Rise of the Internet Police State
It started out as just an ordinary article tracking Google’s tracking of us. It’s become something much more unsettling.
But Google’s dozen interconnected privacy policies were mainly suggestively vague. “We may combine personal information collected from you with information from other Google services or third parties . . . We may also use personal information for auditing, research and analysis.” Google reps publicly claimed they weren’t developing a multi-layered personal profile of me for the CIA, yet they seemingly wouldn’t rule out doing it, either.
That’s why I’ve actually been writing with a rhetorical “me”. After talking to some experts, the real me has been avoiding Google services. Lawyer Philippa Lawson, executive director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, warned that even if Google isn’t yet compiling in-depth personal profiles and re-selling them to virtually any buyer, plenty of others already are. cippic recently researched gathering and brokering of personal data. They found most privacy policies are “not explained thoroughly or clearly”, states Lawson, because “there’s a huge market incentive for companies to violate the privacy of individuals. Our personal information is now a commodity in the marketplace. And a very valuable one.”
Accumulating, analyzing, co-operatively sharing, buying and selling personal information about us, primarily with the intention of helping companies develop targeted marketing campaigns, has become a multi-billion dollar industry. According to Lawson, apart from spyware, common methods for gathering data about us include free versions of programs, online email services and stores, networking sites and Digital Rights Management tools.
“Quite often,” observes Lawson, “if you go in and actually read what you’re clicking ‘I agree’ to, it says ‘I agree to let you track my activities online and use that information for whatever you want.’”
Even though some countries, like Canada, have better privacy protection legislation than the “freewheeling” US, Lawson says that’s little comfort. “There’s basically widespread non-compliance,” she states, plus little enforcement.
More concerning than the immense amount of data about you that these companies are collecting and trading, says American Civil Liberties Union technology expert Jay Stanley, is the way governments are becoming involved and getting companies to help.
“We’re actually weakening the laws that restrain the government from exploiting these new technologies to peer into our lives,” says Stanley, author of The Surveillance-Industrial Complex.
In the US, all new communications technologies must include back doors for government eavesdropping. With no judicial oversight, the FBI issues tens of thousands of demands annually to internet service providers, libraries and others to hand over their records, and under the patriot Act it’s illegal to tell anyone it has occurred. Numerous democratic countries now require companies to retain all user data for years, for just such occasions, essentially allowing governments to circumvent their own privacy legislation. For example, while it can’t legally conduct mass surveillance itself, Canada’s rcmp recently simply obtained records on millions of Canadians from private data broker Cornerstone. Similarly, ChoicePoint gathers and sells personal information under contract to dozens of US government agencies.
Many other companies share their information on us voluntarily, often in exchange for access to government information. The FBI claims “InfraGard” has 18,403 enlisted members, including 83 of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies, working on its secretive “information sharing and analysis” project. Similarly, the National Security Agency is funding private sector studies of harvesting data from social networking sites like MySpace, and whistleblowers claim AT&T has allowed the NSA full access to customers’ phone calls and to all internet traffic passing through its broad internet hubs. Then there’s the now infamous (but still mysterious) ECHELON, an intergovernmental and inter-corporate system for intercepting global communications en masse.
If we add in other available information like census data, education, criminal and health records, video rentals, completed warranty cards and surveys, and periodical subscription lists, and then combine all of that with data being obtained through increasing use of surveillance audio-visual cameras, radio frequency identifier tags in ID cards, cell phones and ordinary goods, implanted chips and biometric scanners, then the picture created, says Stanley, is ultimately of an “inexorable movement toward a surveillance society”.
So we’re missing the forest for the trees, he argues, by debating the risks and benefits of these activities one at a time. “Technologies are making possible the kind of all-inclusive surveillance that’s never before been possible in history.”
For Stanley, the worst aspect is that this menacing surveillance state is taking shape largely shadowed from the eyes of open public debate, in a world of “meta-secrecy” – or “secrecy about secrecy” – under the pretense of national security. And while many people support preventing crime and terrorism, identifying criminals and terrorists before they commit crimes requires broad surveillance and scientifically suspect analysis of a hypothetically infinite spectrum of personalities and behaviours. As one US police anti-terrorism brochure recently clarified, it means keeping close tabs on “anyone who does not appear to belong.” And who appears to belong less than someone protesting this sinister status quo?
“We can look to history to see the kinds of abuses that take place,” comments Stanley. “Surveillance technologies and infrastructures are used politically to target, harrass and disrupt people who are agitating for change.” He cites a case where a Soviet democracy activist’s life fell apart after authorities simply released unexpurgated details of the worst things he’d ever said to others about any of his friends or associates.
But Lawson feels the image of one giant, ominous “Big Brother” is more reassuring, and less real, than what we’re actually developing, which is more “Kafka-esque” – innumerable people with power over your life holding reams of information on you that you don’t know about and can’t control. That’s why we’re already seeing an outrageous range of results: expanding no-fly lists, increasing identity thefts, broadening state-corporate agreements to “disappear” certain websites, and growing industry-wide databases like Australia’s “Guests Behaving Badly,” which blacklists hotel guests who are “intimidatory” or “anti-social.”
Ironically, the internet once promised a veritable democratic revolution of wide open communication. If current trends continue, we could well end up paranoid and close mouthed, afraid that everything we do will be recorded, forever available for use against us at at any time, in any way.
“That’s the great danger,” agrees Stanley. “The chilling effect that undermines and undercuts the great democratic communicative advantage that the internet brings.” Nevertheless, he adds, “I think there are also reasons to hope. People are beginning to realize that these wonderful technologies also have dark sides.”
Still, if there were a fascist coup tomorrow, it looks like this new internet would be vastly more useful to the forces of state control than to those of democracy and liberty.
“I don’t spend my time worrying about a fascist government coming to power,” counters Stanley. After all, he says, we’ve got plenty of room to become “a meaner and less just and harsher society, without any kind of radical takeover . . . And that’s what I’m most afraid of.”
_Rob Wipond is a freelance writer based in Victoria, Canada. For more, see robwipond.com.