Monday, 24 February 2014

Book launch today for Julia Angwin's "Dragnet Nation"

Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author Julia Angwin, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now with the non-profit investigative journalism organization ProPublica, is speaking today on NPR's Fresh Air and at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU about her new book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.

I've been reading an advance proof Dragnet Nation, and I recommend it highly. You can read an excerpt here. The official publication date is today, but it's already in a second (hardcover) printing based on pre-orders.

As it happens, I met Ms. Angwin when she came to a talk I gave at the same venue, the Brennan Center, in 2012. We'd been corresponding before that by e-mail. Later, as Ms. Angwin describes in her book, I helped her decipher the redacted file of records about her travels that she obtained from the DHS, as part of her "threat assessment" and audit of the ways that she was being tracked and her activities recorded by governments and corporations.

Everyone who has obtained their travel files from the DHS and asked me to review them has been creeped out by something I pointed out in the DHS records about them. Ms. Angwin was no exception. From the description in her book, it seems like her travel files from DHS were some of the more disturbing records about her activities that she was able to obtain.

It wasn't just the intimacy of the details in the DHS files (cellphone number, what size bed was requested for her in a hotel room on a business trip, etc.) but the bleeding through and commingling of information from conceptually compartmentalized aspects of her life, crossing implicit boundaries. Is this what's meant by, "connecting the dots"?

Information provided to or obtained by an airline or travel agency for commercial purposes showed up in its entirety in permanent government files. The same records that contained details of a personal trip with her children (dates of birth, passport numbers, etc.) to visit her husband's family also contained information about the purpose of a reporting trip that she had provided -- in confidence, she thought -- to her editors at the Wall Street Journal.

(The Journal's lawyers had been unaware that this was happening -- although they shouldn't have been -- and at least temporarily suspended travel by their reporters on a certain airline, presumably one of those hosted in the same CRS/GDS system as was being used by the Journal's corporate travel agency. Ms. Angwin describes it as a "technical glitch", but it's partly a result of travel agency procedures and partly an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of giving DHS root access to the CRS/GDS systems used by both travel agencies and airlines.)

In the second half of "Dragnet Nation", Ms. Angwin tries to find out whether, to what extent, and with what difficulties and drawbacks it is possible to "opt out" of being tracked. She explores both technical measures for self-protection (e.g. e-mail encryption) and opt-out polices (e.g. asking data brokers to be removed from the databases they sell or rent).

She's honest about her lack of success, and realistic about the compromises she has to make: If I send out the invitations in code, will anyone decode them and come to my party? (No.) How much longer will it take me to search for a nearby restaurant on my smartphone, if I haven't set it always to tell Google or Apple where I am? (Not much longer for each search, but multiplied by the number of geographic searches a busy person performs each day, a lot.) Am I willing to run my own e-mail server, or download my e-mail with a desktop client and store it locally even if that means I can't access it anywhere, from "the cloud", on any device? How much additional personal information am I willing to give a data mining company in exchange for its promise to stop selling or renting the information it has already collected about me?

Any why should the burden of privacy protection all fall on the people who want to opt out of being tracked?

Ms. Angwin's pragmatism about the costs and ultimate futility of an arms race between privacy invasion and privacy protection technology sets this book above most treatises on technical counter-measures as the final solution to privacy self-defense.

Ultimately, Ms. Angwin suggests that in a society that wants to make decisions democratically, privacy has to addressed as a political rather than a technical issue.

If this book sensitizes readers to the extent and significance of pervasive tracking, and gets us past, "Just opt out", and "Just encrypt everything", to a real debate about privacy and surveillance as political questions, it will have provided a valuable service.

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 24 February 2014, 06:26 ( 6:26 AM) | TrackBack (0)
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