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If You Think Someone Is Watching You... You Might Be Right

Writer Digs Into Privacy in Age of Data

  • Julia Angwin

    Julia Angwin

  • Julia Angwin

W hen James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights in 1789, which included the Fourth Amendment’s stipulation of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” he couldn’t have envisioned that search and seizure would one day include the ability of the National Security Agency to collect the phone records of millions of Americans without probable cause, warrants or governmental oversight.

But if Madison and the other framers of the Constitution were alive today, would they extend the protections of the Fourth Amendment to include personal computer and phone data that is not only collected and held by the government, but by such on line juggernauts as Google or Facebook? James Madison: meet Mark Zuckerberg.

In her book Dragnet Nation , published by Times Books, Julia Angwin, who reported on technology and privacy issues for the Wall Street Journal until 2013 and now writes for the on l ine magazine Pro Publica , looks at the difficult and unresolved questions of how to maintain a modicum of privacy in a world in which it’s said to be dead.

Angwin doesn’t think privacy is completely buried. But it’s under siege, and we should all be concerned about the implications of such widespread surveillance, she said in a telephone interview from New York, where she lives. (Angwin is the daughter of Meredith Angwin , a regular contributor to the Valley News’ Perspectives section. )

Angwin wrote Dragnet Nation both as a cautionary tale of data gathering run amok, and as a guide to simple steps people can take to protect themselves.

“I love all the benefits of the information economy,” she said. But she doesn’t love the fact that Google stores all searches, and tracks the sites people visit on line and passes that information on to marketers, or that Facebook seems to make it deliberately complicated to change privacy settings.

“Everybody gets mad about their privacy, but no one cares about anyone else’s,” she said.

Angwin views with some skepticism the recent visit to the White House of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings to express their concern about government surveillance. It brings up the old adage: It depends on whose ox is being gored.

Zuckerberg was “mad about Facebook servers being breached by the government, but meanwhile he’s made a business of trading on our privacy,” Angwin said.

Ditto, the outrage of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, when she learned that the CIA had, without notification or authorization, searched computers given to the committee during an investigation of how the George W. Bush administration handled terrorism suspects. Feinstein has long been considered one of the staunchest supporters of the intelligence community.

“You don’t care until it matters to you and then, of course, it’s always too late,” Angwin said.

How to balance the need for national security with citizens’ presumption of privacy in an era of seemingly limitless data turns out to be a conundrum that the government and the people are only just beginning to grapple with.

Even before former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked files last year to journalists that revealed the vast scale of NSA spying, there was growing unease with the extent of information that is collected every time someone makes a cellphone call or browses the In ternet.

In Dragnet Nation Angwin cites numerous examples of how information we assume to be known only to ourselves or a few people takes on a life of its own on the Internet, or through cellp hone use. The mantle of privacy can be easily stripped away, often with unintended and alarming consequences.

When a 19-year-old Californian named Khaled Ibrahim made a dumb joke in 2010 on the social news website Reddit about how easy it would be to bomb a mall, his closest friend Yasir Afifi ended up being watched by the FBI. A tracking device was attached to the undercarriage of his car, his emails were read, his phone was tapped. An FBI agent told him, in Arabic, that they knew where he went every day and what he did.

A lesbian student at the University of Texas, Austin who hadn’t yet disclosed her sexual orientation to her family was outed when a campus chorus for gay students added her name to its Facebook discussion page without telling her, and Facebook then sent that notification to everyone on the student’s Friends list, which included her father.

Last year, Verizon announced plans to sell a product called Precision Market Insights to businesses which would allow them to target cell phone users by gender, age and zip codes, as well as where they are when they’re using their phones. The capability exists not only for law enforcement to track your movements, but marketers.

“The problem for these companies is that they’re in a land grab right now. They’ve decided that data equals money,” Angwin said. “The demand for data is so huge. It’s like any kind of natural resource: in the extraction business you’re going to extract as much as possible.”

And none of it is illegal, she added — at least not yet. To date, courts have not viewed the selling or passing of data to third parties, or what’s called the Third Party Doctrine, as blocked by the Fourth Amendment. The reasoning is that individuals don’t have an expectation of complete privacy when dealing with a financial institution or phone company.

