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“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” — Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
I wrote a glib piece about proposed Amendments to our (American) Constitution a while ago as a lark, not really paying attention to the news article I read that sparked the idea. I found several respondent notions about strengthening privacy rights but ignored them. Then I came across another series of articles that made me think a lot more about the subject.
First, let me describe some interesting facts about the internet. I found an in-depth article (link at bottom), which I’ll summarize by posting the graphic used by The Atlantic to scrape the surface of the issue:
What this picture means is that you, the web surfer, are on the right, clicking away at kittens, boobs, and whatever other things entertain you, my blog included. On the far left of the graphic are people who want to make money by selling things. In between you and the seller are hundreds of companies – perhaps thousands – who relentlessly track your web use. They want to turn kittens and boobs into money out of your pocket and into theirs.The same article pointed out that web privacy tools are becoming increasingly popular, much like the Do Not Call initiative was to stop telemarketers. The web, however, is far more insidious. There is no apparent proof that all the myriad companies that cull your data can’t still collect on you if you disallow cookies, for example. Unlike Do Not Call, ‘Do Not Track’ software is very likely ineffective, because while you’d never take the initiative and phone a telemarketer back, you’re damn sure not going to stop looking at internet cats and porn.
So does this data collecting harm you? Possibly. Can this tracking network help you? Of course it can – Twitter will suggest people you might like to follow based on your current follow list just as Facebook can recommend like-minded people to friend. Much the same way, if you buy a lot of Star Trek memorabilia online, odds are very good that you will in turn get a lot of Star Trek memorabilia advertising without lifting a finger to click your mouse. Google will get better at finding that hard-to-find Andorian ale carafe reproduction vendor.
The insidious side is that those same companies might also know, based on aggregated data that you provide yourself, that in addition to being a Trekkie, you happen to love Cheetos, drink a lot of coffee and Monster drinks, collaborate online in virtual chat forums. They will also know you are white, between twenty and forty, and work at a job that has nothing to do with your college degree, for which you are buried in student loan debt. They will know where you live and have a profile of your favorite activities outside of the web. Also note here that the in-between companies on the chart aren’t trying to sell something to you. They’re only interested in having and selling data about you.
While there are some establishments that might find this useful for additional advertising, most of this information just resides out there on the web, slowly painting a more and more accurate picture of you. To a reasonable person who knows how to click ‘delete’ or the ‘X’ to close a window, this might not be completely frightening. It might even score you free Cheetos and Monsters now and then.
Enter a new data customer: the Federal Government. It will come armed with a new law called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA if you prefer acronyms. Under provisions of this new law working its way through Congress, companies can hand over vast reams of data such as we’ve described here to the government – particularly to the Justice Department – in order to help identify and counter cyberterrorists.
You’re probably wondering exactly why Twitter, Google or Facebook would just up and give out user information, right? Or the constellation of other data-mining interests either, you might wonder. What if this same proposed law allowed the government to provide information – data it already has on people – without penalty, in order to help companies identify cyber threats and counter them?
Ostensibly, then, the company would be under no obligation to reciprocate. All of this is strictly voluntary, because without a warrant issued on testimony of probable cause, the government can’t collect information on you. However, private interests, who are not subject to the Fourth Amendment, are free to amass whatever mountains of data they like without legal penalty. But think about this a bit more closely.
If you run a business like Facebook, you’re a cyber target. It’s in your interests to take measures to protect yourself. Along comes the Department of Justice with a friendly FBI agent, who offers access to petabytes of user data that might just be useful to you in protecting your company’s digital assets. It’s all free, by the way, and did you know that you can contribute any information you happen to have on problem children to the friendly FBI agent if you so desire?
Maybe you still don’t think Facebook will throw you under the bus that fast. Keep in mind that publicly-traded companies have an obligation to make profits for shareholders, and digital businesses are still struggling to establish viable business models where no clear product or service exists short of charging fees for membership. Maybe you just went public, only have your IPO drop half its market cap in months. Maybe your digital empire is struggling to wrangle up new advertising dollars in a competitive environment.
Maybe you see an opportunity here now. Keep in mind there are hundreds of companies that will buy Facebook information merely to have it. Facebook profits, and the intermediary interest does too, selling digits downstream in the direction of vendors. Maybe everyone wins when big digital companies shake hands with the friendly FBI guy. There is no free lunch in capitalist societies, and the friendly FBI man will want some kind of gesture of return. After all, he has cyberterrorists to apprehend.
The FBI man is very diligent, and after he culls all the data that he was freely given in the deal, he’s very likely going to decide that your love of Star Trek memorabilia is no threat to the cyber- or national security of the United States. But the DOJ still has your information. Where else on the web have you been? What have you been doing on the side with your computer science degree to ease the mountain of student loan debt you carry? Do you like music, but hate paying for it? Let your imagination wander but this is the best-case scenario outside of ‘nothing else happens.’
You might not be a cyberterrorist. You might not be a national security threat. But every other Federal Agency in addition to the DOJ now can use the information that Big Digital felt grateful enough to volunteer, and if you broke the law you’re subject to punishment. Notice there are no scenarios of black helicopters without tail numbers swooping in and your existence being erased for all time. Just the potential nit-picking erosion of your money, time and life by the Fed one Gorgon head at a time, inflicting a slow death by a thousand cuts.
When I read the original set of articles, I noted that the ACLU is also fighting against CISPA’s ultimate passage into law. My initial reaction predictably went something like, “Oh, a new ACLU crusade, how quaint.” But then I thought about it. Screaming about the death of the Fourth Amendment will earn you a piece of sidewalk next to the Global Warming wonk and the guy who still believes Tupac is being held by the Fed against his civil rights. On your other side, you’ll have the guy who believes Dubya directed those two airplanes to fly into the World Trade Center so he could have his little war.
I’m not shouting about the death of the Fourth Amendment, and I’m not about to join the ACLU. I’m advising caution and I’m saying that if you see the same potential here that I do you ought to be concerned. The death of freedom doesn’t sound like black helicopter blades. It sounds like a guy in a suit who assures you that certain measures are for your protection.
How can you argue with that?
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Article on how the web gets your information:
Articles on the CISPA: