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On Deadline blog: After secrecy of PRISM, why bother with 'privacy policy' notices?

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Jun 30, 2013

The other day I received a large pull-open mailer from my cell-phone provider, Verizon Wireless, labeled "Important Privacy Information." It was about "How Verizon Uses Information" and its Customer Proprietary Network.

In the context of disclosures about federal scanning of everyone's Internet and phone usage, I chuckled at its irony and almost tossed it away. On careful reading, I found it was warning me that if I didn't want to be part of its CPN I needed to notify Verizon within 30 days, after which I would be receiving materials from Verizon and firms related in some way to Verizon.

I had just finished watching a news update and reading a Time magazine piece on Edward Snowden's disclosures of deep-secret information about how the National Security Agency is compiling information on virtually every individual and business in America.

This subject is of some personal interest, as I handled media coordination for the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy, known as CFP1, held in Burlingame in 1991. I also was involved with several subsequent conferences in between stints as a full-time journalist. The conference, chaired by Jim Warren, then of Woodside, brought together an astoundingly broad range of perspectives, from a privacy zealot from Australia, youthful hackers/crackers and law-enforcement officials to representatives of the FBI, Secret Service and even CIA.

The multi-day conference spawned multiple dialogues involving people who rarely if ever had contact with each other, outside of some adversarial brushes from an institutional distance. One then infamous cracker (an illegal hacker), John Draper (aka "Captain Crunch") at lunchtime beckoned Warren and me over to his hotel-restaurant table to introduce us to "my arresting officer, and prosecutor."

The Australian privacy advocate warned that the foundations of our freedoms were being "white-anted" -- a term that stopped me cold when I was transcribing his comments for what became a book on the topic. The book, still online, became one of the first textbooks for college courses on the new subject. After repeated emails, I learned that "white ants" was an Aussie term for termites.

Another prophetic image emerged from a subsequent CFP conference planning session, when I relayed to conference Chair Bruce Koball and others a comment from a friend: "I'm not interested in computers!"

"Well, she may not be interested in computers, but there are a lot of computers interested in her," Koball instantly replied. A variant, "You may not be interested in computers but there are a lot of computers interested in you," became the motto of that conference. I still have a T-shirt with a keyhole-and-eyeball logo over the motto.

After two decades, the shirt is badly faded and frayed.

But not as faded and frayed as Americans' privacy rights, I fear. One of the early organizers of the CFP conferences concluded when asked a few years back that the battle for any meaningful privacy has been lost, forever lost, stamped out like many ill-equipped resistance movements of years, even centuries, past.

In the face of highly focused, well-funded interest groups -- the marketing industry, law-enforcement, national security in the vanguard of an army of lobbyists -- we've been truly white-anted in the privacy front.

The intensity of focus never materialized on the pro-privacy side on a scale to mobilize the termite inspectors and exterminators. The "opt-out" policy in Verizon's mailer won the debate over opt-in/opt-out that was a hot topic in the early 1990s. In virtually every aspect of our lives, our data tracks are being monitored and utilized in unimaginably complex ways.

But the PRISM program is so vast, so secret, so pervasive of everyone who uses telephones or the Internet that it is staggering. Under the mantel of tracking terrorists and saving lives, anything is permissible, it seems -- even to abridging the historical constitutional right to associate and assemble. As the Arab Spring has shown, online is today's assembly hall, or living rooms of early Christians with fish marks on their doors.

We may have more to learn about Snowden's motives or intent in taking the federal contract position. I am not in any way defending him or his actions.

But it is increasingly clear that the international manhunt is rapidly supplanting news coverage of the extremes of PRISM itself. Snowden is now painted as the one damaging U.S. relations around the world -- not the secret spy program itself under which innocent millions are being scanned with questionable supervision and unknown guidelines.

For the national media, which tends toward "pack journalism" anyway, it is far simpler to cover an exciting manhunt and bad-guy story than to probe the details buried in piles of documents.

But there's still the bottom line reality: There are a lot of computers interested in all of us -- and vastly more of them today.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He writes regular print columns for the Weekly in addition to his Town Square blogs.

