Does The Government Already Have All Of Our Data?

Near the end of the week last week, the lastest “the US government is spying on US citizens” scandal broke. For 24 hours I tried to ignore it but once big tech companies, specifically Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, started coming out with their denials about being involved in PRISM, I got sucked into all the chatter. I was able to ignore it yesterday because I took a digital sabbath but ended up reading a bunch of stuff about it this morning.

While I’m a strong believer in civil liberties and am opposed to the Patriot Act, I long ago gave up the notion that we have any real data privacy. I’ve regularly fought against attempts at outrageous new laws like SOPA/PIPA but I’m not naive and realize that I’m vastly outgunned by the people who want this kind of stuff. Whenever I get asked if I’ll write huge checks to play big money politics against this stuff, I say no. And recently, I’ve started quoting Elon Musk’s great line at the All Things Digital Conference, “If we give in to that, we’ll get the political system we deserve.”

I read around 50 articles on things this morning. I’m no more clear on what is actually going on as the amount of vagueness, statements covered with legal gunk, illogical statements, and misdirection is extraordinary, even for an issue like this one.

Following are some of the more interesting things I read today.

And I always thought PRISM was about teleportation.

And finally, the Wikipedia article, like all Wikipedia articles, is the definitive source of all PRISM information at this point, at least to the extent that anything around PRISM is accurate.

  • all we need is blip enhance for the internet

    • Yup – brilliant! More misdirection, this time in the data.

      • it was not my idea, but i thought it was a great comment so i elevated it into a “guest post”

    • pimping again!
      now i don’t feel so bad when i do it 🙂

  • secureccloud

    Brad, I think this is our generations problem, but for teens and twenty somethings they have no or little expectation of privacy for digital and online communications. So this issue is much ado about nothing for them and it will be so going forward when dinosaurs who think we actually have a right to privacy to our online data die out

    • Yeah – those dinosaurs have been fighting right to data privacy well before it was online! And if history is a guide, it’s a losing battle.

  • Even if it was true then how the hell did they build such a real-time big data analysis tool that is able to normalize, digest and track the different sources coming from these big companies. In general I can’t see today a technical solution which replicates all this data from each source and coping with all data changes. The only way it would work is if each company would provide an ongoing external access to a local API within each company’s data center? This would be easier to block and enforce in case of legal ruling.

  • Austin

    “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

    “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

  • Austin

    A fellow whose name we are all about to become familiar with: Edward Snowden

  • Yes, that whole PRISM saga was a bit confusing and weird.

    I think what we,- Netizens need better organizational power to more efficiently and pro-actively deal with these things that keep popping-up. It seems we’re always reacting instead of being pro-active.

    Is there a body whose sole mission is to protect the rights of Netizens?

    • Nope. Lots of orgs that are trying to do pieces, some that claim to be doing “everything”, but all underfunded and struggling to have impact across the whole problem.

      • EFF? They seem to be already involved:

        • Yup – EFF is awesome – but doesn’t cover “everything”

          • Do you think there’s a need for a new type of organization to emerge, something like an e-parliament of sorts with strong on-the-ground advocacy, in addition to well organized online efforts to counter, defend, educate constantly.

            We, Netizens look like a disorganized bunch on blogs and Twitter vs. the government’s well organized initiatives.

  • I am curious to understand what facts we learn once the dust settles. I spent a lot of time there when I was still active in the Air National Guard and I was struck by how rooted both the culture and bureaucracy were in the protection of American liberties. There was no shorter path to getting fired than to attempt interception of an American’s communications.

    I know nothing about these programs. However, I do not expect that it is as broad or comprehensive as what most media outlets are presupposing.

  • I think it’s massively important to go to the founding principles of America and try and relate it. The founding docs were written to protect Americans from government. The Bill of Rights delineates the rights of the people over their government-and I don’t think those in government believe that. If you take the Obama scandals, using the IRS to quell free speech from political opponents, going after news organizations, the benghazi cover up, and others-and then combine it with this one-you have a pretty clear picture that government doesn’t really care about the founding docs. It’s important to get back to them-and frame things in those terms. Our govt is too big, and intrudes in way too many places throughout all of our society

  • Teddy

    Perhaps,after learning all the call patterns, the government intentionally leaked the information to see who changes their behavior in response.

  • Agreed there is a lot of data being collected. But these days there’s a real problem of *TOO MUCH* data. Part of the intelligence failure of 9/11 was different agencies not communicating. In the Boston bombing there was also a lack of putting the pieces together.

    Though not privacy, it’s something to think about.

