Category Archives: Media

Rise of the Internet Police State

This article of mine was originally published in Adbusters May-June 2007. Since it has inspired a number of copies, commentaries and videos by others, and continues to be extremely relevant, I’d like to ensure the original remains available on the internet. Rob Wipond.

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It started out as just an ordinary article tracking Google’s tracking of us. It’s become something much more unsettling.

I was reading Google’s privacy policy to find out what they were doing with the list of everything I’ve ever searched for, my Gmail email content they were analyzing, my documents stored using Google Apps, and the detailed picture of my website they’ve been developing since I started running Google targeted ads. Not to mention all that information they can gather about my activities as I visit any site running Google ads.

But Google’s dozen interconnected privacy policies were mainly suggestively vague. “We may combine personal information collected from you with information from other Google services or third parties…We may also use personal information for auditing, research and analysis… ” Google reps publicly claimed they weren’t developing a multi-layered personal profile of me for the CIA, yet they seemingly wouldn’t rule out doing it, either.

That’s why I’ve actually been writing with a rhetorical “me”-After talking to some experts, the real me has been avoiding Google services.

Lawyer Philippa Lawson, executive director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, warned that even if Google isn’t yet compiling in-depth personal profiles and re-selling them to virtually any buyer, plenty of others already are.

CIPPIC recently researched gathering and brokering of personal data. They found most privacy policies are “not explained thoroughly or clearly”, states Lawson, because “there’s a huge market incentive for companies to violate the privacy of individuals. Our personal information is now a commodity in the marketplace. And a very valuable one.”

Accumulating, analyzing, co-operatively sharing, buying and selling personal information about us, primarily with the intention of helping companies develop targeted marketing campaigns, has become a multi-billion dollar industry. According to Lawson, apart from spyware, common methods for gathering data about us include free versions of programs, online email services and stores, networking sites and Digital Rights Management tools.

“Quite often, if you go in and actually read what you’re clicking ‘I agree’ to, it says ‘I agree to let you track my activities online and use that information for whatever you want.’ ”

Even though some countries, like Canada, have better privacy protection legislation than the “freewheeling” U.S., Lawson says that’s little comfort. “There’s basically widespread non-compliance” with the laws, she states, plus little enforcement.

Yet even more concerning than the immense amount of data about you that these companies are collecting and trading, says American Civil Liberties Union technology expert Jay Stanley, is the way governments are becoming involved and getting companies to help.

“We’re actually weakening the laws that restrain the government from exploiting these new technologies to peer into our lives,” says Stanley, author of “The Surveillance-Industrial Complex”.

In the U.S., all new communications technologies must include back doors for government eavesdropping. With no judicial oversight, the FBI issues tens of thousands of demands annually to internet service providers, libraries and others to hand over their records-and under the Patriot Act it’s illegal to tell anyone it has occurred. Numerous democratic countries now require companies to retain all user data for years, for just such occasions, essentially allowing governments to circumvent their own privacy legislation. For example, while it can’t legally conduct mass surveillance itself, Canada’s RCMP recently simply obtained records on millions of Canadians from private data broker Cornerstone. ChoicePoint gathers and sells personal information under contract to dozens of U.S. government agencies.

Many other companies share their information on us voluntarily, often in exchange for access to government information. The FBI claims “InfraGard” has 18,403 enlisted members, including 83 of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies, working on its secretive “information sharing and analysis” project. Similarly, the National Security Agency is funding private sector studies of harvesting data from social networking sites like MySpace, and whistleblowers claim AT&T has allowed the NSA full access to customers’ phone calls and to all internet traffic passing through its broad internet hubs. Then there’s the now infamous (but still mysterious) ECHELON, an intergovernmental and inter-corporate system for intercepting global communications en masse.

If we add in other available information like census data, education, criminal and health records, video rentals, completed warranty cards and surveys, and periodical subscription lists, and then combine all of that with data being obtained through increasing use of surveillance audio-visual cameras, radio frequency identifier tags in ID cards, cell phones and ordinary goods, implanted chips and biometric scanners, then the picture created, says Stanley, is ultimately of an “inexorable movement toward a surveillance society”.

So we’re missing the forest for the trees, he argues, by debating the risks and benefits of these activities one at a time. “Technologies are making possible the kind of all-inclusive surveillance that’s never before been possible in history.”

For Stanley, the worst aspect is that this menacing surveillance state is taking shape largely shadowed from the eyes of open public debate, in a world of “meta-secrecy” or “secrecy about secrecy”, under the pretense of national security. And while many people support preventing crime and terrorism, identifying criminals and terrorists before they commit crimes requires broad surveillance and scientifically suspect analysis of a hypothetically infinite spectrum of personalities and behaviours. As one U.S. police anti-terrorism brochure recently clarified, it means keeping close tabs on “anyone who does not appear to belong”. And who appears to belong less than someone protesting this sinister status quo?

