By Published On: June 1st, 20076 Comments

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.




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.”


  1. Bev Honold December 18, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Vale interessant my ami.

    again thanks for the ACT workout in focus a while back.


  2. Lois Sampson February 5, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    This article does an excellent job of identifying the general trends and concerns attending our rapid shift to a watched society. It lays a very good foundation for understanding for the implications of the next wave of intrusive technology: your every movement is now being tracked but you may not even know it.

    Last night (February 4, 2009) I watched Peter Mansbridge on the CBC National news tell the viewers about this “nifty” new feature on Google. He was just tickled about it. “It” is the ability to track the movement of individual people in real time, so that, you know, parents could know where their children were, and so on. And he said that if you didn’t want the feature to track you, all you had to do was turn it off. Not exactly true.

    Here’s why. In the fall of 2003, I received a special letter from HSBC. I had gotten a term deposit with them six months earlier. This letter was being sent to all Canadian customers of HSBC. It was a formal letter with a demand that customers had to declare whether they were earning US income, answer yes or no, then sign and return the document within TWO WEEKS (that was shown in large, black bold letters). It noted that this was a requirement of the US Patriot Act. Very official, very scary.

    But then I came upon an even more chilling thing. The letter said that HSBC had also included a new customer agreement in the same mailing, implying it was just for convenience. The letter stated that by signing this US income declaration statement (which everyone was told they had to do even if you never had any US income in their life), they would also be agreeing to the customer agreement contract. They implied it was just a convenience.

    However, when I read through the fine print on the very lengthy customer agreement, I was astonished to see what HSBC’s definition of personal information included. By merely signing that letter, I would have agreed to HSBC collecting personal information such as “psychological profiles,” that I would have given them permission to “monitor my movements” and so forth. The list of data and means of collection went on and on and on. I was horrified that I’d be agreeing to someone stalking me and reporting on my movements (i.e. wherever I physically went).

    I called HSBC’s special 800 number for this mail-out to inquire about several words that I’d encountered in this customer agreement which I did not know, and for which I could find no reference in my full-size Oxford dictionary. No staff person knew what the words meant either, and although they said a supervisor would get back to me, no one ever did.

    So I simply refused to sign and return any of the material. However, I’m sure that many, many people (especially seniors who are so inclined to do jump when doctors or anyone in authority tells them to) would have just leapt into action and dutifully signed and returned that document. Or busy people of any age similarly would have just done signed it and sent it back without giving a second thought.

    I was surprised that HSBC had to comply with the Patriot Act because I believed them to be headquartered in London, England, and I deliberately try not to do any financial business with US firms (seems prescient now). However I believe that because HSBC (Canada)’s parent company is headquartered in the US, the Patriot Act applies to all of their Canadian customers too. And as such, I would never be able to find out whether they gathered data on me, with or without my permission, because the Patriot Act protects companies and the government from that oversight. In fact, they won’t even confirm whether they collect data on you or not, that’s that Patriot Act for ya.

    The only other thing I did do was pull my money out of HSBC the moment the term deposit came due, and I’ll never bank there again. People with US based credit cards should be similarly concerned that they’ve inadvertently signed away permission for their personal information to be legally pillaged.

    So, the bottom line is, don’t believe what Peter Mansbridge or any news anchor tells you about Google’s “nifty” new feature. Those companies and individuals that wish to, already have the tools, and likely your permission, to track your every step of every day. And many, many (governements, companies and individuals) will wish to do so.

  3. Rob Wipond February 5, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks a lot for your story, Lois. I saw that same ridiculous CBC (and CTV) coverage. And you’re absolutely right, this feature cannot be simply “turned off” in the way they describe. You’re right to point out many of us have probably signed away the right, but the reality is, you don’t have to have signed away the right to privacy. What those stories fail to clarify is that what’s really going on here is that the tracking technology has been being built into all new cell phones, blackberries etc, and it actually CANNOT BE TURNED OFF. If your cell phone is able to connect to a cell phone tower, that tower is now able to help locate you.

    Google is simply giving you limited options to control who SEES on Google the information that’s being tracked and recorded. This is about as meaningful as your privacy settings on Facebook; yes, I can block a non-“friend” from accesssing certain things on my profile, but absolutely everything I do on Facebook is still recorded by Facebook and compiled, used and re-sold by Facebook, and is available to gov’t authorities.

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU recently filed suit to try to find out more about what’s going on secretly around cell phone tracking:

    EFF, by the way, is a great source of information on these topics.

  4. Roland February 25, 2009 at 5:51 am

    Thanks for mentioning AT&T’s collaboration with the US government, but honestly that’s hardly anything new, just check out AT&T’s relationship with the Pentagon. AT&T effectively IS the Pentagon’s military telephone network. Once, before WW2, people resisted installing the new-fangled telephone in their homes. Now, a telephone is provided on welfare as a necessity, both for the user and, presumably, for the telephone company. People have little understanding of the digital revolution. They function as consumers of games, cell-phones, etc, but don’t grasp what is going on behind the scenes. They don’t even understand how digitisation sent banking insane. Really, whom have you met who realises that digitised dollars lie behind the economic catastrophe? When people are so ignorant, who can possibly explain to them, for example, that the distress phone calls on 9/11 were faked? They would just be incredulous and probably would laugh as you were crucified. But the fact is that faking such calls is really quite elementary, just as faking an NDP announcement was during the 2008 General Election in the Saanich G.I. riding. (No crime committed there, BTW, Elections Canada has informed us in writing.) The spooks are in heaven in this digitised environment, faking photos, faking videos, faking TV, faking movies, faking phone calls, the list goes on and on. I think it’s much worse than you portray, but I’m still happy to be alive!

  5. 4q2 July 14, 2011 at 12:34 am

    i think the only time you will have to worry about internet security is if you are doing something wrong. there is no way any organisation including the super powers has the manpower to monitor every person using the internet. so that means they have to prioritize on the minority of the population that are of interest to them. which means the majority of us have nothing to worry about.

  6. Rob Wipond July 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    4q2: It’s technically very simple, actually, and it’s already going on to a degree in the U.S and there’s legislation to enact something similar in Canada.

    All you have to do is legally require internet service providers to keep their records of every email every one of their customers sends and receives and every place they go on the internet. Then, when law enforcement or someone else wants that information on a particular person, they just tell the ISP to hand it over. And then it’s extremely easy to electronically search that information for the types of details you might be interested in finding.

    It’s also easy, say, to keep records of everyone who visits site X or sends emails to person Y, and then put those people on the list of people you’re going to monitor more closely.

    Essentially, the internet makes tracking many more people than ever before, much more closely than ever before, exponentially easier and cheaper than it’s ever been before. And that information is being bought and sold and passed around ever more frequently… So soon even a low level bureaucrat in a local gov’t agency or corporation will be able to easily pull up a vast database of information about you that was simply automatically created and waiting there until you came into the office to ask or complain about something…

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