Adam Merberg on grazing and Allan Savory and TED »« Steubenville rapists found guilty

I, for one, welcome the Internet surveillance state

Well, not really, but I figure I better say so. Google is listening.

Something to consider: the convictions in Steubenville were obtained with the assistance of the flood of data from cell phones. Bruce Schneier considers the implications of constant technological monitoring.

So, we’re done. Welcome to a world where Google knows exactly what sort of porn you all like, and more about your interests than your spouse does. Welcome to a world where your cell phone company knows exactly where you are all the time. Welcome to the end of private conversations, because increasingly your conversations are conducted by e-mail, text, or social networking sites.

And welcome to a world where all of this, and everything else that you do or is done on a computer, is saved, correlated, studied, passed around from company to company without your knowledge or consent; and where the government accesses it at will without a warrant.

Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight.

Are you ready for a world with diminishing privacy? The more difficult question might be…is this a bad thing? The examples given are a little bit on the trivial side — but does it matter if Google, or anyone, knows what sort of porn you like? A little bit more openness might mean an end to shame and sanctimony — but I think the real concern is that selective openness is the danger. If everyone’s porn preferences were known to everyone else, it wouldn’t be a weapon…but if shame continues to fester in the culture at large, then corporations and institutions and individuals with privileged information can use it for unsavory purposes.

Also, I don’t think corporations have porn habits (that we know about!) that could be exploited, so it’s a little asymmetric. Corporations do have extensive financial information that they closet away, though — so if they get to follow our kinks and peccadilloes, do we get access to their shady transactions? That might be a fair trade. Which probably means it couldn’t possibly happen.

Comments

  1. says

    I get the sense I should be concerned about this, but I’m not. I don’t watch porn (or movies or anything else on the ‘net), and I have a cell phone for emergencies. Outside of emergencies, I don’t use it.

  2. says

    I’ve believed for a long time that it’s not worth fighting the inevitable — i.e. the creation of devices and technology that can monitor your every action. Government is where the battle needs to be joined. Not only in terms of ensuring the passing of legislation to prevent corporations and government organizations from abusing this collection of data, but to ensure that we have the government institutions that we can trust with this data.

    Not saying that’s easy, but there really is no alternative. Many of the wolf-criers who rail against Big Brother seem to believe that limiting government (severely) is a viable option. It isn’t. That would merely place unfettered power of surveillance into the hands of private concerns, and that’s not a good thing.

  3. garnetstar says

    Yeah, I’ve thought about that, but haven’t done anything because I don’t think I do anything online that many people would care about.

    As for corporations, I’ve long thought that any organization with something they really need to keep secret would go back to paper.

    I believe I may have had my phone tapped once: I read that the FBI had set up taps on a great many purchasers of a certain kind of aquarium lamp, because they could be used to grow marijuana indoors. I was keeping planted aquariums with them, so I bought a lot. I hope that someone somewhere does indeed have recordings of my conversations, which consisted largely of hours of gossip, complaining about troubles, family stories, what TV shows we liked, and similar chat. I can just imagine the many poor FBI agents who were driven to madness out of the boredom of listening to them.

  4. Lachlan says

    I strongly suspect that our porn/product/content preferences are passed around as anonymous metadata? I also believe that the benefits of heavy CCTV coverage, cellphone tracking, etc., as tools for criminal investigation outweigh the possibility of Big Brother style government abuse. Then again I didn’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a kid.

  5. says

    There are aspects of privacy that are retained, even though greater internet privacy is not one of them. One can, for instance, have conversations in person when possible, thought I agree this is severely limiting.

    It worries me, like I think it worries many people, that the sharing of information is so asymmetric. I don’t think, however, that it is totally asymmetric; the efforts of hackers all over the world have supplied the news with a small but growing amount of information from those corporations and governments.

  6. harvardmba says

    What a surprise — the good professor is actually a good little fascist. Actually, no surprise there. Perhaps P Zed can take a stroll over the the Poly Sci Dept. and re-read (or read for the first time) this little thing called the Bill of Rights, and the 4th Amendment. I don’t recall giving the government to search my personal info without a warrant. My data is not the property of Google.

  7. laurentweppe says

    I wonder when computer companies will start advertising their wealthy clients along the

    Buy Three computers: one for work, one for arguing on internet forums, and one for porn

    lines. Personally, I’m already taking my precautions, as should anyone, whether they are amateurs of porn or anything else…

    My preeeeecioooouuuuuuus 16 and 32 bits roms and isos, don’t you worry: Daddy is keeping you safe on multiple hard drives who remain unplugged and safe for you and no evil corporation is going to take you all away from me, Daddy Promises.

    And, huh…. where was I?

  8. says

    The notion of personal privacy in our electronic age is already close to obsolete and probably impossible to re-establish. I think our most feasible line of defense is legislation creating a range of criminal penalties for the misuse of others’ personal information. It would beef up and refine the statutes related to libel, slander, blackmail, extortion, and … well, I don’t know. And I also don’t know that anyone in congress is working on this.

  9. says

    Laurent:

    Daddy is keeping you safe on multiple hard drives who remain unplugged and safe for you

    Heh. I have multiple external hard drives I use for back up and storage too.

  10. says

    Historically, privacy has been a privilege of the wealthy and powerful. It was only a short-lived enlightenment idea of fairness that attempted to extend it to the rest of the population – enlightenment ideas that are being thoroughly rolled back in the USA. Meanwhile, if you’re some star whose cell-phone password is guessable and your messaging history gets posted, you get rapid and iron-fisted response from the FBI. If you’re one of hoi polloi, someone can stalk you until you are driven to suicide because the stalker is able to take advantage of the ‘anonymity’ of the Internet. The Internet never was particularly private or anonymous; it was allowed to appear to be because the first generation of people building it were privacy advocates* and the intellectual mainstream of Internet thought was populist and generally democratic. It is no longer. The users who welcomed Google and Twitter and Myspace and Facebook and so forth did not realize they were inviting the surveillance state in to their lives – such a deal – in return for all the free picture storage you could want, free searches, and the profound ruminations of the publicists of the stars. Meanwhile, the wealthy and powerful have meat-walls that can shelter them from the Internet and its surveillance. It must be nice, if someone annoying gets your cell phone number, to just have your executive assistant get you another phone, huh?

    To your question of whether diminishing privacy is a bad thing, here’s an answer: only if it’s universally applied. One reason the wealthy and powerful like their privacy is so they can enjoy an existence of power and privilege that might result in a tumbril-ride or two, if the rest of the population really understood how good they’ve got it. And, of course, it’s hard to be a vicious hypocrite if your hypocrisy is visible to all. Differential privacy is an enabler and a symptom of social inequality.

    A counterpoint to the previous might be to point at David Petraeus’ takedown, in which the FBI was able to investigate some extremely detailed stuff based on (what?) probable cause “cheating on your wife” is now a matter of the highest law enforcement? The way Petraeus’ presumed privacy was disintegrated probably had more to do with someone equally powerful and privileged deciding to take him off the game-board because he’d left himself critically vulnerable to “outing” at a very convenient time. If such shenanigans are played too much and too often we’ll see an increased call for privacy for the wealthy and powerful – everyone else, of course, can fuck themselves. If you want to see where that sort of environment ends up, do work for lawyers: due to discovery laws** experts involved in legal cases are counselled repeatedly to never write anything down or commit anything to email or a voice message – thereby defeating the purpose of discovery laws. I was working on the internet email implementation for The White House when Clinton first came in and there was still tremendous sensitivity regarding what records public servants were required to maintain, as a consequence of records “mis-management” during Iran/Contra – instead of working to maintain the records they were required to, public servants began to bend over backward to avoid maintaining any records at all except for the blandest meeting notes. Again, differential privacy is a key indicator that something wrong is happening.

