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The blurring of the Big Data lines

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 15, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 5: Whose data is whose?


Of course another thing that has blurred the lines between Government Big Data and Corporate Big Data…the Bad Big Data is the interconnectedness of these two groups.

As should already be obvious, even if we assume corporations are collecting our data for the relatively harmless intent of selling us more products…that data can and has been laid at the feet of the state.

Google, and a few others, have attempted to at least let people know when the government has requested data, but under secret warrants, who knows how many times they have LAWFULLY BUT SECRETIVELY forked over mountains of our information?

There is another ominous link; it is that a large amount of surveillance is not actually done by the government but by corporate contractors.

As I mentioned earlier an agent with authority could ‘check out a book’…well, what Snowden actually said was a privately employed agent…such as himself…could undertake any form of surveillance (he used wire taping as an example) that he had access to on their own authority…perhaps based on nothing more than a hunch.

This brings up three big threats from Big Data…first, in order to have Big Data you must first collect that data. In this regard, the recent revelations have shown how privacy and civil liberties were swept aside in the pursuit of attaining big data.

In most ‘civilized’ countries, a warrant must be issued by a member of the judiciary before an individuals privacy can be violated.

Typically a warrant is FOR something…I want a warrant to search Tony Soprano’s house because he is suspect in the murder of Matthew Bevilaqua. This is done because it is generally considered that privacy is a right. The US 4th amendment states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The warrant (reviled by Snowden that allows the ‘collecting’ of everyone’s phone data) simply says collect (almost) everything from everyone just-in-case…it is not even for a specific case. The probable cause? Because of 9/11 terrorism, we need a warrant on anyone and everyone who might do terrorism…as to what qualifies a terrorism can be almost anything (including thought crime)…does that not make warrant meaningless?

When a court authorizes a warrant, how broad is that warrant? This is where judicial oversight is supposed to ensure there is no abuse of individual privacy by the state. The warrant, that allowed for the collection of all phone meta-data, authorized the collection of any “tangible thing…all telephony metadata…between the US and abroad or wholly within the US”.

surveil-cartoon-and0228color-600x446The judicial oversight comes from something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Courts. They issue these warrants in secret. However, reports and leaks have shown that there is no effective oversight.

The judges are not federal judges (which a normal warrant would require) but a separate secret court system. These judges are appointed by the Chief Justice but must be vetted by the very security agencies they are supposed to monitor thus these judges tend to be very conservative (in the bad sense of the term) and friendly to the security agencies.

In the courts 38 year old history, of 33,949 requests only 11 were refused…that’s a rejection rate of 0.03% and none have been rejected under Obama’s watch. To put that into context, that’s 5 warrants a day or one every 4 hours in 2012 with a rejection happening every once 3 1/2 years.

The next threat is what if an agent holds a personal grudge…they have at their fingertips the power to make someone’s life hell…an ex-lover, a high school bully, the guy who cut him off on the freeway…whatever.

Lastly, there is the cross talk. That is, the companies that have been contracted out to do surveillance for the government also have contracts with other corporations. Remember this kind of work is really just the collection of lots of data and analysing it…be that data your phone calls or stock trading. This has resulted in a twofold blurring of lines.

You have the line blurring between government and contractor security activities…private corporations that are given unprecedented authority to perform surveillance while given access to the deepest secrets of the state.

unfreepressThese private corporations must lobby the government for contracts…the same government whose secrets they know. The conflict of interests are obvious, scary and seen in the behavior of politicians.

Another blurring occurs when the very same surveillance contractors are also contracting out to other private corporations. Thus creating a conduit for a…let say Citi Bank to have access (indirectly) via the contractor to the ‘deepest state secrets’…like investigation into Citi Bank wrong doing?

I remember this one ‘conspiracy theory’…that does not sound so crazy now.  Apparently there was a New York Attorney General who was pushing for significant criminal charges against major corporate and financial institutions.

This particular AG, Elliot Spitzer, used an almost forgotten law from the 1920’s that allowed him to subpoena witnesses and company documents pertaining to investigations of fraud or illegal activity by a corporation. He famously used this power to help expose the Enron scandal and threaten civil actions against financial institutions that were Enron’s co-conspirators.

When Spitzer ran for Governor of New York…as a reformer…he was elected in 2007…less than 13 months later, revelations came out that he frequented prostitutes. He resigned days later.

The conspiracy arises out of the fact that Home Land Security (HLS) shared offices in Wall Street with major trading and financial institutions.  And by HLS offices what I mean is private corporate contractors doing surveillance for HLS.

mst0051lThese very same contractors also had work with Wall Street firms, to save overhead they used the same office space for both parties. So, the private surveillance contractors had employees working both for the government…seeing all the data that operation provided…and for the corporations…where they were supposed to forget what they saw on the other side.

Remember what the contractor can surveil for HLS is far more reaching than what they are allowed to do for ‘private’ customers.

Well, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks noted that the revelations about Spitzer’s connection to prostitution arose from Spitzer spending habits…that by the tracing of where Spitzer was spending his money led to the discovery that some of that money was going to hookers…But how did this information get out?

It’s almost as if someone had inside information on the financial transactions of Spitzer…let’s say by HLS’s monitoring of all financial transaction to trace ‘terrorist’ money laundering/transfers. That maybe someone in the Wall Street side of the office overheard some gossip from the HLS’s side…gossip which mysteriously found its way to the press.

Or more nefariously, a ‘private’ client asked their surveillance contractor if they could ‘dig up a little dirt’…and when this contractor ALSO has access to HLS data…well, conspiracies write themselves.

Whether this is a real conspiracy or not, it illustrates the real and present danger Big Data poses to our democracy.

Whenever someone has access to Big Data, everyone…Prime Minister all the way down to yours truly, there is something to be found that could be used to manipulate or ruin that person.

ron-cob-1968-anarchycartoonI was watching a docu about this issue and they contrasted it with East Germany and the Stasi (the state secret police)…how most people in that society accepted the surveillance.

Regular people had learned to deal with it. If you had something private to say, you would go out to the park to talk. You would use the public telephones to make calls so they could not be traced to you.

Oddly enough…they were more ‘free’ than we are now.

Because technology has become such an embedded part of our very being…think of how often the under 20 something’s are without their cellphones…how long any of us can go before ‘checking in online’…and that is only voluntary surveillance.

As a number of readers may recall many months ago there was a great scandal at a school in the US because a Tech for the school figured out how to remotely turn on students’ webcams and monitor without them knowing.  The tech makes it possible…practically anyone could do it…the only thing holding them back are laws (weak), oversight (weak) and whistleblowers (vilified).

In the last part of this series we bring it all home to Canada…True North Surveilled and Free?



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