Yesterday’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program should spark conversations about privacy. And those discussions should move beyond George Orwell’s dystopian fiction. (More)

Beyond Orwell: Convenience and Data Privacy

Big Brother is watching you,” ominous signs warned constantly in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell was convinced that British democracy would not survive the horrors of World War II and would collapse in either a fascist or socialist revolution. Each, Orwell believed, would end freedom as Britons had known it.

Orwell overestimated the permanence of that horrific period in human history, and underestimated the enduring vitality of democracy. He later admitted that mistake, writing: “What really matters is that I fell into the trap of assuming that the war and the revolution are inseparable.”

Yet generations of American high school students dutifully read 1984, and dutifully internalized Orwell’s dystopian vision, leading to this headline at the legal website JD Journal: Big Brother Is Watching You – Daily Communications Metadata of Citizens Collected under Secret Court Orders.

My modern conveniences …

That JD Journal headline is true, so far as it goes.

I’m composing this essay online because the WordPress editor has convenient tools for inserting the HTML code that allows me to embed links and do other formatting.

Next to my desk, in my purse, my cellphone will alert me if the wake of Tropical Storm Andrea or local conditions threaten severe weather. My cellphone is also my alarm clock, shopping list, calculator, and a way to keep in touch with family and friends. I can also use it to call 911 if I have an auto accident or some other emergency while I’m away from home.

My ATM card is also in my purse. I use it for all of my purchases because it’s easier than carrying cash, and very few retailers accept checks anymore. Next to my purse rests my Nook HD tablet. It’s easier to carry and read than printed books, and lets me connect to the internet anywhere in my house and indeed anywhere else I have WiFi access. My home has an alarm system, monitored by a security company. My car has an e-toll device that saves me digging for quarters or waiting in line for change.

… mean I am being watched

Each of those modern conveniences means that I am being watched, or at least leaving electronic footprints wherever I go.

This essay isn’t stored on my computer. It’s on the host server, both in its final form and in each saved version. Some of those are auto-saves, another convenience, and they may include half-formed, poorly-worded ideas that I’ll edit or delete before I hit “Publish.” But those half-formed, poorly-worded ideas could be retrieved by anyone with access to the server files. And every website I visit keeps a record that how long I kept each page open and whether I paused to read a pop-up or roll-over ad.

My cell phone tells sends a locator signal to my provider, so they know where to direct those weather alerts, or an incoming call or text. My ATM card creates a personal record of everything I buy. Every book I buy is recorded at Barnes and Noble, so I can download them to my Nook, archive them when I finish reading them, and retrieve them if I have a problem or want to read them again. My home alarm sends a signal to the security company anytime I set or deactivate it, and that e-toll device sends a signal every time I go through a toll booth.

They know more about me than I know about myself …

All of that data is scooped up by my ISP and the websites I visit, my cell phone provider, my bank, bookseller, home security company, and the highway department. Businesses compile it to micro-target the ads I see online and get in the mail. And all of it could, at least in theory, be picked out and cross-referenced to build a shockingly complete dossier: my research and writing, friends, interests, purchases, movements, and even my sleep patterns.

Indeed someone who put together all of that data could know more about me than I know about myself … if only because I forget most of the mundane details of my everyday life. My landline and cell phone companies have records of everyone I’ve called or texted – who, when, how long – and that’s more than I know. I don’t keep a personal call log and I delete old texts on my cell phone. Most of that data is on my online phone bills, but I would have to open a separate window to find it. I have unlimited local, domestic long distance, and texting plans, so I don’t bother digging up all of those details.

… and that doesn’t frighten me

But as of yesterday, I know the NSA has all of that telephone meta-data – who I call or text, when, and for how long – through a legally authorized program known as PRISM. And to judge by the media response, I should be up in arms. It turns out Orwell was right after all: Big Brother really is watching me.

Except Orwell was wrong. “Big Brother” isn’t listening to my calls or reading my texts. That would require a separate warrant, and not one from a FISA court, because FISA only covers foreign intelligence cases. Yes, if the FBI or another law enforcement agency had evidence that led them to suspect I was involved in a crime, they could subpoena my phone records or ask a court for a wiretap warrant … just as they could have before FISA or the PATRIOT Act were passed.

But “Big Brother,” it turns out, is compiling meta-data that I don’t even care enough about to review on my phone bill. And they can’t even sift through that data without a separate warrant, based on specific evidence.

Most of that sifting would be done by a computer algorithm, to screen out what data mining experts call “negative associations,” because any person of interest will have tens or hundreds of thousands of first-, second-, and third-order contacts: people they know, people those people know, and so on. The overwhelming majority of those contacts will not be involved with the crime, thus the term “negative associations.” They’re the local pizza place, the annoying refinance company that calls every day at dinnertime, innocent friends, coworkers, family members, and their friends, coworkers, and family members.

Meanwhile, the FBI or another law enforcement agency might be looking for someone who received a thirty-second call on one disposable phone, then bought another disposable phone and used it to call to another number an hour later. And sometime before or after one of those calls, that person also called the pizza place, or was called by that annoying refinance company, or called or was called by an innocent friend, coworker, or family member … or called or was called by a wrong number. Me.

Their knowing that call happened doesn’t frighten me.

Maybe I’m not afraid enough. Or maybe it’s time to move beyond George Orwell and recognize that the many of the modern conveniences we enjoy exist because we leave electronic footprints everywhere we go. Without those footprints, we wouldn’t have those conveniences or we’d have to pay a lot more for them … and law enforcement agencies would find it harder to conduct legitimate investigations.

George Orwell admitted he was wrong. Maybe we should too.

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Happy Friday!