Comments (27)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by george orwell
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 30, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Obama says how his FISA court, which I see as a secret star chamber court, a cog in the police state, and which simply rubber stamps all request for private information, (the sacrosanct opening of the envelope, having read sender and recipient addresses front and back) is OK because it is all to keep us safe from terrorist attack.

He thinks that foolish facebookers are not disadvantaged because afterall they have traded away their personal property, their personal data, pictures, inane comments etc. in return for a free photo sharing and a dream of being a celebrity, or whatever it is that drives people to social network. And the government, can make sure that the collective benefits from this trading of personal property, to keep us all safe.

However privacy is not just personal property but an inalienable right. Its existence is not only good for the individual but also good for society as whole, as is the right to clean water, clean air, a basic education etc. And government should not let us to trade in these things because in doing so we undermine the baseline Rawlsian notion of fairness which is the very foundation of our society.

Perhaps the next generation will take out a class action suit against us for ruining their futures and robbing them of their right to their own press releases, by encouraging them to go on Facebook. They can be reimbursed for their loss of privacy.

Perhaps Obama will realize that the collective benefits from data mining for terrorists are outweighed by the very existence of large datasets being just too risky, quantified in financial terms, becausse it could be hacked by the Chinese who could use it to undermine our national security, and afterall that risk could be quantified.

But Privacy not personal property and it should not be traded away because if it is it undermines the very conception of justice and equality on which our society depends.

Neither private or public organizations should be allowed to mine private data.

If this were made law facebook and google would be smaller, there would be room for many small fee for service email providers to emerge. And the government would not have a one stop shop, and the powerful internet monopolies in cohoots.

No organization should be allowed to amass large amounts of private data.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2013 at 7:17 pm

For once the Left and the Right have something they can agree on.

But will anything come of it? Don't hold your breath....


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Williard Mittens
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 30, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Georgie: were you so displeased with FISA before Obama? Or are you just a Glenn Beck acolyte parroting whatever he runs on about at any given moment, always sure to blame Obama and never give critical thought to life before Obama?

Jay - great post. Thanks...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm

If data mining is outlawed, only outlaws will mine data.

"...they have traded away their personal property, their personal data, pictures, inane comments etc. in return for a free photo sharing and..."

That is exactly the bargain. If you choose to bare your soul in public, don't be surprised if somebody actually looks at it, so they can realize their own piece of the Silicon Valley dream: making loads of money selling you something, or/and selling you to somebody who wants to sell you something.

Wall Street worries me a lot more than Pennsylvania Avenue worries me. It's way more effective and efficient.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 1, 2013 at 5:07 pm

On top of Obama's spying on us, there are also data breaches which open up personal information to god only knows who:

Web Link

Electronic data breaches put the personal information of 2.5 million Californians at risk in 2012, according to a new report released Monday by Attorney General Kamala Harris.

CA Secretary Of State's 2013 Data Breach Report:

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Williard Mittens
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Wayn-o: I'll ask the same I asked Georgie... "were you so displeased with FISA before Obama?"

Make a list of the activities under Bush and those before him (NSA, FISA, etc..) and anything new under Obama. "On top of Obama's spying..."

I'll wait...



 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 1, 2013 at 6:13 pm

> were you so displeased with FISA before Obama?"

1) I didn't know much about FISA Court before now. What about you?
2) I don't think any of us know much about the FISA Court, even with the current level of "revelations".
3) Joe Bidden said in 2006: "You can't trust a spying President". Wonder why he thinks it's OK now?

Joe Biden (2006):
Web Link
"And we're going to trust the President to do the right thing .. don't count me in on that!"

4) Obama could have shut down this massive surveillance of American citizens--particularly since he ran on a platform of being opposed to everything that Bush did.
5) As a Senator, he might evern have known about this surveillance, given the alleged "oversight" of the Senate.
6) I don't fully understand why the FISA Court has agreed to collect so much information on ordinary Americans, and why Obama thinks he needs to keep it for at least five years (and who knows how long if the NSA decides to ignore the law).
7) I also don't believe that Obama has a clue about the depth, and breadth, of the current surveillance of the American people. I doubt the FISA Court does either.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Aussie Croat
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Bush started PRISM, admitted it this week in an interview. Yeah, Bush did an interview. The GOP forced him to do it outside the country (Zambia, I think.) But that's standard for the GOP and their Bush problem.

