I read a recent article by Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica (Ars editor learns feds have his old IP addresses, full credit card numbers). It’s not a long article and I urge you to go read it but, if you don’t have the time, here are a couple of takeaway points:
- The amount of information collected and retained by the government is mind-boggling in how extensive it is (right down to diet and seat change requests).
- The information collected is being retained far beyond what is officially stated. The government says “five years”, the reality is nine years and counting.
The rational conclusion is that there isn’t too much to worry about because any government retaining information to this extent would choke on the data. When everything being collected is 99% irrelevant, the argument goes, how easy is it going to be to find the 1% of data that is relevant?
That assumes that the government is interested in immediately relevant data. What if it isn’t? While reading the article, I was forcibly reminded of Cardinal Richelieu’s words:
If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.
And I thought to myself: what if that tsunami of data is one of the objectives of the whole exercise?
Imagine this: The government is after someone and they discover that Jo Bloggs sits in the next cubicle to Prime Suspect at work. There’s nothing stopping an intelligence service from dragging Jo in. No charges. Just a “friendly chat”.
Intelligence Service: We want to recruit you to spy on Prime Suspect.
Jo Bloggs: Piss off.
IS: Really, that’s your answer?
JB: I’m not ratting out anyone. You want to arrest Prime Suspect. Go find your own evidence. I’m not doing your dirty work for you.
IS: I see. Okay. I’d just like to say this: That’s a nice job you’ve got there. Would be a shame if anything happened to it.
JB: What? What the hell are you talking about?
IS: Don’t mind me, I’m just flicking through some old records. Seems that you once phoned a known felon, asking if he had any “weed” for sale! We have photos of you in your car heading for Downtown.
JB: How did you–!
IS: You don’t think we only use freeway cameras for TV stories on high-speed chases, do you? You stopped at a QuickieMart and withdrew $100 and bought yourself a Giant Gulp (nice hairstyle, by the way), then went on to Shady Street, where you met the known felon. Later that night, you posed a photo on your Headbook profile with the caption “Completely f(*&!ing wasted!”, and an IM chat with your friend, Best Bud, the following morning mentions “sticky heads”.
JB: Ha! All this is years old. I haven’t broken any laws.
IS: That’s true, but perhaps your employer might be interested in what kind of person their Team Lead is? I’ll just hand this information over to them. I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.
Or maybe it was the time you didn’t report that scrape you gave someone else’s car in the car-park? Did you ever sign a co-worker’s form, even though you didn’t really witness their signature/know them for more than 6 months/work with them for more than 2 years? Maybe you lied to your significant other because you had a date to go to the casino with some friends or screw a stranger in a motel room? How about the time you grabbed a smoke in a no-smoking zone? Ever gone joy-riding in a supermarket trolley? Streamed porn while the family was out? Maybe you were a car-racing speed demon as a teenager? Did you ever hit someone in anger? Had a complaint letter written about you? The list goes on and on.
Even worse, what if any of these were wrong? What if the customer wrote an incorrect name on the letter? What if it was a house guest who streamed that video? What if you only went to the casino because you were afraid a friend was going to gamble too much money and you wanted to stop him/her? It doesn’t matter. Implication is enough. And I’m reminded of Richelieu again.
Even if you’re honest, you’re not infallible. We’ve all made mistakes, said things we’ve regretted, done things we wish we could have retracted. We’ve also done the right thing, but under murky circumstances. Why? Because we’re human. In the past, we could depend on time and memory to blunt the consequences of some of our rash actions. That day is long gone.
While I was composing this blog post, I came across an article at Naked Capitalism. The headline speaks for itself: High-level NSA Whistleblower Says Blackmail is a Huge -Unreported- Part of Mass Surveillance (Yes, I’m a regular reader of Naked Capitalism and an avowed socialist, in case anyone’s interested in that kind of thing.)
As the article states: “the American [sic] government has a long history of blackmailing people — including high-level officials — with knowledge of their sexual peccadilloes.”
I’m suggesting that the intelligence services of many countries are now using technology to expand the scope of potential blackmail victims. With the vast amount of data available, there is no need to only target high-profile marks (a previously expensive proposition). Why, the data and metadata pours in, with hardly any effort needed at all, except on the part of HPCs (High Performance Computers) to do the tabulating and indexing. All an agent then has to do is enter a name and some known particulars into the vast sea of databanks dotting the continents, and go grab a coffee while the query is executed and the data assembled. And before you can say “Bob, my aunt’s de facto husband, is collecting welfare in a fraudulent manner”, Jo has been dragged in and is being shown various youthful transgressions as a way of forcing her cooperation in any manner of things.
America’s National Security Agency has already acknowledged that half a dozen analysts have been caught trawling databases for inappropriate material on partners or love interests. Other leaked documents have revealed how U.S. and British intelligence discussed leaking embarrassing material online to blacken the reputations of their targets [emphasis in original --ksa].
Unfortunately, you can’t prove me wrong because…I’m not.