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.”

A Victoria Made in China

China has become a major local issue. This hit me when shopping for running shoes. I checked store after store, brand after brand, model after model. In stores with dozens of types, I typically found-maybe-one model made outside China.

It’s enlightening the responses you’ll get when you politely request a product that was not manufactured under a fascist regime.

“What’s a fashion reg… What?” responded one young woman.

Ask for Bin Laden toilet paper or glow-in-the-dark gum, and they’ll consult computerized catalogues and promise it within days. But ask for something guaranteed not to have been made by child slaves, and you’ll get a blank, annoyed stare or helpless shrug.

Worse, you’ll get a sympathetic moan-from the head purchaser. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is these days.”

Canada’s importing ten times more from China than just over a decade ago, surpassing $29 billion yearly and making China our second biggest trading partner. In many Victoria stores, Chinese products make up 100% of most lines of sporting goods, electronics, clothes and more.

Managers blame you and me. “Our hands are tied,” explained one. “Our customers want things cheap.”

So if I’d walked in 70 years earlier distributing gold fillings from Holocaust victims, would they have simply said, “Gee… Are they cheap?”

“And there’ll be plenty more!” Continue reading “A Victoria Made in China” »

The Telus Commitment to Disservice

It’s petty. It’s a story of my own battle over a little thing with a 10 billion dollar corporation, filled with inane digressions and ridiculous amounts of wasted time.

Yet I want to scream about it. And I’m starting to realize it’s emblematic of an emerging trend.

It began last April, when I moved in with someone. I contacted BC’s only land line phone company Telus to close my own account, and requested two services: My name, with my room-mate’s number, added to directory listings. And a message on my old phone line saying “this number has been changed to…”

The Telus rep said we’d have to pay a monthly rate for the “extra listing”. It was a rip-off ($1.75 per month to have your name added to a list?), but as a full-time freelancer, I need to be accessible.

However, he said, putting a message on my old line redirecting people to my new number was impossible.

But I got such a message the last time I moved, I said.

He explained that moving my phone account was “different” than closing my account and paying to be listed on someone else’s. What this primordial, elemental difference was, he couldn’t convey, but no amount of money could bridge the gap. Indeed, the CRTC had banned it, he said. (The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission is responsible for regulating the telecommunications industry in Canada.)

Incredulous, I asked, “There’s a government regulation forbidding Telus from putting a message like that on my old phone line?” Continue reading “The Telus Commitment to Disservice” »

New Me: Climate Change Denier

We shouldn’t worry about climate change. Climate scientists taught me that. Them, and the ugly freight train I suddenly see barrelling down on me.

I first glimpsed it in December. I felt a Zeitgeist shift, like the continent-wide peace of Christmas Eve, except hellish, with wacky weather headlining everywhere.

Then, energy company CEOs called for emissions caps, George Bush mentioned climate change respectfully, and Canada’s Conservative environment minister claimed to “get” science. Where I live, University of Victoria lecture halls were overflowing for climate change talks by IPCC report co-author and ocean-atmospheric scientist Andrew Weaver, engineering professor Ned Djilali, and political-environmental theorist Kara Shaw. Soon, I noticed other journalists commenting on the Zeitgeist shift, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report splashed down.

We could all sense it now: People care. Action is nigh. “Thank goodness they’re getting it,” declared the internationally-sought interviewee Weaver to the daily Victoria Times-Colonist.

That’s when I realized we were really in trouble. Continue reading “New Me: Climate Change Denier” »

Bumpkins Dismiss Conspiracy Theories

Beware the spoon-feeders of anti-conspiracy pap. You know who I mean. Like several local Victoria writers who suggested that if you suspect corporations may influence U.S. policy in Iraq, Princess Diana’s accident was not accidental, or certain leaders may have been complicit in 9/11, then you “forgot [your] medication” and evidently need far-fetched conspiracy theories as “comfort food” to help you “cope”.

Anti-conspiracists relentlessly attack conspiracy theories, yet their reasonings often have nothing to do with facts or proof. In their minds, for example, the suggestion that companies, regulators, doctors, scientists and thousands of victims have been involved in a global cover-up of a drug’s dangerous side effects is so improbable it not only doesn’t merit serious investigation, it’s laughable.

And that’s dangerous.

Continue reading “Bumpkins Dismiss Conspiracy Theories” »