I can't answer for Willard, but for me?

- yes, I've know about FISA since just after 9/11 and the Bush/Cheney Total Information Awareness program under Poindexter. Truly evil. We probably agree on a lot of the basics about civil liberties and domestic spying, though...

2. low information types, yeah, sure. Those that read a lot and anyone who is inclined towards privacy? They know.

3. Ask Joe.

4. Show me the platform planks: recover from the Bush Great Recession? almost, needs more jobs, but the GOP won't do it. Out of Iraq? yes. Leaving Afghanistan? Yes. Gitmo? No. Anything else?

5. Possibly. He was concentrating on loose nukes. Wasn't on Intelligence. Ask DiFi. (she dfrives me nuts, can't wait for her to retire!)

6. FISA is a rubber stamp. Has been since at least 9/11, don't know much before that. Obama and five years? PRISM started under Bush.

7. Disagree, but since neither of us can definitively answer, rock on baby...

G'day, mate!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 2, 2013 at 8:57 am

> Total Information Awareness (TIA)

The poster proclaimed this concept to be "evil" ..

TIA never came into existence, at least that was what the public was led to believe. What exactly did TIA propose to do?

Web Link

This would be achieved by creating enormous computer databases to gather and store the personal information of everyone in the United States, including personal e-mails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and numerous other sources, without any requirement for a search warrant.[1] This information would then be analyzed to look for suspicious activities, connections between individuals, and "threats".[2] Additionally, the program included funding for biometric surveillance technologies that could identify and track individuals using surveillance cameras, and other methods.[2]
Following public criticism that the development and deployment of this technology could potentially lead to a mass surveillance system, the IAO was defunded by Congress in 2003. However, several IAO projects continued to be funded, and merely run under different names.[3][4][5][6]
----
Although not too much is openly known about "Prism"—it's hard to see that it is really that much different than TIA.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Aussie Croat
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2013 at 9:13 am

ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! Did you see Bush and Obama this morning, laying a wreath at the site of an embassy attack in 98? Been dozens of attacks since, at least a dozen under Bush, but let's investigate the one on Obama's watch!

Oh, the hypocrisy.

TIA was led by a convicted criminal - John Poindexter: 5 convictions for lies and obstructions of justice to cover up Iran Contra and selling arms to Iran. Lawyers later got him off on a technicality.

There, boys and girls, are the lovely chaps that created the massive spy networks, the same ones that traded weapons to Iran and helped the drug runners in Iran Contra.

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

I lied and I got caught!!! But I give purty speeches don't I, cuz' I was trained as an actor and ran the actor union!

Wayne - you claimed to be a vet in other threads, that must drive you nuts when higher ups abuse the UCMJ, and get away with it. A guy like Ollie wearing the uniform and taking the 5th, then telling lies. Deserved his conviction too.

Wayne - you DO know the whole internet is swept into the NSA locally, don't you? Up the street, on Folsom in The City, room 611C, or something. Was in all the papers.

Not.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Aussie Croat
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2013 at 9:17 am

Dang it, mate, I always get it wrong!

It's room 641a.

Web Link

There's some great stories about it, not referenced on this page, alas...

Congrats, by looking at that page, you're officially a SUBVERSIVE!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Aussie Croat
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2013 at 9:20 am

"This would be achieved by creating enormous computer databases to gather and store the personal information of everyone in the United States, including personal e-mails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and numerous other sources, without any requirement for a search warrant."

Tell us Wayne, if that isn't evil, without even a rubber stamp, de rigueur, automatic approval FISA warrant, what do you call it?

