By Doug Thomson
“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” said John Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s, 1961 novel, Catch-22. Of course, Heller couldn’t really have anticipated at the time that the technology of the 21st century would pretty much cast in stone Yossarian’s observation – but here we are – and it surely does.
If one subscribes to the New York Times one can obtain a number of newsletters on specific topics of personal interest.
The Privacy Project is a letter that is particularly interesting, topical, thought-provoking and about as frightening as Freddy Krueger on a really bad hair day. (Freddy Krueger is the main character in a series of horror movies titled Nightmare on Elm Street – Ed.)
You might ask yourself why you would want to be transported to a real-life horror movie. I can only trot out a well-worn aphorism – forewarned is forearmed.
In the latest issue of The Privacy Project, op-ed writer Charlie Warzel recounts an interview with former U.S. State Department employee and whistleblower, John Napier Tye, who now runs a law firm representing whistleblowers and has become an expert in the world of privacy and security.
I won’t bother you with the details of the lengths Tye’s firm goes to protect its clients, but they include the infamous Dark Web, burner phones, Faraday bags and a bunch of other stuff right out of a James Bond movie. Really.
Tye notes that there are two categories of privacy threat to which we are subject: bulk data collection and targeted surveillance.
He warns: “A number of governments and companies have the goal of building databases with detailed profile information for every person on earth, or at least every internet user — including where you are at any given moment, who your friends are, what kind of messages and photos you are creating and how you think about the world. They are closer than you might expect.”
Of course, even if you aren’t an internet user, your data is happily sitting on the web in the care of governments and thousands of businesses. You may not think you are on the internet, but you most certainly are.
So, why would any government or business want a database of everyone in the world? Who could possibly sort through all that information and what would be the purpose?
The answer to the second question leads us to an understanding of why. It’s simple, computers can sort through all the data collected by any agent, whether business or government.
What is done with the data depends entirely on the goals of the organization, but the tool they always use is statistics. We tend to give statistics short shrift, pronouncing that, “statistics can mean anything someone wants.”
Maybe, but ‘real statistical analysis’ is extremely powerful and it is used everywhere in business and industry from process control to marketing. The more data the more accurate the statistical conclusions.
Indeed, if you are among the many millions of souls who line the pockets of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, you should know that Amazon uses your data to set a price for the things you want to buy. The price you pay depends entirely on your browsing and buying behaviours.
Google aims their advertising at you, again tailored by your searches and browsing. Facebook controls what you see, pretty much ensuring that you seldom, if ever, see anything that will challenge your view of the world.
It isn’t comforting to know that Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook co-founder and CEO) has had two private dinners with Donald John Trump, one in September and the next in October.
Facebook was a principle organ used by the Russians to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That makes a nice segue into the world of targeted surveillance and companies like NSO Group.
If you and I, a journalist or an activist, end up in the crosshairs of any government agency for any reason, this charming bunch and their brethren produce software designed to open your digital world like a shucked oyster – the pearl is your life.
Their software has been found on the phones of journalists, human rights defenders and governmental opposition members in countries where human rights are not a deterrent to government actions. Indeed, Jamal Khashoggi’s phone was found to be compromised by NSO software placed there before he was murdered by Saudi operatives.
Yeah, well you aren’t Jamil Khashoggi you say. Indeed, but don’t get too comfortable. Tye adds: “It’s not just governments, but also run-of-the-mill criminals and jilted lovers who are using this kind of surveillance software at a lower cost than you would expect. And the victims almost never even learn they were hacked.
“A lot more industries than you would expect are targeted for penetration by foreign governments. And it’s not just the top executives – most hacking starts with junior employees and then escalates.”
Many governments can and do use both bulk data and targeted surveillance. The former can accumulate data on trends and even the activities of groups of individuals, whereupon it is possible to tunnel through the data to find individuals even if their names are never revealed in the collected data.
If agents have enough data points you can be identified with a very high degree of accuracy. And this is why some governments want data on every human being possible. It is the ultimate form of Big Brother – it’s all about strategy, control, manipulation and dominance.
One group that is prominent in the protection of privacy is The Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. They have freely available research you can investigate and current news about privacy.
They also have a useful security planner that will give the average user some useful tips on maintaining privacy, at least as much as is reasonably possible on the internet. Both sites are worth a visit.
So, we came in with Heller and go out with Orwell, a nice literary transition to highlight the curse that unscrupulous operatives have cast upon what should be a wonderful tool.
Catch-22 examines the absurdity of war through Yossarian and his fellow brothers-in-arms’ experiences as they try to stay sane, finish their tour of duty and make it home alive. George Orwell’s novel 1984 follows the life of Winston Smith, a low ranking member of ‘the Party’, who is frustrated by the omnipresent eyes of the party and its ominous ruler, Big Brother, who controls every aspect of people’s lives. – Ed.