Interesting op-ed article in today’s NY Times: former CIA officer and NSA contractor Edward Snowden rejoices that at last Americans and people around the world are waking up to the ubiquitous spying on innocent private citizens accused of no wrongdoing. He applauds Congress’s move to ban the NSA’s phone-call tracking program and President Obama’s about-face in stating that surveilling every citizen of the United States has done nothing to prevent even a single terrorist attack.
All very nice. But it’s a day late and a dollar short, in my opinion.
In the first place, a huge government infrastructure designed to track the private movements of everyone in the country now exists and has been deployed against us all. Does anyone seriously believe it’s suddenly not going to be used anymore?
And in the second place, Big Brother is not the government. It’s private industry. Note that only the NSA has been told to stand down from spying on us.
Google hasn’t. A few weeks ago, members of our neighborhood association reported that Google mapping trucks were moving up and down the alleys with vehicle-top cameras peering down into people’s backyards. Google tracks every move you make on the Internet. Every time I walk down my home’s hallway, the Nest thermostat on the wall records that I am home and sends that tidbit of information back to a Google-owned server. Nest also records and transmits the details of when I use power to air-condition and heat my home, and how much I use.
Just about anyone who wants to sell you something or to keep tabs on the public is watching you.
• Using cookies, any business on the planet can keep track of every website you visit, every message you post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, every search term you enter in your browser, every whatnot.
• When you walk through a major shopping mall with your phone in your pocket or purse, curious minds are watching what stores you enter, what food kiosk you visit, even which window you pause in front of to eyeball the merchandise.
• Insurance companies, healthcare corporations (that would include your doctor’s and your psychological therapist’s employers and any hospital or out-patient facility you visit), financial institutions, and credit bureaus gather and store — permanently — vast amounts of private information about you.
• Here in my state, the county sends helicopters aloft to photograph people’s property; the aerial images are stored, and when you go in to ask for, say, a zoning variance so you can build some addition on the back of your home, an inspector studies a picture of your lot. If anything is found to be out of order, the supervisors will order you to take it down. They’re also likely to deny your variance request.
• Every time you telephone your credit-card company, a utility, or many other entities, your phone number is recorded and checked against the number you gave when you started doing business with that entity. This overrides any caller-ID blocking you may have in place.
• Retailers track your buying habits by name, phone number, and address every time you foolishly hand over your private information in exchange for a card giving you a few cents off a store’s inflated prices.
• Facebook tracks everything you do on its site and often uses casual remarks to spin advertisements to you and to your friends.
• Netflix knows what you’ve been watching, reminds you of what you spent time with, and tries to persuade you that you’d like something else based on your viewing habits.
• And by now, you may be sure that some hacker somewhere knows your name, address, birthdate, Social Security number, employment history, and educational history.
Most that information is none of anybody’s business. But in fact, just about anybody can easily make it their business.
That Congress is finally coming around to putting the eefus on the hideous Patriot Act is all well and good. But we’re not going to get our right to privacy back until private enterprises are also prohibited from gathering and storing personal information about us.