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CNN: NSA phone snooping, a new kind of creepy
Doug Rushkoff   Jun 7, 2013   Rushkoff  

I’m finding hard to get too worked up over yesterday’s revelation that the National Security Agency has been authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect all our call data from Verizon. Hasn’t everyone already assumed this? Everything we do in the digital realm - from surfing the web to sending an email to conducting a credit card transaction to, yes, making a phone call - creates a data trail. And if that trail exists, chances are someone is using it - or will be soon enough.

This particular style of privacy invasion looks a bit different from those old TV movies where FBI agents sit in a van listening in on phone calls and recording them on reel-to-reel tape recorders. The government isn't interested in the content of our phone calls - our conversations - so much as who is calling whom and when, or what has become known as "meta-data."  Your life and pursuits are less important than the statistical profile of the way you use your digital devices. This is the world of big data.

I remember the days when talking about such possibilities was considered conspiracy theory or paranoia. Many of us imagined a future in which people would be planted with chips that monitor our conversations and whereabouts. Perhaps we'd even accept such tagging voluntarily, if it meant being able to track down our children in the unlikely event of a kidnapping. But such extraordinary measures proved unnecessary; we're all walking around with tracking devices in our pockets, which are capable not simply of broadcasting our phone calls but our physical locations, our movements, our interests - and then to tie all this data to our consumer profiles, credit histories…everything. 

Yes, it's still creepy, but it's a different kind creepy than it appears. Big data analysis works by identifying patterns and anomalies in our behavior. Nobody cares about the reasons why certain people do certain things. They only need to be able to predict the future. Marketers use big data profiling to predict who is about to get pregnant, who is likely to buy a new car, and who is about to change sexual orientations. That's how they know what ads to send to whom. The NSA, meanwhile, wants to know who is likely to commit an act of terrorism - and for this, they need us. 

The only way for them to identify the kinds of statistical anomalies that point to a terror candidate is to have a giant database of all those behavior patterns that don't suggest imminent violence. What is different about the Tsarnaev brothers patterns of telephone usage from that of every other young male Chechnyan immigrants? You need both sets of data to figure that out. We are not the targets so much as the control group. 

Of course that's small comfort to a people who have long valued and assumed some measure of privacy from government observation. The American assumption of privacy allows those of us who do break certain laws - say, smoking pot or prostitution - from the fear of selective enforcement if we happen to be personal or political enemies of those in charge. As recent IRS scandals prove, our most trusted agencies are not above targeted investigations of ideological foes. 

The harder truth to accept is that we are moving into a digital reality where the assumption of privacy must be exchanged for an assumption of observation. Our telephone metadata is just the tip of the iceberg. Sure, President Obama was quick to respond to the surprise discovery of his administration's covert surveillance operation, promising Americans that the leaked document describes the full extent of this technological intrusion on our privacy. But this court order was already "top secret". Had it not been uncovered, its provisions would have been denied as well. 

My own friends in the digital telephony and networking industries have long told me about "splitters" at all major communications companies, through which every data signal can be observed and diverted. Other technicians have told me about giant server farms in Virginia and Utah, where all of our digital data - including encrypted emails and our phone calls - is being stored. No, they don't have the technological ability or legal authority to search this tremendous repository of data (if it really exists). But they may at some point in the future.  

Besides, the lack of court orders authorizing a particular style of surveillance don't stop any of this surveillance from happening. They simply make any information collected inadmissible in a court of law. Since the dawn of the Internet, I have always operated under the assumption that if the government or corporations have technological capability to do something, they are doing it - whatever the laws we happen to know about might say. 

Digital media are biased toward replication and storage. Our digital photos practically upload and post themselves on Facebook, and our most deleted emails tend to resurface when we least expect it. Yes, everything you do in the digital realm may as well be broadcast on primetime television and chiseled on the side of the Parthenon. 

Does this excuse our government's behavior? Of course not. But the silver lining here is that this digital transparency cuts both ways. No sooner does the government win a court order to spy on us than the digital trail of that court order is discovered and leaked to the press. The government's panicky surveillance of Associated Press reporters and disproportionate prosecution of Wikileaks participants lays bare its own inability to contend with the transparency of digital communications. 

It is disheartening and disillusioning to realize that our government knows every digital thing we say or do. But now, at least we know they know.

- Douglas Rushkoff: CNN

Douglas Rushkoff is a fellow of the IEET, author of a dozen books and comic books, producer of two award-winning Frontline documentaries, and his essays have been published widely.



COMMENTS

“Hasn’t everyone already assumed this?”

Not really no, not to such great degree anyhow?

“And if that trail exists, chances are someone is using it - or will be soon enough.”

Which is yet more concerning, that “Someone” can use it, abuse it ? Where have the privacy and protections to data gone already? How long before PRISM becomes the hacking app of choice? Do I trust NSA employees? Not on your Nelly!

“The government isn’t interested in the content of our phone calls - our conversations”

Not yet maybe? But then again what is the directive for the NSA or FBI to justify listening to calls? No one knows?

“Perhaps we’d even accept such tagging voluntarily,”

We have!

