-Pass, my whereabouts are tracked and recorded and can be accessed.  The GPS system on my rental cars collects information where I go and what I do when I am away from home. Electronic ticketing records my every move through airports and train stations. 

Third, there is increasing pressure by government to have access to credit card information – to learn more about a suspect’s buying habits.  What did he purchase and where?  Where did he dine?  Where did he buy gas and when?  All this information, the government says, is necessary to help track terrorists.  Again, due process is in place in most cases, but the threats against it are great.  Now, Homeland Security has to get a court order to see individual credit card records, but it is not a great step to demanding to see all transactions at a particular restaurant (see the cellphone example, above) that is under surveillance.

Fourth, there is equal pressure being put on internet providers to share data on user’s electronic habits – as above, where do they shop online, which websites do they visit, etc. This is perhaps the most pernicious, because it has a chilling effect on freedom of speech.  Never before in my life have I been concerned about visiting sites which I feel might be monitored.  I cannot visit Islamic sites, Minute Man sites, certain pornographic sites, gun sites, without worrying about government intrusion – if not for terrorism, then for some violation of Puritanical rules.

These are only some of the more obvious and familiar invasions of privacy in the United States today. There are doubtless hundreds if not thousands of ways government can spy on its citizens.  I haven’t even mentioned the precision spy satellites that can see what you are eating, monitor all your voice communications, intercept all your electronic correspondence.

I have been told by some that although government can compile various federal, municipal, and private data sources to create invasive profiles, they are too incompetent to do so.  While I agree that government is incompetent in this arena and most arenas of its activity, the technology revolution, both hardware and software, is progressively making their job easier.  In short, surveillance and compilation is simply easier to do and harder to mess up.

All this would not be possible, however, without the willing, and eager participation of all of us citizens.  We are pleased that the speed of traffic on Western Avenue has finally slowed to the speed limit.  We love our electronically-assisted Neighborhood Watches.  We care more about being safe than about our privacy.  We love our cookies and feel special when Amazon.com suggests just the type of book we have been thinking of buying, or L.L.Bean reminds us that their new shipment of Artic anoraks has come in.  We don’t care that this information may be used to create a false picture (as above, an innocent shopper for baklava and books turned into terrorist).  Perhaps most dismaying is that we love it when we are sending an email to a good friend about our interest in Persian carpets, and subject-recognition software supplies a pop up from Ahmed & Company, Rug Merchants, conveniently located within 5 miles of our house.  We don’t care much that this software is reading all our emails, or that without much effort, all content can be accessed by unwanted third parties.  It would be as if 30 or 40 years ago someone broke into our house and read all of our mail.  We would never have tolerated it, but we do now. 

We not only love our I-Phone, we cannot do without it.  We love saying to Siri when we are in new city, “Can you recommend a good pizza place nearby?”; or “What’s the temperature going to be tomorrow?”.  The more our electronic devices become interactive, the happier we are.  We are happy that FIOS tracks our channel flipping and recommends to us a new deal on a specialized movie channel; or when streaming Netlflix tracks our choices and recommends new titles with increasing precision.

We love the store discounts we get when we use our Giant or Superfresh cards or SuperSaver bargains at bookstores, record stores, and restaurants; and we don’t care that we are turning over information about our buying habits.  Sure, who cares if we are fans of Portuguese anchovies or trashy novels.  The point is, the more we give in – the more we willingly cede personal information over to commercial and government sources who have little interest in the individual – the worse the invasion of privacy will become.

Most people now bank and pay bills online.  Eventually I will be forced to do so because paper transactions will disappear, but in the meantime, that is the one area that I will resist to the bitter end.  Friends have said that once I pay by check or bank personally, that information is digitized, so the information can spread just as easily as if I did these transactions online.  I do not agree.  As I have suggested above, everyone is looking at my computer activity – website visits, emails, keystrokes, for Heaven’s sake!

The worst part of all this is that we citizens are not only complaisant, willing to allow these invasions of privacy without a second thought, but do very little to lobby, advocate, demonstrate against them.  We have been lulled by both our consumerism and our ill-placed belief that the Patriot Act is the one best means of keeping America safe.  There is no doubt that surveillance is absolutely necessary to prevent the infiltration and damage caused by international terrorists; but to give overwhelmingly blanket authority and power to government – which as an institution of state for over 4000 years has as least as many cases of abuse of power as steps to protect individual rights– is ill-advised to say the least.  How quickly the democratic reforms of the French Revolution turned to the Reign of Terror.

In the early years after 9/11, I was respectful of government and cautiously optimistic about its ability to balance individual rights with national security.  As I realized that the balance was tipping towards national security at the expense of individual rights, I became involved, joined citizens advocacy groups, spoke out in all forums, and was careful to take measures to secure my own privacy.  As the years went on, I saw wave after wave of both commercial electronic monitoring and government surveillance.  I felt it was too much.  I saw little opposition to government intrusion, and a total indifference regarding commercial data collection.  I do what I can, but since I do not want to move to the Idaho woods, I have decided on a compromise.  I will continue to write, speak out, and support advocacy groups; to protect my data where I can; but I cannot do without my I-Phone and my credit card.  I can only hope that with my efforts and those of other concerned citizens, we will pass through this abusive period and return to the day when individual freedom meant something.

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