However, in her opinion in the 2011 case U.S. v. Jones , in which the court disallowed warrantless GPS tracking devices on people’s cars, Justice Sonia Sotomayor signaled that the court might one day look at whether to reinterpret the Fourth Amendment in view of untrammeled digital data collection .

“I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the Government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year. But whatever the societal expectations, they can attain constitutionally protected status only if our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence ceases to treat secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy,” Sotomayor wrote.

So how do you retrieve the privacy you used to have before dazzling technological advances turned the globe into one giant, plugged-in infopedia where data means power?

You could completely disconnect from technology — no computer, no cell phone, no email, no texting, no social media — and be assured, more or less, of near-complete privacy, but it’s not a practical option for most people.

So Angwin began a campaign to try to conceal her own online and cellphone activity. It turned out to be much more difficult and time-consuming than she’d expected, and in some cases, it wasn’t possible. The goal wasn’t to fly completely under the radar, but to make it harder for snoopers to snoop.

First, the easy part. “We have to get better about our passwords, the email service we use, the search engine we use,” she said. She changed the passwords she used for various sites more frequently and chose longer, stronger passwords: not “password” or “1234” or “Spot.”

Despite Google’s numerous strengths and its convenience, she switched to a search engine (duckduckgo.com) that has a zero-data retention policy. She set up a fake online identity as Ida Tarbell, counting on the fact that the name of the early 20th-century muckraking journalist would be known to only a few. “Beyonce was clearly out of the question for me,” she said.

“It turns out that the computer for all of its flaws is pretty controllable,” Angwin said. What proved more challenging was trying to mask her cellphone use. She tried using “burner phones,” disposable and anonymous, but found them inconvenient; she bought a Faraday cage, named for the English scientist Michael Faraday, which makes a cellphone signal more difficult to track. But she couldn’t install software to block ad tracking, or see or clear “cookies,” data that websites use to monitor browsing activities.

“I was surprised by how the phone is such a non-adjustable environment,” she said.

To get a sense of what it feels like to live in a police state where pervasive government surveillance was a given, Angwin went to Germany to delve into the files of the Stasi, the feared secret police who were the de facto controllers of East Germany before the fall of the Soviet Union and German reunification.

In comparison to today’s technologically-driven surveillance, the Stasi’s methods were relatively primitive, relying on informants, actual eavesdropping on phone calls, and steaming open letters. But what made the Stasi’s methods so chillingly effective, Angwin said, was that they “managed to make everybody feel as if they’re being watched,” even if they weren’t. “Surveillance is such a great tool for control.”

Although most Americans would probably balk at the idea of the U.S. government being on par with the Stasi, the fact is, said Angwin, there have been numerous instances when it has over-reached with its dragnet approach. The rounding up and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a case in point, as is the routine spying on Muslim Americans after the attacks of 9/11.

The other issue, Angwin said, is just how effective all this surveillance actually is, given the number of incidents where something nearly happens — the cases of Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear” bomber — or does happen: the Boston Marathon bombing or the mass murder at Fort Hood by U.S. Army Maj. N idal Hassan.

In many of these cases, concerns had already been raised by people who knew the perpetrators, but those concerns were overlooked or ignored; or the perpetrators, as in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, had already been investigated by law enforcement.

Supporters of dragnet surveillance say Americans don’t realize the plots that have been foiled as a result, but, Angwin said, it’s not always clear whether surveillance was the key factor. It’s often more significant when someone comes forward with information or suspicion.

Admire or despise Edward Snowden, the fact is, said Angwin, “he has said that he really wanted the public to have a debate about these issues, and they can’t if they didn’t know about it. I agree: we haven’t even had that conversation nor do we have good data about whether it’s even made us safer.”

Given the reality of a dragnet society, what can concerned citizens do to protest?

Reacting to the storm of outrage over the NSA revelations, President Obama described this week reforms that would end the agency’s bulk collection of phone records. But there are other steps people can take, Angwin said. Contact legislators, demand that laws protecting privacy in both the government and commercial spheres be passed. The European Union, for example, has laws in place that allow people to view their data h eld by commercial enterprises; the U.S. currently does not.

In an era of seemingly unfettered growth in the data collection industry, Angwin is in no danger of being short of material. “This issue is not going away. I have a feeling I’ll be on it for quite some time,” she said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.