AT the least, you must call it UN-CONSTITUTIONAL.

gotta run, mate... all the best!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by electronic freedom
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 2, 2013 at 10:00 am

Aussie has a point (several, obviously.) The one that resonates with me is - once you start paying attention to privacy issues, you find out a LOT of what's going on. One also finds strange bedfellows: libertarians with liberals, constitutional conservatives with near-anarchists, etc..

I find his/her question of Wayne's comment important: Wayne, you highlighted Aussie's "evil" quote and and then copied the stunning TIA summary. Do you not find it "evil" (or some similar synonym) also?

Anyway, once your interest is piqued on privacy, prepare to be stunned. Suggested starting point: the Electronic Frontier Foundation Web Link

Jay: was that Mr Warren of the LAT connection?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 3, 2013 at 9:43 am

> Wayne - you claimed to be a vet in other threads,

I take it you think that I am lying about my military service?




 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 3, 2013 at 9:54 am

> Wayne - you DO know the whole internet is swept into the NSA locally

Hardly! While it is true that there is supposed to be an optical "splitter" in a room in an AT&T facility in San Francisco (Folsom Street), the "whole Internet" does not run through this set of fiber cables.

You've dismissive posts suggest that you think you are the only one around that has been following these issues.

PBS/NOVA/Spy Factory:
ideo.pbs.org/video/1051968443/

There is a short segment about the AT&T "splitter" about 20 minutes into the program.

Project Echelon, which has been monitoring telephone traffic, has been around for some time now:

Web Link

Most of this has been in the news, at one time or another. Do YOU know that?

And for the record—the "whole Internet" does not exist just in the US—it is worldwide. The US can not tap the whole thing, no matter how much it thinks it should.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 3, 2013 at 10:03 am

> TIA was led by a convicted criminal - John Poindexter

And your point is?

I doubt that Poindexter conceived of TIA himself. This kind of surveillance was the work of hundreds of others--the Pentagon, DARPA and Defense Contractors. The fact that Pointdexter was involved is meaningless. If he hadn't been, someone else would have been.

Why not just stick to issues, and forget the personal attacks. The underlying problems are far greater than anything you have pointed out--at least where Poindexter is concerned.

So far, all you have done is ASSERTED that TIA is "evil". I am not supporting it--how ever it's hard to see how it is all that much different than anything Obama Administration is doing with PRISM.

I would like for them to stop collected data on Americans not believed to be involved in "suspicious" activities, and delete the information that they currently have.

That's my position.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 3, 2013 at 10:11 am

collected data->collecting data


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Twain
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Martins position is that PRISM is from Obama? Sad news Bucko, it started w Bush; but keep conflating that it is Obama solely, you've done that at least twice above w/o acknowledge Bush.

my two cents - It is far closer to evil than saintly, imo, no matter what Martin says.

Martin - Aussie implied as a veteran you were offended at Oliver Norths lawbreaking and hiding behind the uniform. Now you say you're not a veteran?

"TIA was led by a convicted criminal - John Poindexter" factually correct, again, imo. How is that a personal attack? Forget he broke laws and gave weapons to the Ayatollah, only a few years aftere the hostages were released when Reagan was inaugurated (no connection there!)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Twain
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I didn't know they were sicking up the net in SF. Wow.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 4, 2013 at 2:00 pm

> warning me that if I didn't want to be part of its CPN I needed to notify Verizon within 30 days

Things of this nature are generally supposed to be opt-in, not opt-out.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 4, 2013 at 2:09 pm


Here is a bit of a far out example of where this country is heading.

All of this data on all of our people, with all of the threats we have will induce our newly global aristocratic elite to push the envelope to find new ways of keeping down challenges to their authority and profits.

Here is a deliberately funny example, the NSA goes back and analyzes, or says they analyzed Osama Bin Ladens "data". The find that Osama liked porn, so people who can be determined to like porn suddenly become a statistical threat. Say, he liked gummy bears too - same thing, all of a sudden, based on statistical inference that will never see the light of day anyway - people who like gummy bears get a mark against them. You can go on and on picking at the so-called bad people and then creating associations that pop up citizens that have nothing to do with the bad people, but it keeps the system moving, it hypes the security budget, it terrorized the citizenry, and even if it is random it seems to work because it instills an order or terror so that even more can be done.