    When the surveillance state seeks to justify itself, they often say “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, why do you care?” The same – exactly – should be the response to the intelligence community, State Department, CIA, and our elected leaders. Nobody should have any privacy, or everyone should. When you see one side is interested in shielding its actions from the other, it’s because they are attempting to achieve a differential in power. Yes, knowledge really is power. In that sense, the surveillance state represents a massive power-grab.

    (* I consider myself a privacy advocate and was careful to ensure that the first generation firewalls I built protected the users’ privacy as well as their data. By the mid-1990s that battle was lost.)
    ( ** The idea of discovery laws is to make sure information is fairly and equally shared in cases. Instead of accomplishing that, it’s simply made information-handling vastly more complex while remaining unequal.)

  11. says

    I have multiple external hard drives I use for back up and storage too.

    Obligatory geekery: Just make sure the drives live somewhere away from the computer itself, in case of fire or flood. I had a friend who had a whole stack of backup hard drives wind up 4 feet under salt water sitting right next to the other copy of the data (on the computer) oops!

    A great way to deal with this costs about $25/year. Take advantage of your local bank’s vault and its fire-suppression systems and get a safety deposit box. Sync your USB hard drives every so often or swap them with a spare set in the deposit box. Basic rule I’ve always followed for data is:
    – one copy online
    – one copy near-line (USB drive I can plug in and connect with minimal effort)
    – one copy off-line in a separate location (far enough away that a disaster that takes out both your off-line copy any the online copy will probably take you out, too)

    (And while you’re at it, open a bank account then have the bank lock it down so it’s not internet enabled, has a credit application block on it, and basically you can only do transactions by walking into the lobby. Keep your money there and occasionally write a paper check against that account to deposit in another account at a different bank – never keep more money in there than you’re willing to lose. You can use that account for online payments. Most people have no idea how shitty the security of online banking is, thanks to the schooling effect – you’re one mackerel in 100,000,000 what’s the likelihood? Don’t think about “likelihood” think about “how much will it hurt?”)

  12. Snoof says

    I don’t recall giving the government to search my personal info without a warrant.

    You might have, actually, when you clicked “I agree to the following terms and conditions”. (You did read them, right?)

    My data is not the property of Google.

    Once again, depending on the Terms and Conditions, it may well be.

    That’s the problem. Whether you like it or not, massive data collection is already happening, and the fact that so many people are ignorant about it makes it harder to deal with. I’m not, for the record, saying that people bring it on themselves by not being savvy enough. Gods know I’m not. The problem is that it’s often extremely difficult to participate in public life without being tracked all the time. People are expected to have credit cards, mobile phones, social media accounts and so forth, all of which (by design) funnel information to various organizations, usually for-profit ones answerable only to shareholders and the eldritch abomination known as the Free Market.

    The end of privacy may turn out to be the least bad option. “Everyone has access to everyone elses’ personal information all the time” is hardly pleasant in my mind, but information asymmetry (“a small group has access to everyone else’s personal information all the time”) makes exploitation almost inevitable, and I’m not sure it is possible to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

  13. says

    My data is not the property of Google.

    I love when I read comments like that posted by people who use Google, gmail, etc. “What I gave them in return for the ‘free’ service? I want it baaaaaaack!” Good luck with that.

  14. says

    I don’t recall giving the government to search my personal info without a warrant.

    They gave themselves permission. And indemnified themselves from future and past liability for doing so. Why on earth would your opinion concern them in the slightest?*

    In case you didn’t hear, the cell phone companies were cheerfully passing private customer data to the intelligence community (there was no subpoena, the NSA said “pweddy pweeze? we are a biiiiiig customer of yours.” and the phone companies asked, “what format do you want the data in?”) and there was a mini-scandal until all the various branches of government forgave eachother and the Department of Justice quashed the EFF’s lawsuits. Game over.

    (* Other than that, individually, they are traitors to themselves, their friends and families, and the republic they live in. Some people will do some pretty crazy shit to avoid getting a bad performance review or lose their job. Others just see the promotions and opportunities.)

  15. petermilley says

    Out of curiosity, is there any evidence that Google specifically has anything to do with how the evidence was gathered in the Steubenville case, or any of the cases mentioned in the Bruce Schneier article?

  16. says

    One final comment, then I’m going to shut up about this:

    The most harmful privacy in most societies is governmental

    It is inconsistent with the idea of democracy that the government which supposedly acts on behalf of the people can act without those people’s knowledge. The process of going from knowledge to agreement is what democracy is. If you break the knowledge part off, you have suborned democracy by producing a “garbage in garbage out” situation.

    Yes, if we citizens have privacy, we might be silly enough to arrange a little dope deal via SMS text* or something like that. But we’re not going to violate the War Powers Act secretly and deploy special forces into Africa, or tap everyone’s phones (except those of the rich and powerful) or establish secret torture-bases, etc. Most importantly, even the most fhy must these state secrets be kept? Not because reveaoolish among us wouldn’t agree to waste the kind of our money that is wasted on such things.

    Why must these “state secrets” be kept? Not because it’s crucial to keep the “systems and methods” secret! That is complete bullshit! The whole point of having a drone with a missile is that you can hover it over someone and say, “don’t like it? too bad! fuck you! shoot it down and I have 400 more!” There is no need to keep this stuff secret except for the reason that if the fulll extent of what was being done in the people’s name would disgust the people enough to overturn the government. If you’re a superpower like the US you don’t need to secretly deploy special forces or cyberweapons – you could just do it. The problem is that everyone would realize you’re an asshole and maybe try to stop you. Because if people know what’s going on, the next step is that they want to ask “why?” and have some say in the matter. Put differently, do you think our defense budget would be what it is, if the DoD’s budget was set by a popular vote?

    Montaigne’s friend De Boetie wrote a wonderful paper* asking the question “since there are so many of us, and so few of them, why are dictators and kings tolerated?” I’ve been pondering that question for a couple decades and the only answer I’ve come up with is “differential secrecy” – and that’s why I’m so hot on this topic.

    (* Discourse on Voluntary Servility: http://www.constitution.org/la_boetie/serv_vol.htm )

  17. says

    There is a browser plugin, I forget the name of it, that constantly does random searches in the background for anything and everything… the idea being to make your web use history a nonsensical indecipherable mess. Supposedly it doesn’t hog much bandwidth.

  18. says

    OOps, I screwed up my footnotes. :\

    The story I meant to put in the bottom was this:
    A few years ago I was hanging out with a friend at his photography studio and, well, he scored some coke. The dealer dropped by and the transaction happened, then I realized something, “Hey O? Did you arrange that using text messages?” He says, “I’m not that stupid. I asked him how he was doing and whether I could have a beer with him tonight.” I was blown away. So I asked him, “Do you realize that if he ever gets busted, they’ll pull all his call records and see who he talked to regularly? And if one of his clients gets busted and flips him, the same thing’ll happen?”

    There’s a term of art in crypto/intelligence that was classified until the 80s, “traffic analysis” – the art of inferring network relationships and reporting/control structures just from the patterns within communications. If any of you are crazy amateur cryptographers or puzzle nuts, the text from the NSA’s old class on traffic analysis (“Traffic analysis and the zendian problem”) is declassified and published by Aegean press. During the course the traffic analyst basically completely deconstructs the structure of the fictional nation Zendia based on messages, many of which are unreadable. It is cool as all fuck.

  19. says

    There is a browser plugin, I forget the name of it, that constantly does random searches in the background for anything and everything… the idea being to make your web use history a nonsensical indecipherable mess.