“Big data analysis works by identifying patterns and anomalies in our behavior. Nobody cares about the reasons why certain people do certain things.”

I am in favour of Big data Crowd-sourcing as encouraging direct democracy and pursuing a technological future that benefits all - the NSA is not that arbiter, it does not care about freedoms, but focuses only on “people doing things”, associations to those that “do things”, families, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, unfortuitous encounters etc whatever it takes in fact?

“The only way for them to identify the kinds of statistical anomalies that point to a terror candidate is to have a giant database of all those behavior patterns that don’t suggest imminent violence.”

I see your point, and in cases of mistaken identity, motive, and leading to false arrest or deportation to Guantanamo, back tracking data message/call audits could help prove innocence, without too much delay or incarceration time? - however the real motive is to focus energies and surveillance time on suspects, whatever those qualities/qualifications may be? and to support those who have decided upon these measures as justifiable?

“But the silver lining here is that this digital transparency cuts both ways. No sooner does the government win a court order to spy on us than the digital trail of that court order is discovered and leaked to the press.”

This is a little naive and wishful thinking? How do you think the NSA will react to clamp down on future breaches of security within its own ranks, and spying on US senators and governors attempting to do the right thing and inform and protect us all?

“The government’s panicky surveillance of Associated Press reporters and disproportionate prosecution of Wikileaks participants lays bare its own inability to contend with the transparency of digital communications.”

The Obama administration may well be incompetent, yet elected govt parties and representatives come and go, good and bad, the NSA is an entity that perseveres and that which exists beyond and despite of govt?

“But now, at least we know they know.”

This is wholly insufficient and leads us down the path of mass apathy, which has no doubt been carefully researched, psychoanalysed, and reactions forecasted/predicted - No, they have us now, all “hooked” on our personal mobile tracking surveillance devices?

I know I won’t be giving up mine any time soon. However, I do switch off all GPS, Synchronization and now even 3G GPRS when I am not using it specifically.

Yet even this is insufficient, this “Meta-data” includes a very revealing item, your device IMEI number, linked and referenced directly to your name and address/residence?

Doug, I like reading your articles, but would have hoped for a little more concern regarding these recent revelations?

#PRISM

“The Obama administration may well be incompetent”

Please remember the Obama administration is stuck between Iraq and a hard place… between jingoists singing, to the tune of the Beach Boys ‘Barbara Anne’: bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran—and far leftists demanding an anti-imperialist America when America belongs to imperialists as it belongs to the wealthy. America is well nigh tantamount to their private possession.

“The government isn’t interested in the content of our phone calls - our conversations”

Not yet maybe? But then again what is the directive for the NSA or FBI to justify listening to calls? No one knows?

**************
Neither of you guys have caught the implication of what has recently been openly admitted?

The INITIAL, computerized rough filtering of ALL phone traffic goes over who we call, who our contacts call, the date & time & duration of those calls.

Afterwards, at their leisure, if you have fit a certain broad profile, whenever they decide to take it further, ALL of your calls may be subjected to full reconstitution and listening by software robots and/or human analysts.

In order to investigate at that most invasive and comprehensive second tier, ALL of the nation’s phone calls are being recorded right now and stored permanently, as they have been for quite a number of years now.

That is the only way they can search further, once your habits and connections have aroused the interest of All-American Big Brother. Your data is at their disposal, all the time, anytime, forever.

Of course, its not ONLY phone calls. Banking transactions and ALL Internet traffic, emails, searches, etc. is also available in the same manner.

If #PRISM is a hoax, then we should investigate why this has come to light. Is it, as some parties have implied, to misdirect and deflect from the Verizon/NSA leak, which seems to have been passed over lightly?

The scary thing is, once international terrorism and activism has either subsided or been eliminated(?), then who will come under scrutiny next? Organised crime syndicates, then etc etc.. down towards Joe “who has an outstanding parking ticket”?

We don’t want the NSA to get bored do we?

Check out this story.. and ask how this guy was subject to a Police raid?

U.S. surveillance row washes up on Pacific allies’ shores - Reuters

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/09/us-usa-security-pacific-idUSBRE95803M20130609

Rushkoff said, “The government isn’t interested in the content of our phone calls - our conversations - so much as who is calling whom and when, or what has become known as “meta-data.”

Yes they are.

The meta-data you refer to is used to filter the fire hose of information.

Once someone pops up after the initial filtering, their RAW phone calls may be reconstituted and analysed at leisure. Every call, all Internet traffic, banking transactions, etc. have been recorded for access at a later date for years already. They admit to all that.

You are OK with that, Rushkoff? Without probable cause, you agree that we all should be subject to this destruction of the concept of personal privacy? In my opinion, you, and all the others who would surrender everyone’s personal privacy to such dubious arguments, are not worthy of being citizens of the USA.

It is rather disturbing that Doug dismisses these issues so lightly, and his video here made no sense to me either?

This saga unfolding regarding escalated surveillance by secretive agencies that answer to no one, not even the president, have only just begun, and is issue we all need get involved with?

It’s top of the news over here, watching it now!

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