This level of science and technology happens at a level that is invisible, and opaque to citizens. We never get to see it, we never get to complain about it or criticize it, we never get to discuss publicly and express our democratic will about it ... and this level of control is called totalitarian.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park non Anon
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Osama was a pal of Qadaffi, who had a photo book of Condi Rice Web Link , so cross reference that with anyone who has come in contact with any student who took her class, etc.. all obvious terrorist threats!

So: remember that lovely stanford student who tutored your kid in PA? She took Condi's class -she's why the NSA is collecting your cell calls and online porn site visits!

Thanks, CPAnon, it's so clear now!

Lastly, PRISM was a Bush program, as described above. Any poster who tries to conflate PRISM to Obama only is a liar and should not be trusted for any other information provided. Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Jul 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Agreed, Bush started PRISM.

So, why didn't Obama end it?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by da haters
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2013 at 2:33 am

Few presidents ever give power "back". That's the reason power grabs should be fought, as with TIA and PRISM; TIA was sunk publicly, PRISM was hidden. To identify PRISM with Obama only, however, is clearly disingenuous, as it was put in place by Bush.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by confidential source
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 8, 2013 at 10:47 am

"Leakers Must Be Prosecuted" according to highly placed anonymous government source.

Dual sources: Web Link and "The Important Questions" Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 8, 2013 at 11:07 am

It's clear that no coherent, transparent, responsible action that is intended for the American people or to respond to the American people has been coming out of Washington for long over a decade, some probably think longer than that.

The cover for that is the corporatized, privatized video screen that is projecting a fiction of what the American people to the world and to the American people ourselves.

Lot's of arguing goes on, but there is no real process for determining what the people want in an intelligent way - the case for American militancy is not made - it is just assumed, like the mantle of absolute power to search and react.

What is being protected and institutionalized even fetishized is the separation and protection of a certain type of "ruling class" - those parts of the economy and society that from inside itself are necessary to run an absolute war on everything if needed to protect and expand themselves - all done martially, by military means, and covered with a media owned by just another sector of itself. If we could summon Charles Darwin himself to take a look at this he himself could explain what is going to evolve from this, what is being emphasized and what is being atrophied.

There is no conceivable way that any serious scholar, particularly any from outside this "ruling class" could even reconcile the Constitution with what is going on. While it may be necessary to re-think the whole way the government exists, that is not a conversation that there is even a plan for a plan to happen - effectively leaving the transformation of the government in the hands of private unmonitored and unanswerable to the people paid political operatives.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Benjamins
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 8, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Who keeps tabs on the keepers of the data?

Not much of anyone, apparently. Take this a step further and you have Obama using warrantless (FISA-less) wiretaps on Romney's campaign, or Bush on Kerry... from WaPo: Web Link

The New York Police Department says one of its detectives was recently caught using the NCIC database to secretly obtain personal information about two other NYPD officers. Police officials have suggested that the man, who also hacked into several individuals' e-mail accounts, was trying to figure out "who his ex-girlfriend, also a police officer, was chatting with."

Another police officer, Gilbert Valle, was convicted in March for using the NCIC database to "help compile dossiers on women that listed their birthdates, addresses, heights and weights," apparently as part of a "bizarre plot to kidnap, cook and cannibalize women." Fortunately, the authorities stepped in before the women he had profiled were harmed.

The AP reports that "authorities have accused a Memphis police officer of using the NCIC database to leak information to a confidential informant about a watch dealer who the informant believed had stolen a Rolex; a reserve patrolman in Clarkston, Ga., of running names and license plates for marijuana dealers; a Montgomery County, Md., officer of running checks on cars belonging to a woman who later reported that the vehicles had been vandalized; and a Hartford, Conn., police sergeant of supplying database records to a woman who used them to harass her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend."

Or how about the NSA and other government geeks getting their jollies spying on our service members? from 2008:

" ...says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News."

Ben Franklin, where are you?


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