Tonight, Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners program aired a terrific special, “Privacy Lost” written and produced by Martin Smith from the US public broadcaster PBS’s Frontline program.
Here we have a compelling demonstration of the importance and primacy of Collection Limitation for protecting our privacy.
UPDATE: The program we saw in Australia turns out to be a condensed version of PBS’s two part The United States of Secrets from May 2014.
About the program
Martin Smith summarises brilliantly what we know about the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, thanks to the revelations of Ed Snowden, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman; he holds many additional interviews with Julia Angwin (author of “Dragnet Nation”), Chris Hoofnagle (UC Berkeley), Steven Levy (Wired), Christopher Soghoian (ACLU) and Tim Wu (“The Master Switch”), to name a few. Even if you’re thoroughly familiar with the Snowden story, I highly recommend “Privacy Lost” or the original “United States of Secrets” (which unlike the Four Corners edition can be streamed online).
The program is a ripping re-telling of Snowden’s expose, against the backdrop of George W. Bush’s PATRIOT Act and the mounting suspicions through the noughties of NSA over-reach. There are freshly told accounts of the intrigues, of secret optic fibre splitters installed very early on in AT&T’s facilities, scandals over National Security Letters, and the very rare case of the web hosting company Calyx who challenged their constitutionality (and yet today, with the letter withdrawn, remains unable to tell us what the FBI was seeking). The real theme of Smith’s take on surveillance then emerges, when he looks at the rise of data-driven businesses — first with search, then advertising, and most recently social networking — and the “data wars” between Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
In my view, the interplay between government surveillance and digital businesses is the most important part of the Snowden epic, and it receives the proper emphasis here. The depth and breadth of surveillance conducted by the private sector, and the insights revealed about what people might be up to creates irresistible opportunities for the intelligence agencies. Hoofnagle tells us how the FBI loves Facebook. And we see the discovery of how the NSA exploits the tracking that’s done by the ad companies, most notably Google’s “PREF” cookie.
One of the peak moments in “Privacy Lost” comes when Gellman and his specialist colleague Ashkan Soltani present their evidence about the PREF cookie to Google – offering an opportunity for the company to comment before the story is to break in the Washington Post. The article ran on December 13, 2013; we’re told it was then the true depth of the privacy problem was revealed.
My point of view
Smith takes as a given that excessive intrusion into private affairs is wrong, without getting into the technical aspects of privacy (such as frameworks for data protection, and various Privacy Principles). Neither does he unpack the actual privacy harms. And that’s fine — a TV program is not the right place to canvass such technical arguments.
When Gellman and Soltani reveal that the NSA is using Google’s tracking cookie, the government gets joined irrefutably to the private sector in a mass surveillance apparatus. And yet I am not sure the harm is dramatically worse when the government knows what Facebook and Google already know.
Privacy harms are tricky to work out. Yet obviously no harm can come from abusing Personal Information if that information is not collected in the first place! I take away from “Privacy Lost” a clear impression of the risks created by the data wars. We are imperiled by the voracious appetite of digital businesses that hang on indefinitely to masses of data about us, while they figure out ever cleverer ways to make money out of it. This is why Collection Limitation is the first and foremost privacy protection. If a business or government doesn’t have a sound and transparent reason for having Personal Information about us, then they should not have it. It’s as simple as that.
Martin Smith has highlighted the symbiosis between government and private sector surveillance. The data wars not only made dozens of billionaires but they did much of the heavy lifting for the NSA. And this situation is about to get radically more fraught. On the brink of the Internet of Things, we need to question if we want to keep drowning in data.