Tuesday, December 13, 2016

How Do You Like People Selling Your Social Security Number Online?


I read The Edward Snowden Affair by Michael Gurnow a couple of years ago and did a dozen or so posts about it since then. I keep it handy as an important reference book, not because of the Edward Snowden "gossip," or because for the narrative of his fascinating and important story, but because it's chock full of crucial information pertaining to civil liberties. As the clock ticks down to the Trump-- or Trump-Putin-- takeover of the American government, there are important lessons in Gurnow's book, every American should be aware of. Like this one from the Afterward:
Data brokers take their information, organize it into concise little profiles, and offer it to anyone with an open checkbook. This includes the obvious customers, U.S. government and corporations, but they have other steadfast clients. Many “people locator” websites purchase data mining profiles and resell them to the general public. For a nominal fee, anyone can access a person’s birthday, place of birth, current and past residences, family relations, social security and phone number, educational background, email address, place of current and former employment, and medical, property and court records. Medical insurance firms are curious whether a potential client prints Internet coupons for over-the-counter headache medicine and pays in cash to avoid a rate-hiking paper trail.

Employment agencies want to know an applicant’s hobbies and proclivities without having to ask. Loan companies are interested in a candidate’s choice of recreational locales, be it a casino, truck rally or library. Once this data is combined with receipts from many of the major corporations, buying habits are then merged with wants and desires. The result is a very concise, detailed picture of an individual’s possessions, activities and goals. This is then compared to established buying patterns. The end result is daunting. The owner of an analyzed profile knows who a person was, is, and is going to be. Corporations refer to this as market research. Privacy advocates consider the process an infringement upon the Fourth Amendment and argue third-party cookie usage violates the last sanctuary of privacy, one’s thoughts. Orwell’s prophecy is modestly conservative by 21st-century standards. The main character in Nineteen Eighty-Four believes, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

The surveillance debate has intensified since June 5 and lent new perspectives upon the concept of the safety technology can provide. The underlying political issue is who has the right to particular varieties of information.

The public believes there are two types of conversations, public and private. The intelligence community doesn’t agree.

In the Internet Age, a person can “Like” the activity of fishing enough to let the world know by making it public knowledge on one’s Facebook profile. The individual can also choose to obtain a vanity Facebook URL by confidentially submitting one’s telephone number to the social networking site. The phone number is used for authorization purposes to verify the request is coming from the Facebook account holder. Though it is not placed online, the number is nonetheless (questionably) stored on the company’s servers. David Omand, former head of GCHQ, has no problem with collecting the publicly-known fact Bob likes fishing along with his cell number via Facebook’s FISC order permitting the U.S. government access to the information. For the watchers, there is no line dividing what an individual puts on the Internet and what people have privately entrusted to another party, be it a website, bank, doctor or telephone company.

Government spies also scoff at the notion of intellectual property rights. Bought-and-sold politicians agree. If something is publicly or privately posted online, it automatically becomes the property of the website’s owner. (This is also why most businesses permit and encourage employees to use their company-issued phones and email accounts for personal communications-- the firms have legal license to review an employee’s private network and communications, because they own the devices and programs and therefore the data on them.) It is an absurd proposition analogous to stating an individual surrenders rightful ownership of a vehicle to a bank when it is parked on property whose tenant has yet to pay the mortgage in full. This policy refuses to acknowledge the resources and labor provided by the Facebook account holder, i.e., the computer used to access the social networking site, time it took to create a profile and mental ingenuity in deciding how and what to say about oneself. It is understood that the website has issued the venue which, in turn, makes the information available worldwide but the skewed exchange undermines the statement that profiles are “free.” No profit sharing is offered the user. Without account holders, social networking sites would be empty voids on lonely servers and not multinational corporate affairs.

In the surveillance communities’ opinion, everything is public domain and no one has the right to ask “Do you mind?” to someone eavesdropping on a conversation. Their argument is that if a person doesn’t want what is being said to be known (by whomever), the individual best not speak at all. In the cloak-and-dagger world of data mining, the person having a discussion cannot reasonably expect privacy, because the individual is voicing one’s thoughts, period. It does not matter whether they are spoken in confidence and directed to a particular person, much like an email is addressed “To: Bob” and not “To: Bob; Bcc: The NSA.” If the speaker is naïve enough to say something at a volume where a microphone can detect it, it is de facto public knowledge. Whereas government surveillance only exchanges the recorded conversation with its own kind, corporate surveillance broadcasts the discussion to anyone who is willing to pay to hear it. In the surveillance world, the only guarantee of privacy is dead silence.
Don't you think one of the congressmen interested in civil liberties-- say a Ted Lieu or Justin Amash-- ought to look into drafting a bill making it super-illegal to sell private data online, especially stuff like peoples' Social Security numbers?

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