    The current state of the art in paranoia is to use stolen credentials to set up an instance at a cloud computing service, punch into it via RDP, do your browsing, then revert the instance. Of course, your RDP connection is trackable, so you should only do that from the parking lot of a hotel, using their wireless, and use an alternative network interface. If you have a Dell laptop, it’s possible for someone to tell you’ve got a Dell by the MAC on the wifi adapter, so buy one of the USB plugins used on Ebay and use that. Throw it away every couple weeks (they go for about $20) …

  20. doublereed says

    First of all, there’s a world of difference between accessing someone’s information with a warrant and accessing someone’s information without a warrant. Do you think police have the authority to come into your house randomly and search for things? If not, why not?

    Secondly, it’s not about limiting government in the simple sense. It’s about developing laws and protections for both corporate and governmental bodies so that they can’t easily abuse people’s lack of privacy. Technically, if we’re making laws against corporations, then that growing government, not limiting it.

    Thirdly, big brother is not ‘inevitable’ or whatever. That’s ridiculous. I really get annoyed by people’s defeatist attitude about things. We can do whatever the hell we want because this is a democracy. We just have to decide what we want to do. The idea that there’s no way to balance privacy concerns with corporate or government interests, and that we should just accept invasions of privacy, is silly.

  21. jackasterisk says

    First, I’m not at all convinced that Google “knows” very much about us at all. After all, Netflix can’t even figure out what movies we like from its database of what movies we like.

    Second, the real problem — as hinted at by others — isn’t that the information exists, but that it’s privately owned. Lack of transparency and accountability can lead to mischief in any domain. There’s nothing special about the actual content in this case.

    Finally, there are some genuine potential benefits of this kind of knowledge. Mining this data could solve and prevent crimes, track and defuse global epidemics, and enable new types of sociological, medical, economic, and political science research. I’m thinking of stuff like this. Heck, corporations could do market research as long as the right safeguards are in place.

    I think the way to do that is to get this data out of private hands, and to only allow access through computer algorithms that anonymize the data. Law enforcement could drill in deeper with a warrant.

  22. says

    jackasterisk:

    After all, Netflix can’t even figure out what movies we like from its database of what movies we like.

    They’ve never gotten that right with me, and I’ve had an account for years.

  23. Snoof says

    It’s not directlyrelated to this topic, but this is a fascinating video about internet privacy or the lack thereof.

  24. says

    Law enforcement could drill in deeper with a warrant.

    …. which they have always been able to do. Yet, consistently, that’s not good enough for them and they work (in secret, oh the irony!) to bypass those protections.

    At this point, it should be one of those “fool me once, shame on you, fool me 27,273 times, give me a fucking break” kind of situations. We need to stop being so inexpressibly naive.

    Here’s another problem with that model: assume the data is collected and the government retroactively changes the rules. The data’s still there but the rules are now different. And of course, governments are experts at retroactively changing the rules. Consider the evolution from phone calls being private, to pen-registers, then pen-registers being analogous to email headers and now the NSA’s facility in Utah is going to, um, just collect everything and maybe only look at the headers? Heh.

  25. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    What a surprise — the good professor is actually a good little fascist.

    Gee, ad hominem from a harvard guy. Shows the lack of education they received from that illustrious institution. Hyperbole is for ignorant losers like liberturds.

  26. laurentweppe says

    “since there are so many of us, and so few of them, why are dictators and kings tolerated?” I’ve been pondering that question for a couple decades and the only answer I’ve come up with is “differential secrecy”

    That, and also it’s not that difficult to give thugs uniforms and wticks/swords/gun before telling them “if any plebs starts complaining about our rule, beat them up and rape their kids, that will teach the others to behave

    ***

    Do you think police have the authority to come into your house randomly and search for things?

    You may want to ask that question on Ed Brayton’s blog. You may have to wait a few hours until he stops laughing, though

  27. jackasterisk says

    Here’s another problem with that model: assume the data is collected and the government retroactively changes the rules. The data’s still there but the rules are now different. And of course, governments are experts at retroactively changing the rules.

    That’s kind of a slippery slope argument, and assumes that no one cares enough to notice or raise the alarm about the rule change. Certainly privacy rights were eroded in America after 9/11, but now that the event is receding in memory many people are working to restore those lost protections.

    The counterexample is medical records. Those are quite well regulated under HIPAA (again in America), and anyone who’s had a sick relative knows they’re quite scrupulously private. Part of the reason we don’t see backsliding in those rules is that politicians have medical records too.

  28. toddsweeney says

    My main worries from the government are incompetence and over-reaction. Do I want to make it easier for them to freeze my assets and impound my car based on my having a similar name to that of a terror suspect? My worries about corporate bodies is greater, however. I run a tech blog, and as part of that blog I talk openly about the products I use (hardware and software). And I’m just waiting for an aggressive legal/marketing drone to realize I DARED say that “Quontium Doallium v 3.4 pro” doesn’t actually live up to the hype, and doesn’t even run on my hardware…and a word in a friendly corporate ear and my blog vanishes from everything but the Wayback Machine.

    (I realize the irony of using a Google ID to log in. One comfort — Freethought apparently thinks I’m trying to impersonate myself, and barred my last several attempts to comment).

  29. Azuma Hazuki says

    This is a lesson the human race needs to learn the hard way, it seems. I have a feeling a lot of institutions are going to collapse in the next 5-10 years, and that many of us will die as a result.

    And what can we do? Keep your head down, breathe fresh air, love your friends and family if you have them, and do little things to make the world better here and there. It will all come tumbling down. Societies and systems based on control always do.

  30. says

    jackasterisk:
    That’s kind of a slippery slope argument, and assumes that no one cares enough to notice or raise the alarm about the rule change. Certainly privacy rights were eroded in America after 9/11, but now that the event is receding in memory many people are working to restore those lost protections.

    Are you European? Or from Mars? Perhaps you hadn’t heard about the bit where the outgoing president indemnified those that broke the privacy laws, then the current president indemnified the outgoing president’s indemnification? Or that the DOJ has consistently quashed EFF and ACLU’s attempts to, um, restore those lost protections?

    I wouldn’t laugh at your “slippery slope” comment if we weren’t already standing halfway down wondering “how did we get here?” And, of course people are working to restore those protections but, in case you hadn’t noticed, they are being actively opposed by the state and it’s not going so well. It’s hardly intellectually honest to accuse me of making a “slippery slope” argument when we are, in fact, trying to climb up a slippery slope and are being actively opposed.

    BTW, there are examples of exactly the kind of retroactive removal of data protections that I’m referring to. It may have escaped your notice but the reason given for overturning the privacy that was done overtly were usually pursuant to “the war on terror” and money-laundering to fund terrorism. But now that the data is being made available to the FBI it’s also being used to hunt for drug deals. And the information retrieval put in place for “counterterrorism” is now being used by the FBI for fishing expeditions against drugs and, well, General Petraeus. :)

    We do appear to be on a 30-degree incline coated with butter, but like you I’m pretty sure we’re not on a “slippery slope” because I can’t see the top of it from where I am, anymore. At least I don’t see the bottom, yet.

  31. says

    Random slope lubricant:

    WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s inspector general on Tuesday questioned the accuracy of anti-terrorism statistics gathered by the FBI and federal prosecutors, saying they included immigration violations, drug trafficking and marriage fraud cases even when there was no evidence linking them to terrorist activity.

    In a 140-page audit released Tuesday, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine found that nearly all of the department’s terrorism-related statistics on investigations, referrals and cases from September 2001 to February 2005 were wrong.

  32. pedz says

    I agree that the fundamental problem is the asymmetry of privacy which is really just the flip side of asymmetry of knowledge. If we expect to have anything like a functioning liberal democracy we must vote in governments who will ensure the necessary balance.

    Just a note to those who said they don’t do anything on line that they care if others know about. Just posting a comment on this web site may be enough to get you passed over for a job. They won’t say it’s because your an atheist; they will say that it indicates you have problems accepting authority.

