What is “private” anymore?

So, the government is scooping up phone and internet records in order to fight terrorism.. hmm.. I can see why they’d want to do that, and why we should resist.  The government motives are pretty clear, they think that we’ll be safer if they can watch everyone, correlate their records, and find folks want to do harm.  They assume they’ll be able to figure out the networks connected to terrorists, arrest the folks involved, and prevent tragedy.

BUT — will they actually be able to pull that off?  It seems kind of unlikely in most circumstances.  The amount of data is just too much — yea, computers can do amazing things but eventually people have to look at the data and make a judgment.  Add to that the fact that their practices are now public and the implications for terrorists are clear — use burner cell phones only.  Use landlines belonging to others.  It’s not difficult to use an internet cafe, a public library, a coffee shop with computers hooked directly into the internet etc.. there are a plethora of ways of covering your tracks — heck, even snail mail and faxing is an option.

On the other hand, the potential uses for the data against real citizens is staggering — and go well beyond targeted ads based on your internet searches… recently my mom sent me some links for furniture she’s contemplating.  Since the links were a bit vague and only led to the store’s websites, I googled the names of the products.  Lo and behold those products started showing up in my facebook and google sidebars — almost instantly.  Clearly, the companies were sharing my data and trying to sell me stuff — not knowing that it was really mom doing the buying.

Move backward a bit — I’ve been recently doing internet searches on things like criminal and financial background checks as a basis for hiring or rejecting job candidates.  I’ve also done searches about pre-employment drug testing.  Surprise, surprise — my facebook and google sidebar ads were for services aimed at giving me clean credit, obscuring my felony conviction (which I don’t have.. fyi), and offering to sell me drug-free pee.

I’ve also been reading about ecoterrorism and ecofeminism.. add to this my usual searches about terrorist tactics, war, military sex scandals and much of the stuff you’ve read on this blog and you’d think I had bad credit, a felony conviction, a drug habit and plans to blow something up while sexually harassing someone in the military.  Nope to all of that — I’m just a college professor doing her job.

A close look at me and my records would prove that I’m not a threat to the country — BUT, add to that the connections to people I have online and it becomes murkier — what if they have some of those similar concerns AND a paper trail to substantiate risk.  Now you have an inaccurate picture of both me AND my online friends.  The fact that I interact with lots of people online that I rarely see in person, some of whom live abroad, makes it SEEM as if we’re up to no good.

So — maybe the government isn’t out to get me and my friends. I’m sure they don’t have enough actual evidence to make any kind of charge against me, but some pretty random circumstances would be enough to make them try.  In a perfect world, one in which we actually trust the government, it wouldn’t be something to worry about.

Let’s take it to the next logical step — companies currently do criminal background checks and credit checks in order to be able to say they did their due diligence when something goes wrong.  Is it too much of a leap to think that one company could pay another to get our data (nope!!), so what if I applied for a rather sensitive job.. one in which my character was of utmost importance.  If the company I’m applying to has access to my phone and internet records, they could get a very different picture of me than is true.  It’s likely that they’d do these kinds of searches automatically and reject me immediately — before looking at my resume to see that I’ve been developing new classes on business ethics and environmental ethics.  I wouldn’t know why I didn’t get an interview, if I was lucky I’d get a standard rejection letter and not think anything of it.

Aside from the fact that this would be a poor way to do hiring, it would be a wrong picture of my character — and one that I didn’t even know was being taken.  It would be a set of false inferences based on data used without a context — namely, the context of my thoughts…

Yikes — I’m glad they can’t read my mind, yet — but I suspect the new Google-glasses thing, maybe mind-reading is a capability in version 2.0…


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June 8, 2013 · 10:15 am

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