Sometimes, the world sends you back to school. These last months have offered us a crash course -- call it Surveillance 101 -- in how Washington, enveloped in a penumbra of extreme secrecy, went to work creating a global surveillance state on a scale almost beyond the imagination. It was certainly beyond the imaginations, not to say the technological capabilities, of the grim totalitarian states of the previous century, whose efforts were overwhelmingly focused on surveiling and locking down their own citizens, not those outside their borders.
In this schooling process, an unknown 29-year-old, hired by a private contractor to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a global figure and most recently a nominee for the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov prize, that continent's leading human rights award -- and a rare European slap in the face to Washington. In the process, a journalist (Glenn Greenwald), a filmmaker (Laura Poitras), and the British Guardian, along with a host of bit players, created a global drama out of the documents Edward Snowden had liberated from the NSA's secret universe. From Brazil to India, Belgium to China, the man chased implacably across the globe by the Obama administration has opened a genuine debate on the far-reaching nature of surveillance in our world and seems to be changing the mood of the planet.
Every few days now, yet more stories wash out of the crevasses of that secret world. Last week, there was the dramatic tale of Lavabit, a small email encryption site; a court made documents on the case public and so ungagged the owner, who had closed his own business rather than turn over the encryption keys to the kingdom to the government. Then there was Tor, a "tool designed to protect online anonymity" that most people (myself included) will never have heard of, but that the NSA targeted and attacked. And don't forget that critique by the New York Times public editor: she took out after a front-page story in her own paper that accepted the unverified word of anonymous U.S. government sources on the significance of a piece the McClatchy news service had written about American "communications intercepts" of the online messages of al-Qaeda honchos.
And yet for all that we now know, and all that has been released but we have yet to absorb, it's clear that we're nowhere near fathoming the depths of the U.S. surveillance phenomenon. As Corpwatch's Pratap Chatterjee shows today, for example, we still know remarkably little about the private surveillance outfits that are providing the NSA and other government agencies with the ability to know us far too well. Tom
The Data Hackers
Mining Your Information for Big Brother
By Pratap Chatterjee
Big Bro is watching you. Inside your mobile phone and hidden behind your web browser are little known software products marketed by contractors to the government that can follow you around anywhere. No longer the wide-eyed fantasies of conspiracy theorists, these technologies are routinely installed in all of our data devices by companies that sell them to Washington for a profit.
That's not how they're marketing them to us, of course. No, the message is much more seductive: Data, Silicon Valley is fond of saying, is the new oil. And the Valley's message is clear enough: we can turn your digital information into fuel for pleasure and profits -- if you just give us access to your location, your correspondence, your history, and the entertainment that you like.
Ever played Farmville? Checked into Foursquare? Listened to music on Pandora? These new social apps come with an obvious price tag: the annoying advertisements that we believe to be the fee we have to pay for our pleasure. But there's a second, more hidden price tag -- the reams of data about ourselves that we give away. Just like raw petroleum, it can be refined into many things -- the high-octane jet fuel for our social media and the asphalt and tar of our past that we would rather hide or forget.
We willingly hand over all of this information to the big data companies and in return they facilitate our communications and provide us with diversions. Take Google, which offers free email, data storage, and phone calls to many of us, or Verizon, which charges for smartphones and home phones. We can withdraw from them anytime, just as we believe that we can delete our day-to-day social activities from Facebook or Twitter.
But there is a second kind of data company of which most people are unaware: high-tech outfits that simply help themselves to our information in order to allow U.S. government agencies to dig into our past and present. Some of this is legal, since most of us have signed away the rights to our own information on digital forms that few ever bother to read, but much of it is, to put the matter politely, questionable.
This second category is made up of professional surveillance companies. They generally work for or sell their products to the government -- in other words, they are paid with our tax dollars -- but we have no control over them. Harris Corporation provides technology to the FBI to track, via our mobile phones, where we go; Glimmerglass builds tools that the U.S. intelligence community can use to intercept our overseas calls; and companies like James Bimen Associates design software to hack into our computers.
There is also a third category: data brokers like Arkansas-based Acxiom. These companies monitor our Google searches and sell the information to advertisers. They make it possible for Target to offer baby clothes to pregnant teenagers, but also can keep track of your reading habits and the questions you pose to Google on just about anything from pornography to terrorism, presumably to sell you Viagra and assault rifles.
Edward Snowden has done the world a great service by telling us what the National Security Agency does and how it has sweet-talked, threatened, and bullied the first category of companies into handing over our data. As a result, perhaps you've considered switching providers from AT&T to T-Mobile or Dropbox to the more secure SpiderOak. After all, who wants some anonymous government bureaucrat listening in on or monitoring your online and phone life?
Missing from this debate, however, have been the companies that get contracts to break into our homes in broad daylight and steal all our information on the taxpayer's dime. We're talking about a multi-billion dollar industry whose tools are also available for those companies to sell to others or even use themselves for profit or vicarious pleasure.