  33. says

    This is a lesson the human race needs to learn the hard way, it seems. I have a feeling a lot of institutions are going to collapse in the next 5-10 years, and that many of us will die as a result.

    Nonsense. You sound just like Alex Jones. You’re just being paranoid.

    If anything, the institutions we have come to rely upon are stronger and more stable than they have ever been in the past. We are living in a world that is less violent than it has ever been before, and life-expectancy is soaring all over the world (except in the places where it is already around 80 years).

    Will there be problems? Yes. Serious problems? Yes. But there is no reason to believe that we can’t deal with them without the total collapse of society.

  34. says

    I don’t think corporations have porn habits …

    If they do have porn habits it involves young women housed in prison conditions, (or worse), in order to keep them working long hours to make money for vulture capitalists.

    It involves barbed wire.

  35. says

    The counterexample is medical records. Those are quite well regulated under HIPAA (again in America), and anyone who’s had a sick relative knows they’re quite scrupulously private.

    BTW – I work in information security professionally. I have for 25+ years. I’ve investigated breaches and offered advice to help defend data to companies and governments. I’ve also done a fair bit of work surrounding HIPAA and all I can say is that you’re literally right but laughably wrong. The way HIPAA works is to make sure that it’s obviously difficult to get the information from outside of the perimeter of the hospital. So, yes, friends and family and other organizations have to hop up and down to get it. But the “portability” part of HIPAA is to make the underlying data easier to share between, well, all organizations that have authorized themselves to have it. And that’s not taking into account leakage. Hospitals’ information security is generally not of the finest quality in my experience. The reason you’re not hearing a lot about patient medical records being stolen is because, in general, their credit cards are more valuable – and those get stolen a lot.

    If you want a better view of how well citizen’s privacy is being protected, look at the litany of personal information breach disclosures involving things like credit cards and identity theft. Things like how the VA leaked patient data (including social security numbers, which is what the attackers were after) for, well, pretty much everyone who served in the military from the late 1980s until the incident. Etc.

    Holding up HIPAA as an example of how well privacy is protected is somewhat analogous to arguing that theft is not a problem because nobody has stolen the turds out of your toilet lately. Hint: the turds aren’t where the action is.

  36. unclefrogy says

    the whole question of privacy and its asymmetry is the entire reason for the Bradley Manning /WIKI-Leaks. controversy cases what ever. Our privacy is breached not by the government directly it is primarily the marketing departments of corporations some of which are “public” corporations. They just want to serve us better, which reminds me of a scify program about a Space Alien Book with the name “To Serve Man” left behind by them which turned out to be a cookbook .All those friendly apps helping you find that place to spend your money on things you may not be able to resist!

    I’m not so sure if secrecy is very compatible with democracy but I am sure democracy will not thrive nor even survive without active involvement.
    Without accurate information and open communication choice is limited to what ever is in the grab bag being offered.

    uncle frogy

  37. says

    At one point I went into my Google Search History and was really quite horrified to find out that they could tell me which pages I had looked at, whether I had hovered over a link and for how long, whether I had clicked a link and how long I stayed on the page. I know you can delete your browsing history, but I fell off the turnip truck a couple years ago and realize that that hardly purges all traces of my activity from existence. From my computer, yes. From existence, no.

    That was a couple years ago, and I don’t think quite as much information is stored (at least that I can access). Now I can see every page and image I’ve looked at, but the details of my behavior at the sites is no longer available (to me). I’m starting to sound a little paranoid.

    I don’t look at porn (regularly), but I’m a semi-retired general transcriptionist and in the process of researching terms, places, etc., I’ve left quite an interesting trail for someone to sniff around in. About a month ago the Internets were targeting ads at me for programs to help me overcome my opioid addiction. Caffeine, maybe; opioids, not hardly.

    I tend not to worry too much about being scrutinized by Google or Homeland Security or whoever else might be looking over my shoulder. Out of the millions and millions of computer communications that happen on a daily basis I really figure nobody is paying any attention to me as an individual. I DO object to Google or anybody using my composite history and deciding for me what search results are relevant to me when I’m online.

  38. dgrasett says

    Dear Uncle Frogy. Thank you for remembering the cookbook. It was a short story in one of the SF magazines. That memory is one I keep front and centre when listening to anything from the government.

  39. says

    Our privacy is breached not by the government directly it is primarily the marketing departments of corporations some of which are “public” corporations

    The difference is that governments don’t make it optional.
    Then comes the question of monopoly power: is there an alternative to Google (yes) but, if so, why don’t enough people use it to impact Google’s practices?

    There’s a certain issue with inertia and apathy. Like probably 99.9999% of everyone, I got tired of reading successive weekly releases of Facebook’s privacy policy. Unlike a lot of people, though, I don’t have a Facebook account.* If people fled Facebook in millions because of privacy concerns, then perhaps Facebook’s privacy policy would be different.** When people tell me they care about their privacy I generally don’t believe them – they’re comfortable signing away their privacy to play Facebook or to use gmail or iTunes*** or Twitter or Linkedn or whatever. I’d guesstimate most people think their privacy is worth about $100-$200 per year. The rich and powerful value theirs more because it’s big news when they get caught in a motel room doing what they said not to do, but nobody realizes the immediate downside on their personal front.

    That could change, retroactively, someday, and the cost of that change could be very high if society takes a horrible turn for the worse. Personally, I think the important battle is preventing that, rather than the privacy, because of the $100-$200 problem.

    (* except for some pseudonymous ones I use for investigations)
    (** I doubt it. I chose Facebook as an example because there’s a fundamental tension there – the company’s market value is based on its user-base and the premise that they’re going to be selling the user-base as advertising targets for marketers. If Facebook actually tried to protect its users privacy, it would be worth about $1.50 instead of having a multi-gajillion-dollar market cap. If someone is offering a service for free yet has a high stock price, it’s because they’re selling something: you)
    (*** Don’t tell me you don’t think Apple sells customer data?)

  40. great1american1satan says

    I’ve been at least slightly taken in by apocalyptic thinking three times in the last 15 years and I think I’m effin done with that, Azumex Jones. I think there’s a tendency in our history books to paint the world as having discrete start and end points, when things are usually more gradual. The fall of Rome, for example, didn’t involve everybody’s lifestyle being upended forever instantly into a state of total barbarity. A lot of the social institutions continued with a change in management from federal to local government. Anyhow, with that background (plus alarmist media screeching at us), it’s easy to see why that’s an easy way to imagine the future – with big abrupt changes. The reality is never that exciting.

  41. sillose says

    everything marcus ranum said(but less eloquently and from a less knowledgeable perspective). and some more:
    this sucks extra hard for persecuted minorities-think of being outed as queer in the deep south. even just to the local cops-or the federal cops who happen to be nearby and let them know. thats potentially deadly. in a culture where shame and persecution exist privacy is an absolute necessity.

    and ‘im not doing anything wrong so i dont have anything to hide’ is bullshit. they analyze everything in a thousand different ways. some of it solid reasonably accurate algorithms, some of it is barely better than guesswork, and all of it, im willing to bet, optimized for sensitivity over specificity. and thats without the fuckups you know have to happen, even if theyre rare.
    you know youre not saying anything wrong, but how do you know what theyre hearing?

  42. says

    Nobody else has mentioned this, at least so far as I can see, so I think I’ll jump in: PZ, there’s an extra fillip you’re missing on this debate. Knowing people’s preferences is a fair step along the path of being able to manipulate them. Even the most meticulous and pedantic champion of reason — which description I don’t think covers anyone here, from what I’ve seen — constantly makes small decisions which are not, strictly speaking, rational. Even knowing that you have biases is not enough to prevent you from acting on them — look at the study done where a bunch of doctors were found to be consciously non-racist, but still recommending noticeably different treatments for hypothetical cases based on the skin color of the photograph attached to each grouping of symptoms.

    For this reason, it is insanely dangerous to allow government — let alone corporations — to collect data on this level. The whole notion of democracy crashes if the government can capture the preferences of the people. That’s when you get, well, pretty much what we’re getting: insane foreign policy, an out-of-control military, environmental policy which is arranged to destroy rather than preserve, and no complaints because there’s effective propaganda to keep people’s opinions in line. It’s the final and fatal form of regulatory capture, when the public itself ceases to care for its own interest.

  43. says

    My data is not the property of Google.

    Then don’t use Google. Literally nobody is forcing you to use that service. If this is an issue for you, then you should find a service that suits your needs. I hear that Yandex and Hushmail are good for privacy, but I need to look into it more. Duckduckgo is also a good search engine that supposedly respects your privacy.

    I really don’t get people whining about how Google is collecting their data. It’s not like Google is the only web/email service out there.

  44. says

    Big data isn’t going to do any of the collectors any good. What is signal, and what is noise exactly? Collect the wrong data, and you get wrong results. Garbage in = garbage out, as they say in the computer world. And, we can see quite well how that paradigm works when applied to both politics and economics, where, presumably, you can’t afford to be wrong all the time, and be mistaking the noise for the signal. And yet, almost universally, this is precisely what all of these people end up doing. There are reasons other than just greed that this depression happened. Part of it was that the “noise” was telling them certain things wouldn’t happen, bad models where being used to test against, and whole swaths of data was “missing” from the model in the first place, so, even as they started to realize a problem might exist, all the stuff most of them where looking at was saying, “Its not going to be that bad.”

    You can look at it sort of like if, during Katrina, the experts, which where being partly ignored by their own local expert, had been saying, “water levels of 46 feet, plus or minus 1 foot.”, not, “water levels of 46 feet, plus or minus 7 feet.” What do I mean with that? Well, the levees where known to only be 51 feet high… Their “expert”, left off the “plus or minus” part, when making recommendations. Just one in a long list of screw up, but an insane one to make. And, it was made in the **only** field of prediction that has actually gotten better over time, as more data, and better models, are available.

    Our models of the economy, or politics, are not much better than rolling dice most of the time, and they don’t get better by having insane people come up with new “economic theories” like libertarianism, or via target polling of only people whose answers they like, or using questions they have intentionally stacked the deck on. They don’t have a bloody clue what all the variables are, but on some level, they know the variables are inter-dependent, so they undermine their own data collection, in the hope that saying 60% of the people want X, because of this poll they did, it was throw a wrench into all the other unknown variables, and fowls the system in their favor. Sadly, since they are all so interconnected, it sometimes works (a bit too often in fact, hence insane things like Prop 8 passed, then everyone going, not long after, “What the fuck did we just do?!”)

    But, this is the sort of stuff they will do will all that data. Try to change the outcome of the predictions, while making the predictions. Which is a bit like trying to calculate a Bayesian result where X = random(???), i.e., an unknown value, in an unknown range. Y = Wishful thinking. and Z = The possible range of entirely unknown results. Ok.. X*Y/Z = ? I have no idea, and neither do all the morons that think they do know. The problem isn’t just that they pick Y as something bloody stupid, but they keep plugging the same number into it, every single time, or rather, they disbelieve the result, what ever the result might have been, and just plug in something they like better, but since they are multiplying it with something that has no basis in reality either, the result can never converge on a useful answer. Either that, of they use the “alternative” frequentist version, which just throws out opinion entirely, and tries to make predictions in a vacuum, based purely on their biased data collection (which won’t get you any place, if your data is already useless to start with, since, you can’t can’t tell its bad data, due to the numbers drifting “away” from your assumptions).

    So, yeah, I say… throw all the data you can at these fools. By the time they are done they will be predicting things that are so far outside the basis of actual reality that a two year old could tell you they don’t make sense, and they will have no clue, at all, why their predictions are wrong. Well, unless they do figure out the variables, in which case.. My own prediction is that they will dislike the result of the “right” data sets so much that they will ignore them anyway, at their own peril. I just hope its not the economist that do it, when that inevitably happens.

  45. says

    People are good at violating their own privacy. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people in public discusss their legal isssues, drug adventures, sex life, and various other things they should know better about. Cussing out Joe So and So could come back to bite you if that guy sitting across the way from you on the bus is one of Joe So and So’s good friends you’re not familiar with.

  46. says

    Big data isn’t going to do any of the collectors any good. What is signal, and what is noise exactly?

    It’s not that simple. First off, it’s all signal, none of it is noise. So what you’re doing is sorting and categorizing a very large number of overlaid signals. Signals that don’t interfere with eachother. So the signal/noise analogy doesn’t hold up very well. Then, it becomes a matter of applying a process to generate data and iteratively tuning it.

    There are a couple ways you can think of this, and I’m not sure which is the best so I’ll sketch out a couple…

    One way to think of it is to consider gmail’s spam filtering capability. Anyone here use gmail? Do you like the spam blocking? Pretty good, isn’t it? See, it’s not a signal/noise problem – it’s a classification problem and there are whole toolkits you can throw at it, together, which make you more and more accurate. The fact that gmail’s spam blocking is pretty good is one data point you can consider if someone says it’s impossible to sort commonalities out of gigantic amounts of message traffic. Furthermore, it’s a problem that parallelizes beautifully. Here’s a hint about computing: it’s a bad idea to say “X is impossible” if X is a problem that parallelizes cleanly. Because human brains probably already do it really well and if they do that’s an indicator it’s in a category of problems that fit well into massively parallel architectures like gmail. When you’re trying to decide if something is hard or easy to compute the breakdown seems to be things that parallelize well versus things that require creativity.

    Another way of thinking of the problem is in terms of technology and algorithms. The bayesian classifiers for spam (1) like CRM-114, popmail, and whatever’s built into Thunderbird (that’s what I use!) work pretty flippin’ well! I get about 3500 emails a day of which I actually see about 200. And my bayesian classifier is wrong about three times a month, which is approximately .003% Now think of your algorithms as fast-path and highly parallelizable (like a bayesian classifier) and slow-path like semantic forest techniques and you can see a path toward building a message analysis system that did semantic analysis of billions of messages fairly accurately and easily. Use the classifiers to pre-cluster your messages as inputs into separate stacks of semantic analysis systems with a few humans at the top and you’ve got “thin thread”(2) (As an aside, you can actually construct such systems to preserve privacy simply by not carrying forward the data about what led the system to calculate a particular classification for a particular message. Which, by the way, is not a bad idea anyway, since the internal calculations of bayesian classifiers simply aren’t interesting to humans! It’d take much longer to figure them out than to eyeball the message.) And then there’s technology: in 1988 I was working for Welch Medical Library as a researcher on text retrieval systems and my boss and I went out to Redondo Beach for a fascinating fascinating presentation by a guy from TRW who was demonstrating a massively parallel silicon search engine (called the TRW FDF – fast data finder) that could do basic text structure searching and matching at bus speed. Gosh, I wonder who they built that for? That technology got spun off to a company called Paracel. Anyhow, the FDF (this was 88, right?) did silicon speed searches like “word ‘shoot’ in same paragraph as ‘president'” I.e.: it had a rudimentary understanding of English. You might also want to look up “semantic forests” which is patented by the NSA, actually. It’s a bit hard to get information about it but it’s basically like map/reduce for text on steroids. Imagine something like that running parallelized on virtual machine clusters with a great big storage array and you know the basic architecture of what’s sitting in Utah.

