Creative Commons image by Scott Swigart

The Spy In Your Pocket

on Monday, Jan. 27th

It’s that time again. Time to get freaked out by the latest leak from Edward Snowden’s document cache.

It boils down to this: intelligence agencies are able to mine mobile ad databases to build profiles on individual targets. Data pouring out of “leaky apps” like Angry Birds and Google Maps is hoarded by the National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters. From a New York Times/The Guardian/ProPublica collaboration:

“It effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a G.C.H.Q. system,” a secret 2008 report by the British agency says.

If we’re all spies, where the hell is my Aston Martin and why don’t I have Eva Green’s number by now?

What’s particularly distressing about this is how sanguine the majority of us have been about sharing our location data with ad agencies. As if the private sector data-miners were any more scrupulous than their public sector counterparts. Here’s the blunt truth: if data goes into the cloud, it can be skimmed by anyone with enough savvy: NSA, Anonymous, your grandmother.

This is just how networked computers work, and the physical world is becoming more networked by the hour.

Over the weekend I caught a bit of the TED Radio Hour that talked about the dawn of “GPS dots”: little circuity-laden stickers that will help us locate our car keys and cats. Of course, if I can locate my cat with a GPS dot, the NSA will be able to locate him as well. I’m not sure that this information will be all that useful to them, but Rupert does have an elaborate theory that the Feds are responsible for the loss of his favorite puffball toy.

Actually, cat location data might just be a real problem for the intelligence community if they keep treating the Internet like a 24/7 information buffet.

There’s mounting evidence that the mass collection of data isn’t even all that useful. The Times uses the term “unwieldy heaps.” Instead of making it easier to find a needle in a haystack, mass collection throws pitchforks and hay-bales at the problem of intelligence work. End result: more hay. Remember as you are doing your taxes that this is where some of your money is going.

At the same time, as technology power users, we can’t get enough of this stuff. Giving up my shopping habits and location data to Google almost seems reasonable if it means I never have to hunt around for my Apple TV remote again. (Yes, I checked between the cushions: not there.)

The problem remains that so long as we are using networked computers we are inviting all kinds of havoc into our lives. From the credit-card data breaches–today’s is at Michael’s, be wary oh makers of Esty–to giving the Ukrainian government the ability to ID protesters based on cell phone geodata.

In the 2004 reboot of the sci-fi classic Battlestar Galactica, a viral sneak attack on the human fleet wipes out all but one combat ready ship, the titular Galactica. That ship survives not through the skill of its crew or by luck but by the simple fact that Galactica is so old it doesn’t have the Internet. “No networked computers” becomes a survival mandate.

So, let’s just pull the plug on the Internet.

Alright, I was kidding about that. It does seem a bit extreme. The tossing out of the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Besides, we’ve become a people who would sell our darkest secrets for three free bonus levels of Angry Birds: Star Wars.

If we want to build a future where individuals can have a sense of security about their privacy, and even their personal freedom, then we are going to have to collectively insist on some serious changes.

Location data could be decoupled from personal data through encryption schemes. As consumers we can demand this of phone manufactures and carriers. As citizens we can demand that such safeguards be made law. The interests arrayed against baking privacy into the hardware are entrenched, however. Going up against Google or the NSA is hard enough when they don’t share a common interest. Insist on a world where targeted advertising becomes impossible and “don’t be evil” will seem like a quaint memory.

Alternatively, we could insist that a privacy watchdog agency was created. Something akin to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on steroids. This would have to be an agency that was given a mandate to be deliberately adversarial to any use of collected data that fell outside legal bounds. One that was empowered to go after ethically questionable uses in both the public and the private sphere. President Obama has brought up the idea of an independent authority having oversight in these matters, so we know that some of the WAshington conversation is headed this way.

Our court system is built around an adversarial model, so it isn’t a contradiction in terms to imagine a government agency that was independent of the intelligence community and justice department that could have the interests of citizens at heart. It is hard to imagine such an agency working, but not impossible.

In the meantime we continue to let the fox guard the henhouse. The NSA has its massive data collection facility in Utah while Amazon, Facebook, and Google run to the coldest climes they can find to built their storehouses of secrets.

The real question is when is the political will going to emerge to take these problems on head on? The slow leaks that Snowden has provided add to a growing sense of unease, but the dam has yet to break. Perhaps it will require something dramatic, like the cloud raining down with all our secrets, for America to find its backbone.

Image: Scott Swigart/Creative Commons

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