  • StartupBook

    Union Square Ventures have been much more forthright in their criticism of the PRISM program…also, every news organization spells it ‘Prism,’ but Wikipedia and others spell it with all caps (PRISM). Which is it?

    • I don’t know whether it is PRISM or Prism – I’m not sure that actually matters. Based on what I currently understand, I think it’s an awful thing. I also have a deeper belief that what is going on is far worse than PRISM – I believe the US government has been dramatically violating our supposed civil liberties for many years. The Patriot Act was another level of justification for behavior that has been going on for a very long time. And the implications of the behavior are increasing rapidly as technology continues to advance.

      • StartupBook

        Definitely scary stuff…also agree the ‘Prism/PRISM’ thing isn’t that big a deal, but from a pure journalistic perspective (which is what I’m writing from), it’s a little weird that the New York Times writes ‘Prism’ and USA Today writes ‘PRISM,’ which would imply an acronym.

  • Steve

    I think that we can trust/worry that the extent of what the government is really doing is always a couple of steps ahead of what we know about at any one time.

    For example, even though the government says that it is not “reading”
    the content of our emails, or “listening in” on the content of our
    telephone conversations, what it may very well mean (but not be telling
    us) is that, instead, it is actively scanning that (recorded) content in
    real time with incredibly sophisticated software that looks for key
    words/clues/patterns and only then reads/listens to the content (with or
    without a warrant) that is flagged.

    Still just as chilling. And the truth is only distinguished from the government’s denial by semantics.

  • Austin

    One positive outcome: James Clapper is now a wicked smart advice columnist.

    Always nice to find a silver lining.

  • Austin

    For the record: today’s news from Hong Kong is that Snowden has left for another destination…via Russia.

    Very, very, very uncool. You may now count me in with those calling for Snowden being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for espionage. Idealism is one thing…being outright stupid, and directly serving those who would do us harm, is another thing altogether. This man is no hero.

    • Austin – I strongly disagree. The chance of Snowden getting a fair hearing in the US is zero, especially given the treason accusation. I think it’s smart of him to end up in another country that won’t extradite him. Our government is working as hard as they can to shift the conversation to “Snowden is a traitor” vs. “We are doing things illegal.” This changes the dynamic around that some.

      And yes – it’s really complicated.

      • Austin

        We’re all going to have our opinions on this latest development…some more informed than others.

        Like many others, I was willing to grant Snowden the benefit of the doubt based on his original arguments, but going to Russia — of all places — with top-level U.S. national security information in-hand immediately voids that ‘warranty’ to my own way of thinking. And it’s not like the Russians are going to need to ‘ask’ if they can review his material…they’ll do it regardless.

        Likewise, I can not elevate Snowden’s clearly specious access to a fair trial above our own country’s national interests. He’s the one who has now chosen to cross a line that is clearly putting his own self interests above his countrymen’s, and in deference to a country that has time and again shown itself to be hostile towards the U.S. IMHO, that’s one clear definition of anyone being labeled as a traitor.

        And this has now — by Snowden’s most-recent choices — been made quite simple, not complicated. A ‘hero’ would’ve taken one for the team and willingly handed himself over after the global revelations in Hong Kong, regardless of — if not in fact because of — the martyr possibilities. He should’ve manned up and come home to face the music…not thrown everything he’s done with potential for serving the public good to waste by collaborating with a government such as Russia’s. He’ll now be spared no mercy, and deservedly so.

        Anyone who has validly held access to U.S. TS/SCI data knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Me-thinks this is now a simple case of a nobody, ghost-in-the-machine spook — and a poorly educated one at that — making himself the story.

        • I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my opinion is not informed beyond that info that is publicly available. And – as a result – it’s really just my opinion. But I think the reaction of the US government so far has been typical and expected – obfuscation, denial, and shifting focus to “Snowden is a traitor” from “We acknowledge we have been doing illegal things and will go figure out what’s actually going on.” More importantly, if the government welcomed Snowden back home under whistleblower laws, gave him protection, and openly attempted to understand what was going on, that would be a very very different thing than saying “We are going to extradite you and charge you with treason.”

          • Austin

            …if the government welcomed Snowden back home under whistleblower laws, gave him protection, and openly attempted to understand what was going on…

            Have you heard a single politician — either Democrat or Republican — do anything but call for the head of Snowden…? There is clearly no lack of understanding here at the level of our national government. Our elected representatives know full well what’s been going on.

            Snowden’s premise is that We the People should be the deciders on privacy policies of our own government. In the form of our elected representatives, whom we trust to make those difficult decisions for us, we do make those decisions.

            Have heard it said by some people that “there is no such thing as privacy.” Purely pragmatically from a technical standpoint, rejecting all emotional or ethical judgement, that’s likely a very truthful statement. It is what it is.

