NSA Vacuuming, Meta Data, Mistaken Misleading Metaphors

NSA’s gathering of Meta Data Compared to Corporate Use of Information

In the current discussions of the government’s wholesale seizure of the meta data of our personal digital lives there is regular comparison to the acquisition and use of information about our digital lives by corporations. At the moment corporate use of individual information results in targeted advertising and increasingly location aware targeted advertising through our smart phones. The implicit, sometimes explicit, notion is that we mare so used to corporations gathering information that the NSA is just another corporation, nothing but just a bit more of the same old.

Comparisons Between Corporate Data Gathering and the Government Vacuum Cleaner Are Wrong Headed and Misleading

Google-clear-history settings paneFirst, if you don’t want to allow corporations to gather this information you can turn most of it off by using the privacy features available to you. I use the Google Chrome browser and at this very moment I can go to “Settings” and erase all history “from the beginning of time” (of course that is from the beginning of the existence of my account on Google, not some more expansive sense of time). Similarly I can set the browser to not allow cookies (these are the bits of code that gather information to report my activities) thus ending data collection on websites I visit.

Does the NSA offer any settings on their website where I can do that to my meta data?

Second, the scope of data that any corporation can gather about my online personal activities is limited. Only by demographic inference can they connect my activities to anyone else. As far as we know no corporation is collecting information about my social relations excepting of course the social sites like Facebook, Google+, and the like. Again, in distinction from the NSA I can control what these organizations do by using the privacy controls or simply not participating.

I can envision living without Facebook, but the telephone is so integrated into every aspect of life that voluntarily forgoing this device to avoid the NSA vacuum cleaner is not a practical method of maintaining one’s privacy or even leading a normal life.

How Meta Data in the Hands of NSA Works

James_R._Clapper_Director of National IntelligenceThird, this brings us to how the meta data collected by the NSA has completely different implications for a sense of privacy, a sense that our private lives, digital and otherwise, are no business of any government without a clear, particular cause for the intrusion (this is what the 4th Amendment is about). The meta data collected by the NSA, our telephone, email, and I really don’t doubt our financial transactions,1 create a temporal spatial social map of our lives.2 All of the people we interact with are there. All of the locations in which we lead our lives are there. And all of this laid out on a timeline, moment by moment. As I (and others) have pointed out earlier, our telephone numbers are more closely associated with us by far than our names. The distance between 617-312-8550 and me is negligible and has been so for more than a decade. Google Mark Orton to find out my name is not so uncommon.

Through my social security number, which the government has, every single financial transaction I have made that is digital, and just how much do we use cash anymore, is visible to the government. To speak of these relationships as merely anonymous meta data can only be described with the proverbial barnyard epithet. It is outrageous that Obama speaks of this in this fashion. How this supposed constitutional scholar can characterize his policies in this fashion renders his judgement to be seriously doubted.

No Corporation Can put You in Jail

No corporation, or even cabal of corporations, has the capacity to gather data on all Americans with such enormous scope and scale. To be speak of corporate data gathering to target commercials in the same breath with the NSA vacuum cleaner is either to be an apologist for Obama’s policies or a fool, in the longer term, both.

Finally, no corporation can subpoena me, bring me up before a grand jury, or simply declare me to be an enemy combatant, and send me to jail or bankrupt me through endless legal wranglings. You may say that this couldn’t happen. Then who would think that we have a government that secretly kills people by remote control, including American citizens, simply because the happen to live in places we don’t like and exhibit behaviours that fit some profile of bad people behaviours. All of this in the name of national defense, national security, anti-terrorism.

  1. some will complain that I am overreaching with this assertion. But frankly, between the layers of secrecy that now obscure so much of what our government does and the out and out lying by government officials, I think we should assume that everything digital about our lives is being scooped up. As recently as March 12, 2013, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, answering a question in Senate testimony said in response to Senator Wyden’s question “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” He responded, “No, sir.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_R._Clapper []
  2. I did not dream up this analysis. Watch the NYTimes video “The Program” – listen about 2 minutes in to William Binney, a man with decades of experience at NSA, describe how this works. []