    Lastly, I must re-iterate the most crucial point one can make about these systems: they work retroactively. That’s a big piece of (other than just plain control-freakery) why “total information awareness” is such a holy grail for some of the three letter agencies: you can go back in time by scrubbing over your data-set with an updated rule. Imagine that there’s a bunch of clever guys who you discover, one day, have been calling highly enriched uranium “tube alloy.” So they got by under your nose for 5 years but suddenly somehow you discover “tube alloy” is interesting and 20 seconds later you have a list of every single exchange of messages regarding “tube alloy”. Yeah, that’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because you can go back in time and learn a lot. I know one researcher at a phone company who, back in the early 90s, had access to the customer database. As a trivial experiment he put together a system that mapped common gender-specific names (Frederick, Allan, Joseph) vs (Jane, Anne) etc and retrieved clusters of residences which were joint-occupied by two males that had moved together from one residence to another. A state that wanted to prosecute homosexuals should not get its hands on such things (my friend declared the system a failure and never published anything about it). What would Hitler have done with Facebook data? There, now I’ve godwinned myself. ;)

    (1) Paul Graham, “A plan for spam” http://www.paulgraham.com/spam.html
    (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ThinThread
    (3) http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.73.8179&rep=rep1&type=pdf

  47. says

    Oh, and also take a look at a system called “Palantir” – they’re making insane amounts of money right now. It’s a top-level analysis viewing tool that would sit at the top of a data-chain like the one I just described. I’m sure it’s just coincidence that the folks at Palantir are selling the stuff like it’s crack cocaine poutine. The missing link at the top of the chain is being able to visualize the relationships in a communication network, which is basically what Palantir does and does very prettily.

  48. says

    And on the flip side, for the Stuebenville rape case apparently the prosecutors had something like 300,000+ text messages and 300,000+ photos sent during the time of the incident, which they are sorting through to see if there are other people who should be charged with crimes. I’m also assuming they have geolocation data from the cell phones involved.

    I’d bet that the data was requested and provided above-board: no need for a classified national security letter to get at it. This illustrates the value and importance of keeping data. Assuming that it was obtained under a proper court order, that also illustrates the right way to go about it. The rapists (and onlookers’) privacy rights are not being violated.

    What needs to be drawn is a line between appropriate access to stored records and “fishing expeditions” – it’s the fishing expeditions that are being done under the NSLs and under classification regimes. Which is to say that the least legitimate use of the data is the least regulated and overseen as well.

  49. Moggie says

    boskerbonzer:

    At one point I went into my Google Search History and was really quite horrified to find out that they could tell me which pages I had looked at, whether I had hovered over a link and for how long, whether I had clicked a link and how long I stayed on the page.

    Don’t forget location history! I’ve just looked at Google’s “location history dashboard”. It knows where I work, though I’ve never told Google explicitly, and has a nifty graph of how much time I’ve spent in the office for the past few months. This takes a dip in October, because I was on a one-week course – and Google have figured out the address I was at for that week.

  50. optimalcynic says

    Lachlan @4:

    I also believe that the benefits of heavy CCTV coverage, cellphone tracking, etc., as tools for criminal investigation outweigh the possibility of Big Brother style government abuse.

    I think the Republican Party is working on that. It’s like free speech. You shouldn’t consider the situation when your party is in power, you should consider what abuses the other side can do.

    (minor off topic alert) This is coming up in Australia at the moment. The Gillard government is trying, in its traditional ham-fisted style, to address the problem of corporate mass media. The basic principle seems to be to let the government stamp on media outlets that seem problematic. Andrew Bolt, for the first time in his life, has made a good point – what if the next government appoints him as the decider of what seems problematic?

    (back on topic) If you think that the government having access to every last detail of your personal life isn’t a problem, replace “the government” with “Sheriff Joe Arpaio”.

  51. crowepps says

    The counterexample is medical records. Those are quite well regulated under HIPAA (again in America), and anyone who’s had a sick relative knows they’re quite scrupulously private.

    Medical records are only as private as the willingness of every single member of the hospital staff to respect that privacy.

    But on Feb. 6, after the abortion procedure, something went wrong, and the woman was taken to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, where she died the next morning. … The day after her death, protesters gathered outside the clinic with her name, big posters of her photo and grim details about her medical history and procedures.

    So how on earth did protesters get all of her medical records? How did they get enough detail to make huge posters of her face, give details about her marriage and employment, and make claims about what went on inside her body?

    “I can’t reveal our sources. These are confidential and anonymous,” Martelli said.

    Relatives of the young woman didn’t talk to them. They told me they have said “No comment” to anybody who has called.

    Unless someone inside the clinic contacted the antiabortion groups, the only other possible source of such sensitive information is the hospital.

    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-14/local/37101945_1_late-term-abortion-michael-martelli-abortion-procedure

  52. snodorum says

    Thanks to your article about Lawrence Krauss, we are all going to have “incest” in our browsing history!

  53. says

    Medical records are only as private as the willingness of every single member of the hospital staff to respect that privacy.

    That’s a huge issue. Hardly a year goes by without some scandal involving IRS workers looking up Hollywood personalities’ filings, or medical records being accessed inappropriately. One of my friends who does infosec for a big hospital in LA has triggers set to detect specific names being queried that he puts in place if a “name” is involved in some kind of incident. It leads to lots of disciplinary proceedings, most of which are handled quietly but firmly. There was one hollywood personality who was brought in to the hospital after a drunken/drugged car-wreck and within about an hour there were a dozen emails sent by staffers saying, “guess who we just pulled into the surgery DUI? so-and-so” that landed in the filters. Of course, mobile devices now give people a private conduit in/out of the enterprise that bypasses controls, and that’s a big problem.

    A lot of today’s patient medical record systems are straightforward evolutions of paper-based systems, which means that there wasn’t much thought put into the database design rather than “make it work” and “let’s use soundex(first/last) and SSN as index fields” – If you think it’s incredibly stupid how SSN has been used all over the place as a canonical data identifier, that’s the tip of the iceberg. The real questions should be why the databases aren’t split into sensitive and unsensitive parts, and simple role-based access controls applied to the sensitive parts. Instead we have HITECH and HIPAA.

    So far, security’s response to the problem has been largely ineffective. Catching a few people out and sticking their heads on metaphorical pikes sort of works but the real question is why weren’t these databases designed better in the first place? There are a lot of simple unobtrusive techniques that nobody seems to want to use because it’s marginally harder to do something smart than to just get it done the naive way and play eternal whack-a-mole with miscreants.

  54. crowepps says

    There’s also a problem in that media has pretty well established rules about what information is regarded as public and what should be withheld from publication as private (i.e., the names of rape victims) but the average blogger may not just violate those established standards, they may be entirely unaware of them.

    In the abortion death case above, one of the rapid anti-abortion bloggers (who I won’t name so as not to garner her page hits), pursuing her vendetta against the doctor in question, published the dead woman’s picture, photos of her family, her name, address, etc. How much good does it do if the media refrain when the amateurs don’t?

  55. chrislawson says

    I’m a little disheartened by the anti-privacy arguments going around here. My response:

    1. Privacy is an important right. The problem isn’t asymmetry. The problem is that privacy is being violated right now by powerful government and corporate interests, while on the other hand governments and corporations are being protected from valid and important public scrutiny. Asymmetry? I expect asymmetry. I want the protections for individuals to be different to the protections for governments and corporations.

    2. Most people on a list like this have little to fear from their privacy being violated because the details of most people’s lives are of little interest to others. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t others who deserve and need their privacy. Someone already mentioned a gay in the Deep South. We’ve already had long arguments about how important it is for transsexuals to keep a non-identifying nym for exactly this reason. Then there’s employees of fundamentalists (and this includes public servants making benign statements like “here’s a science meeting you might be interested in attending”, as Chris Comer found out). And what happens if your employer decides that you going to see a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition or buying an Anais Nin book counts as pornography? Your privacy may not mean much to you — and good for you if that’s true — but it means a lot to other people.