            So, to me, the only real question to be answered at this point is simply: “Do we want the Russians…or the Chinese…or the French…or…(fill-in-the-blank) to be the only ones who exploit access to information on a governmental scale?”

          • The idea that our elected representatives make decisions for pure transcendent reasons revolving around high quality intelligence and pure intentions unmuddied by money and special interests is (very much IMHO) naive.

          • Austin

            And your proposed solution to the problem you describe is…? What…? Snowden…? Now that’s naïve. He may even get his picture in the dictionary next to that word.

          • I don’t think there is a ‘solution.’

            All societies have had ruling elites and all such elites have collected rents from those below them and maneuvered to consolidate the levers of power. Information on a massive scale as collected by the NSA is just another twist on an old story.

            The question is not whether there is a ‘solution any more than whether political conflicts may be resolved rationally. The question is rather whether in a given case the benefits outweigh the costs and this is often extremely hard to assess. Were the Pentagon Papers a net plus?

          • JLM

            The problem with many complex espionage situations is always that nobody’s motives are ever pure. They cannot structurally be pure. They are not capable of purity.

            It is like looking for virgins in a whorehouse — the very nature of the business itself precludes finding any.

            The CIA, the FBI and other organizations routinely deal with persons whose basic conduit of introduction is that they are comfortable with betraying their country.

            Espionage, by its very nature, requires the breaking of laws — initially those of another country and ultimately ours. But make no mistake, the breaking of laws starts before anybody’s got their shoes laced up.

            Snowden stole documents and before he even knew for sure what he was going to do with them he possessed property that was not his, was not his to use and which was supposed to be so perfectly compartmentalized as to not even be available to him.

            He had dirt under his fingernails before he even hit the ENTER key for the first time.

            The first people in the “stocks” need to be the idiots who allowed such a system to be possible that such a low level person could get their hands on those documents, download them and waltz out with a flash drive in his pocket. Huh?

            If this were bank security, heads would be piled up in the hallway.

            The real problem is that this IS a case of both treason and monumental wrongdoing by the US government. The issue is not even remotely binary. Both. And.

            Always remember that if you give persons enormous capabilities — the ability to see/hear/copy every possible communication in the world, the ability to see every digit of every piece of stored information in the world, a facility filled with 1MM SF of Cray computers and unlimited storage — sooner or later they will use them. It is inevitable. It is the nature of that particular scorpion.

            Know this also — people who create secrets for a living, will never tell them to you or their minders. We know next to nothing as to what the NSA is really up to and never will.


        • I don’t believe his destination is Russia. He’s just passing through.

          • Austin

            Is he, now…? A lot of smart people are questioning that sort of opinion.

            “The guy is supposedly carrying four laptops, plus a bunch of thumb drives, supposedly knows all sorts of other things,” said Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “You don’t pass up an opportunity like that. You don’t just let him pass through the business lounge, on the way to Cuba.” (emphasis added)

            My best sense is that the Russians will eventually send him on his way…but…and as predicted…Snowden will not have passed through the lounge at Sheremetyevo without having done a great deal of damage to his own countrymen in the process.

          • You may well be right. But I am sure you will agree that practically everything we hear at this point about Snowden is likely to be tainted by the interests of powerful players.

          • Austin

            For a man claiming to have heard the calling of “Internet freedom,” he is certainly running in some quizzical directions (China, Russia…). This will not end well.

          • He certainly is. I have assumed this was dictated by tactical considerations, i.e. selecting countries who will resist US pressure to hand him over. Is there any reason to believe there are other motives?

          • Austin

            In partial answer, this near-metaphysical conclusion and quote from trader Ed Seykota is worth considering:

            “Results equal Intentions. Always.”

          • Haha. If only.

          • Austin

            Ed’s right, but it’s counterintuitive to the conscious mind.

            For instance: Ed’s a trader…a world-class trader, but a trader. There are lots of traders. Most lose money. Could that possibly be their intention?

            Ed’s call:

            “Win or lose, everybody gets what they want out of the market. Some people seem to like to lose, so they win by losing money.”

            (Source: Schwager, Jack D. (Editor), Market Wizards)

            He’s not just rationalizing…he’s right. The why they seek to lose is individual in each case…but results equal intentions. Always.

          • I’m very sceptical. I am sure there are people whose subconscious motivation is to lose. But there are also those who have a clear intention of win and don’t. There is a good deal more to results than intent.

            It’s a valuable piece of the puzzle though – no question.

  • If this data exists it is inevitable that it will be abused.
    Safeguards will be flaunted.
    Supposed accountability is a joke.