The “Internet of Things” and the End of Anonymity

The revelation of the extent of NSA spying shocked most people.  My representative Mike Fitzpatrick has been great at trying to regain control over the NSA and reassert our Fourth Amendment rights.  Keep it up.  But I’m leaning towards being more worried about Google and other corporations than I am the NSA.  Bud didn’t Google come out against the NSA’s spying and start encrypting all of its email?  Sure, but Google’s problem with the NSA wasn’t that it has destroyed anonymity and violated our rights, it’s that the NSA doesn’t do so in an open and transparent manner.  Google wants to know everything it can about everyone and everything.  It wants to be able to commodify that information about you and make tons of money.

Here‘s a good article from Catherine Crump and Matthew Harwood of the ACLU.  It’s about the “internet of things,” the push by business to connect everything to the internet so that they collect data on us, and then sell that data to enable other people to make more money off of us.  And what happens when all of that data is collected out there?  Besides the sense of violation and the annoyance of constant targeted marketing, this raises a concern about who will access this data and what all they could do with it.

As much as I support Fitzpatrick’s efforts to use the law to restrict the ability of the NSA to spy on us, I suspect that such efforts are doomed to failure.  Afterall, the NSA already broke the law by engaging in mass spying on us.  President Obama is wrong that they were authorized by the PATRIOT Act to do what they did.  The clause they rely on says that the government can collect only that data which is related to an investigation.  Why should we expect them to respect new laws?

On the other hand, I would like to see legislation that limits the ability of companies to collect data on us.  At the very least, we should be able to see the data their collecting, just like we get to see our credit scores.  But again, I’m skeptical about the effects of any laws.  We all saw the banks repeatedly violate the law before, during, and after the economic crisis.  We also saw almost all of them get away with it.  The government does not prosecute them.  Why should we expect the government to enforce laws protecting us from corporate spying?

The very existence of particular technologies creates certain possibilities and eliminates others.  With this insight, political scientist Richard Sclove speaks of technology as a form of legislation.  It is not neutral.  We’re not clearly in control of technology.  The very existence of the internet and various technologies that companies and the government use to monitor us effectively ensures that we will be monitored.  I doubt that paper laws will protect us.

The only way to protect our anonymity and rights is to dismantle the technology that makes violations possible.  This is why I like the effort in Utah to cut off the water supply to the main NSA center where the spying occurs – not that I think the government will allow this to happen.

But what about just opting out of using Facebook, Gmail, etc. and protecting your internet use through encryption and other tools?  One of the interesting insights of Crump and Harwood’s article is that opting out itself creates data about you.  One of the things companies do with all of this data is to create a profile of you that they can then use to predict your consumer behavior.  Opting out says something about you.  What does it say to the NSA?  That you’re not a good consumer and that you’re distrustful of the state.  Even opting out makes you an object of surveillance.

I would be perfectly content to see the collapse of the internet.  But, wait, aren’t I using it now?  Yes, of course.  Critics of technology are often criticized for continuing to participate in the technological systems they critique.  There’s not much other choice.  Industrialization, and each new phase of it, produce a new set of infrastructures and drives out old ones.  Unless you have tons of resources, probably drawn from those technological systems, you can’t just drop out.  You’re stuck in it.  So we use them as best we can while trying to create a shift.

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