Jul 16, 2013

Who's Watching You?

Who's Watching

A lot of people talking about the revelations of widespread spying on Americans (and allies of the U.S, something Europe is none too happy about, to put it mildly) have gotten a lot of people thinking about who exactly is spying on them, who is collecting their data, and what is being done with that data, which rightfully belongs to the people it comes from.

There are more people spying on you than you might realize. 

Retailers scoop up huge amounts of data on their customers, more than you might think. Sometimes this can lead to awkward situations, such as when Target knew that a teenager was pregnant before her father did, and sent the girl coupons for baby items. 

The New York Times ran a story about a statistician that helped Target compile huge amounts of information about its shoppers; Target told the statistician to shut up and stop talking about the program. Target refused to let the journalist into its office to interview anyone about the program. They would much rather no one know about it.

It's not just Target, either. An unregulated industry of data brokers are scooping up all sorts of information about you, to use as they see fit, without your input or control. Efforts are being made to start reining in this industry, but it remains to be seen how effective such efforts will be against intense industry lobbying (source: The NSA Is Watching. So Is Google and Facebook, Los Angeles Times, 6/30/13)

Oh, you might not know that some retailers are actually tracking your smartphones when you are in their stores, monitoring what department you're in, how long you linger, and even what kind of mood you're in. Yeah...that's comforting (sarcasm intended). (Source: Attention, Shoppers: Store Is Tracking Your Cell, New York Times, 7/14)

Also, while in the mall, don't act suspicious, or you may find yourself detained without due process or probable cause by overzealous security guards. NPR has a disturbing investigation about citizens being harassed and detained at The Mall of America for such offenses as "walking nervously", writing in a notebook, and, of course, taking pictures. (Source: Under Suspicion At The Mall of America, NPR)

Much of this is being driven by the Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling bureaucracy created after 9/11 that has proven stubbornly resistant to any kid of oversight, reform or discipline in how much money it spends. Charles Kenny of Business Week makes a compelling argument that it may be time to simply abolish the DHS altogether. The DHS has become a monster we can no longer control.

Safety vs. Security

A common response is that all this is designed to keep us safe, but this is not only ineffective, but a false choice.

Bruce Schneier, security expert and author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Insecure World sums it up best: "There's plenty of examples of security that doesn't infringe on privacy. They are all around. Door locks. Fences ... Firewalls. People are forgetting that quite a lot of security doesn't affect privacy. The real dichotomy is liberty vs. control." (source: Privacy vs. security: 'False choice' poisons debate on NSA leaks, Bob Sullivan, NBC News 7/6/2013)

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