Sunday, November 11, 2007

U.S. Intelligence Official wants us to transform what we think is privacy, which makes me worried

US intelligence official: You get privacy when your definition matches ours seems somewhat reasonable once I get past my initial shock. The article discusses statements by "Donald Kerr, a top intelligence official with the US government" who suggests most peoples definition of "privacy" is antiquated, and that we need to change our belief about privacy. And my initial reaction was "of course that's what you think, because you want to spy on us".

See... while it's idealistic to think governments have our best interests at heart, that government officials are acting from altruistic notions of service and the betterment of us all, that's not always how it happens. Government officials are also looking for ways to more efficiently do their job and especially it's easy for law enforcement to think everybody's a criminal and they need stronger techniques to catch the criminals that are slipping through the cracks. Which means they need better surveillance, more ubiquitous spying, essentially big brother.

But this guy has an interesting point that's worth pondering. He draws a distinction between privacy and anonymity. As a practical matter anonymity is harder to achieve nowadays. Try going to the corner store to get a snack.. how are you going to pay for it? That credit card transaction gets recorded by who knows how many institutions, and it identifies that someone used your card to buy something, and it might even know what you bought. So you might think it's innocent to buy packets of cigarette rolling papers every week, but some computer might put two and two together, notice that you're also buying a lot of gardening supplies, and then send a note to the police that you might be growing marijuana.

Let's not dance around this... the credit card corporations know a lot about what you're doing. It is so convenient nowadays to buy using credit cards, and that means the majority of your transactions are recorded. They know your travels by watching when and where you use the card(s) and they know your habits by watching what you buy and where you spend.

As the article says: It's cliché, but Benjamin Franklin long ago warned against rhetoric that demands trading individual rights for corporate security. Asking Americans to greenlight extensive, unchecked electronic surveillance by changing their very definition of privacy is a prime example of such rhetoric.

Can we really trust the assurances of a government agent? Especially when it comes in the context of the government trying to retroactively justify the illegal warrantless wiretapping and other spying that has been perpetrated on U.S. Citizens?

It's worth reading about this project which had been publicly conducted by U.S. Intelligence agencies. Their thought was to apply the sort of data mining that's common in businesses, and utilize it in government spying operations. There was a hullabaloo raised over these programs in 2001-2 but the programs have continued, under different names, under expanded mandates, and under tighter secrecy. DARPA's Information Awareness Office, The Total Information Awareness System; Or, Big Brother in-carnate

It's worth thinking about the idea put forward by Mr. Kerr. Corporations are already knowing waaay too much about us than is reasonable for our past conception of what privacy should be. It is probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle, because what has created this erosion of privacy is the sort of technological revolution which has created the World Wide Web. However what ought to be happening is clear laws and standards of conduct around protection of privacy, and clear and strong penalties for violating such standards.

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