    3. CCTVs are near-useless as evidence and for crime prevention. In the UK, a 2008 report estimated that only 3% of crimes were solved with the help of CCTV and that crime rates were unchanged. After 2008, further reports showed that CCTV involvement in crime solving *fell* despite the improvement in quality to HDTV recordings. And this was after a massive UKP 500 million investment in CCTVs (and that was only from 1997-2006!). What’s more, CCTV footage can be faked — as a London delivery driver attempted. Now imagine the faking being done by a powerful group with access to talented data manipulation/CGI experts instead of some suburban schmuck trying to worm out of a speeding ticket.

    4. Yes, surveillance data and mobile phone data can be useful in criminal prosecutions such as the Steubenville case, but there is already a safety net there called needing a warrant. Where there is sufficient cause, of course we expect people’s privacy to be given second place to criminal investigation. But the problem has been the massive recent expansion in warrantless surveillance — which is completely irrelevant to the Steubenville situation.

    5. The main reason health data is well preserved, as someone has already noted, is that most medical records are of interest to absolutely nobody outside the patient’s immediate circle and have little traction to anyone wanting to make a profit. Sure, there’s an opportunity for blackmail if you find out a politician was treated for an STI or somesuch, but blackmail is a high-risk criminal venture…especially compared to credit card scamming.

  56. sawells says

    Let me mount a counterargument here – partly as an exercise in devil’s advocacy, and partly because there’s something that troubles me about the privacy arguments, and I could use some help resolving the logic.

    Riddle me this:

    There’s never been such a thing as a right to invisibility, not a right to inaudibility. If you stand where people can see you, you may be seen; if you talk where people can hear you, you may be heard.

    If you are carrying out your conversations through the internet, or just by telephony, you are routing your messages through a massive web of public and private entities and infrastructure. We all act as if we should, in this case, have the same expectation of privacy as if we were carrying on a private conversation with one trusted friend in a windowless room. But we aren’t.

    If you go in a public place and there are people then you may be seen and remembered If you go in a public place and there are no people but there is CCTV coverage, you may be seen and recorded. People are arguing as if the second case raises civil liberties questions not raised by the first. But does it?

    This has been bothering me for a while. I would very much _like_ for everyone to have online privacy as we all think we should. But it’s not at all clear to me that that’s actually the legal or logical default. And I think the US civil liberties reliance on the Fourth Amendment may have clouded the argument. Is the personal and social expectation of privacy in our electronic communications, on which the application of 4th amendment to telephony and email rests (Katz v US 1967), actually a reasonable expectation? We _act_ as if electronics eavesdropping is like the government or corporations hiding under our sofas and listening to us talk and/or fuck; a gross violation of our expectation of privacy. But are we actually carrying on our conversations by loudhailer and wearing nothing but cellophane, then acting surprised when others can hear what we said and see what we thought we had covered?

    We’d better have a good argument why this isn’t the case – otherwise there’s a massive hole in the middle of our privacy and civil liberties argumentation.

  57. optimalcynic says

    Riddle me this:

    There’s never been such a thing as a right to invisibility, not a right to inaudibility. If you stand where people can see you, you may be seen; if you talk where people can hear you, you may be heard.

    One word answer – persistence. There has never before in human history been an automatic permanent record. In the past, whatever you said was immediately lost except in the imperfect memories of those who heard. Even if it was written down, that wasn’t necessarily accurate – look at the different versions of the Gettysburg Address. That is why we need privacy protection, because information no longer defaults to “forgotten”.

  58. jackasterisk says

    I work in information security professionally. I have for 25+ years. I’ve investigated breaches and offered advice to help defend data to companies and governments. I’ve also done a fair bit of work surrounding HIPAA and all I can say is that you’re literally right but laughably wrong. The way HIPAA works is to make sure that it’s obviously difficult to get the information from outside of the perimeter of the hospital.

    That’s really interesting, Marcus, and I appreciate the professional perspective. I guess I’m not surprised to hear that HIPAA is about privacy the way the TSA is about security — it’s a lot of theater.

    I used to work at a company that made software for analyzing scanner data. Supermarket checkout scanners generate terabytes of data — every item purchased, the cost, the discounts, the time of day, what else was bought. Thousands of market analysts pour over this stuff to find the best combination of price, discounts, coupons, ad buys, even shelf position. They run experiments in different regions and compare results. It’s kind of an amazing amount of effort all directed at profit. Kind of a dull outcome, really. I always wondered, what if science could get this kind of data?

    (It used to be anonymous, but then stores started to give people discount cards that were scanned as part of the same transaction. Suddenly there’s a new column in the table and they can examine the behavior of repeat customers. They pay for that, so it must be worth it to them.)

    The problem is this data already exists. Companies collect and store it with no real safeguards and no oversight over the limits of what they can do. And government agencies can get at it — any of it — just by asking. My point is that a government-run system would be better than the private system we have now because there would at least be a hope of adding privacy protections. Doing anything serious about a problem usually takes a bad breach of some kind, a scary story that motivates voters into action. That hasn’t happened yet.

    You can try to get yourself off the grid and cover your tracks, but you really can’t. It would be far better to harness this genii for good then futilely try to stuff it back into the bottle.

  59. says

    It’s not that simple. First off, it’s all signal, none of it is noise. So what you’re doing is sorting and categorizing a very large number of overlaid signals. Signals that don’t interfere with eachother. So the signal/noise analogy doesn’t hold up very well. Then, it becomes a matter of applying a process to generate data and iteratively tuning it.

    Which only works if you have a clear idea what your goal is, you are not ignoring critical data, and you can narrow down what you are looking for. There are examples where this has worked. There are a lot of cases where it just doesn’t. More data doesn’t always improve prediction, or give a clear picture, and, as I said, we keep collecting more and more data, on the hope that some of it will actually correlate. The problem is, as you express so concisely, when its not interdependent (in the way that public opinions can change, due to polls, which are designed to gauge public opinion…), there may still be the appearance of correlation, or even causation. Pick the wrong data, and it might work, for years, like some of the stuff the people involve with the housing bubble where doing, right up until it turns out that you have cause and effect backwards, or worse, there is no direct correlation at all, as well as the much more likely possibility that, rather than being two sides of a scale, they are two corners on an unstable platform, with an unknown number of corners, all precariously balanced on an unknown point. You will never know, as long as most of the shifts are balanced, or only seem to be on those two apposing sides you paid all your attention to.

    Its not always simple for even “experts” to work out what is relevant and isn’t, until something goes wrong.

  60. says

    It’s getting harder but it’s not impossible to maintain one’s privacy on the internet. For one thing, if you don’t like Google to know what porn you watch, you could use a non-tracking search engine like Duck Duck Go.

    If you think you need services like facebook or gmail however, well, good luck with that.

    Thanks to your article about Lawrence Krauss, we are all going to have “incest” in our browsing history!

    Good point, and most people would not be aware of that. Then again, most people also keep their browsing history. Which is not what you want to do if you value your privacy.

  61. says

    Which only works if you have a clear idea what your goal is

    Which is exactly the case, in this situation (especially retroactively) I know I posted a lot so I don’t expect you to have read it, which you appear not to have.

    If you’re interested in more on this topic, you might want to look at the notes for the class I used to teach at Interop, usenix, and SANS on system logging. There are links to it in the pubs area of my personal site.

  62. says

    The problem is this data already exists. Companies collect and store it with no real safeguards and no oversight over the limits of what they can do. And government agencies can get at it — any of it — just by asking.

    Yep. Remember back when a certain white house intern’s book-borrowing and clothes purchasing habits were suddenly under a great deal of scrutiny? It was amazing the data that surfaced, and how fast it surfaced. If you went back to iron mountain you could probably get transaction data going back to the beginning of online retail.

