Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Privacy Matters

Trey Smith

I realize that some readers may be tiring of this overall issue, but I continue to write about it because I feel it is of vital importance...and, to be clear and candid, I am feeling a bit vindicated. For years I have been writing and talking about the growing police state and the typical response I have received is that either a) I'm being a bit over-dramatic or b) I sound a bit paranoid. As we have seen from the revelations of the past few days, neither turns out to be the case!

This not to suggest that most people have been completely unaware that they are being tracked both by corporations and the government. Most people have had a suspicion that some of this is going on, but the majority opinion that I generally encounter is that the scale of this invasion of privacy is much less than people like me thought. As it turns out, the scale is even more broad than people like me thought.

And this brings me to the crux of this post: privacy matters. We each need the space and time to be alone with our own thoughts. We also need the space and time to express our inner most thoughts and feelings to friends, family and comrades. Where there is no real privacy, there can be no true democracy.

Now that we know that almost everything we do online is being gobbled up by the US national security state -- for a lot of people, a good deal of their lives are spent online in one form or another -- we are being robbed of the ability to think through important issues as well as to have the opportunity to change our minds. As it now stands, the moment we record anything online, we lose control of it. It is almost like it takes on a life of its own.

To illustrate my point, consider the following scenario. You have become involved in a heated disagreement with a family member, supervisor, colleague or friend. In your anger, you write an email in which you state, "I'm so mad, I could kill you!" (or something to that effect). Because you're in a hurry to get to an appointment, you save the email in draft form. A few hours later, after you have calmed down, you realize that your email certainly won't help the situation, so you delete it.

Here's the problem. Since the PRISM program obtains internet data in real time, there is a good chance the government already has collected the text of your draft from the online folder. Even though you thought better of it and you never sent this email to anyone, an intelligence analyst may read your draft and decide that you pose a threat. The next thing you know FBI agents are banging on your front door and, when you let them in, they slam you to the floor, handcuff you and then haul you downtown for questioning.

Yes, I know, a lot of people will say that such a scenario is over-dramatic and slightly paranoid. Maybe it is...or maybe it isn't. At this point, who knows.

Here's another scenario for you to chew on. Let's say an acquaintance of yours actually is plotting to carry out some sort of heinous act. You are completely unaware of your acquaintance's violent intentions. Your connection to this individual is based on the fact you work at the same place, go to the same church, your son and their son are best friends or any number of inconsequential reasons.

Because of the fact that you communicate with this person regularly -- including one hour before your acquaintance was set to put his maniacal plan into action -- NSA agents decide that your frequent communiques fit the pattern of an accomplice. In analyzing your conversations, they believe they have detected a smattering of code words that to them indicates that you are definitely "in the know."

So, after your acquaintance is arrested, they come and arrest you too. In the interrogation room, they badger you with questions. All the while, you are absolutely clueless as to what in the hell is going on.

Again, maybe a scenario like this is highly unlikely...or maybe it is far more likely than you might like to think.

And what about the "metadata" the government is collecting from our phone calls?  Though we are being assured that no one is listening to the calls themselves, as Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, in many cases, intelligence analysts STILL have a really good idea of the content of those calls!
What they are trying to say is that disclosure of metadata — the details about phone calls, without the actual voice — isn't a big deal, not something for Americans to get upset about if the government knows. Let's take a closer look at what they are saying:
  • They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don't know what you talked about.
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
  • They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don't know what was discussed.
  • They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
  • They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood's number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.
Sorry, your phone records — oops, "so-called metadata" — can reveal a lot more about the content of your calls than the government is implying. Metadata provides enough context to know some of the most intimate details of your lives.  And the government has given no assurances that this data will never be correlated with other easily obtained data.

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