Online Privacy Dies From Both Ends

6 Apr

Credit Card TheftIt’s a struggle, to preserve your privacy – or even to understand what that means in the digital age.

AMY GOODMAN: Digital Disconnect, what do you mean?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think, when the Internet began, and this is—it seems like ancient history now—in the ’80s and ’90s, when we first people became aware of it, it was seen largely as a non-commercial oasis. It was a place where people could go and be equal and be empowered as citizens to take on concentrated economic and political power, to battle propaganda, and there was no advertising, there was no commercialism. That was off-limits. And there was no surveillance. People could do what they wanted and not be tracked. And that was the great democratic vision that started the Internet, that Aaron Swartz believe in.

And I think what we’ve seen in the last 20 years is that’s been turned on its head. And I think most people are oblivious to what’s taken place, because the thinking is, “Well, I can still do my thing. I can go to the Democracy Now! website. I can find other cool websites and hang out there. And as long as I can do my own thing and I can text my friends and have a Facebook page, life is good.” But it doesn’t really work that way. What’s been taking place—and I think it’s really crystallized in the last five years—is that on a number of different fronts, extraordinarily large, monopolistic corporations have emerged: AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, at the access level; Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, at the application and use level. And these firms have changed the nature of the Internet dramatically. And they’ve done it by becoming huge monopolies with immense power.

If that weren’t enough, the Feds are justifying their own laziness and intrusiveness on saving you, the victim, some small change.

According to a recent solicitation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the bureau is looking to buy a “massive online data repository system” for its Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information (OSII). The system is intended to operate for at least five years, and be able to process automated searches of individuals, and “find connection points between two or more individuals” by linking together “structured and unstructured data.”

Primarily, the ATF states it wants the database to speed-up criminal investigations. Instead of requiring an analyst to manually search around for your personal information, the database should “obtain exact matches from partial source data searches” such as social security numbers (or even just a fragment of one), vehicle serial codes, age range, “phonetic name spelling,” or a general area where your address is located. Input that data, and out comes your identity, while the computer automatically establishes connections you have with others.

Many other specific requirements are also to be expected for a federal law enforcement agency: searching names, phone numbers, “nationwide utility data” and reverse phone searches. The data will then be collected to help out during investigations and provide “relevant information and intelligence products.” There’s no hint the database is to be used to track gun sales, which is a big part of the ATF’s job, as the bureau is prohibited by law from establishing a centralized electronic database for gun purchases.

It’s necessary to note, however, that the ATF already does most of these things. Tracking down your identity, financial data, and finding connections between you and your kinfolk — your relatives, friends and business associates — is what criminal investigations are all about. And the bureau’s intelligence analysts already use a number of databases to help piece this information together.

But hunting through them for information that’s relevant and timely is a mind-numbing and time-consuming job. “Many of these tasks are performed manually,” the solicitation states, “resulting in longer turnaround times on important information and intelligence research and analysis requests.”

The bureau wants this new system to do all that gathering and research automatically. Which sounds like a good deal, in theory, allowing federal investigators to more easily bust criminals during a hot case. It could potentially give the investigators a lot more information than your sense of privacy may be comfortable with, or information not strictly relevant to a case. At the same time, the ATF is widely perceived as a weak, stagnant and underfunded agency. Even if it has a database that can track you down and find out who your friends are, it won’t necessarily be able to apply that to tracing gun transactions due to Congressional restrictions. If the agency finds a gun linked to a crime, and then traces the gun to someone who bought it from someone else, all of that work figuring out the who’s-who will still likely have to be done manually.

Do you get the uneasy feeling, that all that buzz and hype about the internet was a con?

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