    It’s probably too late for most of us to get off the grid and cover our tracks! Because of retroactive searching. It’s quite plausible that 5, 10 years from now someone could construct a query based on additional information that completely strips bare some previous attempt to hide. Often this is 20/20 hindsight (the FBI trades in 20/20 hindsight as does the intelligence community – in a sense, it’s their job!) but it’s quite useful. You know, like searching records of flight school enrollment after an incident involving airplanes and marginally qualified pilots. That kind of thing. And the crazy part is that it might turn up all kinds of “collateral damage” we can’t predict.

  63. vaiyt says

    I figured out I’m already fucked anyway. Even if I start hiding my stuff right now, my histories already show what kind of porn I prefer and what causes I support. If they come after me, I guess the least I can do is keep my head high and say I had no regrets. ):

  64. says

    Even if I start hiding my stuff right now,

    But it’s not about hiding stuff or having something to hide! It’s about an expectation of privacy. You don’t expect the government to listen in to your phonecalls or to spy through your bedroom window, and the same should apply to your online activities.

    And obviously that’s not happening, and corporations are spying through your bedroom window all the time. Without a warrant. And store the film for all eternity.

    But yeah, somehow we’ve all just swallowed that. Maybe because it has happened so gradually.

  65. DLC says

    You use the internet by consent of your provider, who can shut you off anytime it suits them. If you don’t believe me, read your service contract.
    You use Google with implied consent that Google can track your searches. What, you didn’t read the pissant little fine print link “privacy and terms” at the bottom of the page ? It hasn’t been tested in any court I know of, but the general trend has been that you consent to Google’s terms when you use the service.
    In other words, your privacy on Google is an illusion that they help you perpetrate on yourself.
    I’d like to see law enforcement need a search warrant for your internet activity, just like I’d like to see the IRS required to get a warrant for your banking records. Of course, in the days of “finding statements” , secret searches, warrantless and or roving wiretaps and secret courts, I’m not sure demanding a warrant really matters anymore.

  66. allencdexter says

    I’m not worried about anything I do online or on the phone being monitored. They’re not going to waste time on an old nobody like me. There are only so many government agents out there, and they would get bored out of their skull in short order.

    I really want as many as possible to read what I write on my blog and on Facebook. That’s my persomal little soapbox. Please monitor away.

  67. Masquirina says

    Marcus:

    Historically, privacy has been a privilege of the wealthy and powerful. It was only a short-lived enlightenment idea of fairness that attempted to extend it to the rest of the population – enlightenment ideas that are being thoroughly rolled back in the USA. Meanwhile, if you’re some star whose cell-phone password is guessable and your messaging history gets posted, you get rapid and iron-fisted response from the FBI. If you’re one of hoi polloi, someone can stalk you until you are driven to suicide because the stalker is able to take advantage of the ‘anonymity’ of the Internet.

    Veering off of a U.S.-centric discussion here, but it’s almost too depressing to imagine the amount of work required before poor families of 2nd/3rd world countries can even begin to “earn” a whit of privacy. It probably isn’t much of a concern at all, even after basic survival is covered (I do realize there are many security measures between state of the art alarm system and the occasional guy in Brazil who chases someone for an hour with a rifle if they so much as “try the doorknob”). Credit to most of them for not losing their minds; credit to the already insane for managing to stay alive somehow.

  68. doublereed says

    Privacy wasn’t really a privilege of the wealthy and powerful, because we’ve never been able to invade people’s privacy like we can now. I don’t think we ever expected surveillence to be so incredibly easy and require so little manpower. This is a new thing. It’s something that the 4th Amendment didn’t really have under consideration at all.

    Consider how classic dystopias like 1984 don’t quite understand how incredibly easy it is now to track entire populations. We didn’t see this coming. We didn’t realize it would be this easy or there would be such a financial incentive to invade people’s privacy. Most dystopias considered it to be a purely government thing rather than corporate thing.

  69. doublereed says

    I mean Verizon Wireless’s Chief Marketing Executive was even quoted saying “Data is the new oil.”

    I don’t think we can act like this is something we all saw coming.

  70. objdart says

    The use of secret monitoring is troubling to me if it is truly asymmetric. If cell phones can be confiscated by police ever for any reason and the video be deleted, then there is a huge problem at least from my perspective. The corporate side worries insofar as the lack of limits to power derived from wealth but if the public also gets to engage in surveillance then at least there is a theoretical counter-balance.

    My first reaction to the op was that we are going to have to severely relax criminal penalties for most crimes if we want to avoid becoming a police state since most people commit some sort of crime sometimes. Imagine if every single time a car exceeded the speed limit, a fine was sent and their insurance premium was adjusted to reflect the violation.

    We would suddenly have an unworkable system. But in a country with the highest percentage of incarceration or some damn statistic like that in the world, a sudden influx of verified criminal behavior could turn into a sudden set of overtly privileged people and something even more terrible for the most disadvantaged in our society.

  71. deee says

    People, people. If you’re worried, join the EFF, EDRi, or your local equivalent. These organizations do a great job at fighting for the privacy and other rights of people in the digital realm, and they can use all the help they can get. Or if you don’t have the time, consider donating, even just a small sum.

    For all the work EFF and EDRi do, they get very little attention or gratitude. But without organizations like them, the privacy landscape of the internet would be even more horrible.

    On a related note: use free/open source software as much as you can – you can be sure there isn’t any hidden spyware when anyone can audit the source code.

  72. objdart says

    Do you really think, with the value of that data, that we can stave off the collection of that data through activism? I wonder if it isn’t a better idea to instead work to create public data collection and sorting features to level the playing field. A sort of a massive wikileaks style program using the existing corporate/gov’t structures.

  73. deee says

    No, you’re right. We should cease trying to change the world through activism because corporate interests are just too damn powerful and it’s useless to fight back.

    For example, let’s forget about environmentalism. Big Oil et al. have way too much money in destroying the environment, we can’t stave off the destruction of nature through activism. Let’s also forget about protesting against drone strikes, Guantanamo and such. There’s way too much money in the military business for activism to be efficient. Let’s forget about fighting religious influence in government. There’s way too much money in playing to people’s superstitions…

    Seriously though: there are always corporate interests that run counter to the interests of the people. I don’t see why the data industry should be any different than any other high-profit industry, though. We don’t give up on other causes just because the stakes are high. And we already have succeeded many times. We managed to fight off SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, all with nothing more than lots of people gathering together, sending a clear message that we’re not going to give up on our rights.

    I’m not saying your idea is a bad one though. By all means, if you want to start organizing an effort to create a public database of corporate/government structures, do that. I suggest storing the data in a p2p network to make it less vulnerable to being shut down, and creating & using open source tools to maintain the network, again to make the network less vulnerable. If you’re serious about doing this, you can probably get funding and help from many of the activist organizations, such as EFF or FSF.

    But even if you manage to pull it off (again, all props if you do) it doesn’t mean we should cease on activism, because it’s still the number one way to make a difference. And for now, until you’ve started your project, you’re basically just sitting there, doing nothing, and criticizing people who are doing something. No offense man, I’m just saying, if you have an idea that you think will work better than what is currently being done, then by all means… do something about it.

  74. John Morales says

    In the news (Australia): eBay data helps Centrelink catch welfare cheats

    Data from online trading site eBay has helped Centrelink catch out dozens of welfare recipients who are not declaring big profits from internet sales.

    Centrelink compared its payment records with the activity of 15,000 people who are running profitable eBay businesses.

    It identified 25 people who must repay more than $800,000 in payments they were not entitled to.

    Minister for Human Services Kim Carr said about 100 cases warranted further investigation.