“We can look to history to see the kinds of abuses that take place,” comments Stanley. “Surveillance technologies and infrastructures are used politically to target, harrass and disrupt people who are agitating for change.” He cites a case where a Soviet democracy activist’s life fell apart after authorities simply released unexpurgated details of the worst things he’d ever said to others about any of his friends or associates.

But Lawson feels the image of one giant, ominous “Big Brother” is more reassuring, and less real, than what we’re actually developing, which is more “Kafka-esque”: innumerable people with power over your life holding reams of information on you that you don’t know about and can’t control. That’s why we’re already seeing an outrageous range of results: expanding no-fly lists, increasing identity thefts, broadening state-corporate agreements to “disappear” certain websites, and growing industry-wide databases like Australia’s “Guests Behaving Badly”, which blacklists hotel guests who are “intimidatory” or “anti-social”.

Ironically, the internet once promised a veritable democratic revolution of wide open communication. If current trends continue, we could well end up paranoid and close mouthed, afraid that everything we do will be recorded, forever available for use against us at at any time, in any way.

“That’s the great danger,” agrees Stanley. “The chilling effect that undermines and undercuts the great democratic communicative advantage that the internet brings.” Nevertheless, he adds, “I think there are also reasons to hope. People are beginning to realize that these wonderful technologies also have dark sides.”

Still, if there were a fascist coup tomorrow, it looks like this new internet would be vastly more useful to the forces of state control than to those of democracy and liberty.

“I don’t spend my time worrying about a fascist government coming to power,” counters Stanley. After all, he says, we’ve got plenty of room to become “a meaner and less just and harsher society, without any kind of radical takeover… And that’s what I’m most afraid of.”

Misquoting the Way to War

News stories with conflict generally stir more interest than those without. That’s why top news stories are wars, murders, scandals, intense disagreements and the like.

One problem with this is that news professionals emphasize, accentuate, exaggerate and even sometimes deliberately aggravate differences and conflicts to make their stories more gripping. In the end, we may see polarized perspectives that bear little resemblance to reality. This can be entertaining or upsetting, but it doesn’t help educate the public or solve any social problems.

Consider August’s raft of heated articles, letters to the editor, radio phone-ins and TV coverage about panhandling hurting Victoria tourism. All of that erupted from a Times-Colonist story about a man who’d written to the Empress hotel, indicating he’d never hold a conference here because of the “homeless people” constantly “hounding” him.

One catch: The letter had been misquoted. Continue reading “Misquoting the Way to War” »

When Money-making Meets News-making

The hushed firing and re-instatement of Victoria Times-Colonist columnist Vivian Smith was, in some ways, just juicy gossip to media insiders. But its significance echoes through every news story.

As reported blow-by-blow in 24 Hours journalist Sean Holman’s blog “Public Eye“, Smith penned a column criticizing the high cost of many local Victoria, BC tourist attractions. T-C publisher Bob McKenzie subsequently met with irate tourism representatives who spend many advertising dollars in the daily, and immediately fired Smith without explanation. T-C freelancers Janis Ringuette and University of Victoria writing prof Lynne van Luven quit in protest, and the Canadian Association of Journalists started probing. CanWest Global execs stepped in, reassuring everyone they “vigilantly” protect “unencumbered” journalism in their empire. McKenzie then assured his staff that “we do not allow advertisers to influence the content of this newspaper”, and admitted his “error in judgment“.

Fans of honest, independent journalism might find reassurance in Smith’s re-hiring; an unusual situation resolved appropriately.

Unfortunately, what truly makes this unusual is not reassuring: Unlike most similar situations, this battle was stacked in the writer’s favour. Continue reading “When Money-making Meets News-making” »

What Was that Minister Thinking?

alienabduction3.jpgHas anyone else noticed that news reporters, more and more often, stop short of asking prominent people the obvious follow-up questions any reasonable person would ordinarily ask?

Examples abound, but one recent BC news story was especially frustrating, because the issue affected local journalists-making it all the more striking they never asked the obvious questions.

First, a recap.

In April, the Liberals introduced radical changes to BC’s freedom of information laws. They held no discussion of innocuously named Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act (No. 2), simply slipping the FOI revamping in amongst clarifications to clerical procedures under Land Title Act section 168.722 and grammar corrections to the Utilities Commission Act.

Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis poured his fury into a 4-page public letter (a letter since removed from the web, but Google thankfully made a rudimentary copy), protesting the amendments could drop an iron curtain of secrecy over the expanding public-private service sector. Other experts and opinion writers concurred, firing barrages of condemnation. Most suspected the government was surreptitiously and fascistically moving to prevent us from hearing any more about Maximus-MSP performance-target boondoggles, deadly forestry deregulation, or Olympics “not-really-the-Olympics-budget” budget over-runs.

For the government, Labour and Citizens Services Minister Michael de Jong repeatedly countered that the amendments, in fact, did the exact opposite.

Continue reading “What Was that Minister Thinking?” »