Big brother monitors just about everything we do

Yes, he's watching and keeping a file.

Yes, he’s watching and keeping a file.

With every phone call they make and every Web excursion they take, people are leaving a digital trail of revealing data that can be tracked by profit-seeking companies and terrorist-hunting government officials.

The revelations that the National Security Agency is perusing millions of U.S. customer phone records at Verizon Communications and snooping on the digital communications stored by nine major Internet services illustrate how aggressively personal data is being collected and analyzed.

Verizon is handing over so-called metadata, excerpts from millions of U.S. customer records, to the NSA under an order issued by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian. The report was confirmed Thursday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Former NSA employee William Binney told the Associated Press that he estimates the agency collects records on 3 billion phone calls each day.

The NSA and FBI appear to be casting an even wider net under a clandestine program code-named “PRISM” that came to light in a story posted late Thursday by The Washington Post. PRISM gives the U.S. government access to email, documents, audio, video, photographs and other data that people entrust to some of the world’s best known companies, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper said it reviewed a confidential roster of companies and services participating in PRISM. The companies included AOL Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Skype, YouTube and Paltalk.

In statements, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo said they only provide the government with user data required under the law. (Google runs YouTube and Microsoft owns Skype.) AOL and Paltalk didn’t immediately respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.

The NSA isn’t getting customer names or the content of phone conversations under the Verizon court order, but that doesn’t mean the information can’t be tied to other data coming in through the PRISM program to look into people’s lives, according to experts.

Like pieces of a puzzle, the bits and bytes left behind from citizens’ electronic interactions can be cobbled together to draw conclusions about their habits, friendships and preferences using data-mining formulas and increasingly powerful computers.

It’s all part of a phenomenon known as a “Big Data,” a catchphrase increasingly used to describe the science of analyzing the vast amount of information collected through mobile devices, Web browsers and check-out stands. Analysts use powerful computers to detect trends and create digital dossiers about people.

The Obama administration and lawmakers privy to the NSA’s surveillance aren’t saying anything about the collection of the Verizon customers’ records beyond that it’s in the interest of national security. The sweeping court order covers the Verizon records of every mobile and landline phone call from April 25 through July 19, according to The Guardian.

It’s likely the Verizon phone records are being matched with an even broader set of data, said Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo.

“My sense is they are looking for network patterns,” she said. “They are looking for who is connected to whom and whether they can put any timelines together. They are also probably trying to identify locations where people are calling from.”

Under the court order, the Verizon records include the duration of every call and the locations of mobile calls, according to The Guardian.

The location information is particularly valuable for cloak-and-dagger operations like the one the NSA is running, said Cindy Cohn, a legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that has been fighting the government’s collection of personal phone records since 2006. The foundation is currently suing over the government’s collection of U.S. citizens’ communications in a case that dates back to the administration of President George W. Bush.

“It’s incredibly invasive,” Cohn said. “This is a consequence of the fact that we have so many third parties that have accumulated significant information about our everyday lives.”

It’s such a rich vein of information that U.S. companies and other organizations now spend more than $2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research. The data helps businesses target potential customers. Much of this information is sold by so-called data brokers such as Acxiom Corp., a Little Rock, Ark. company that maintains extensive files about the online and offline activities of more than 500 million consumers worldwide.

The digital floodgates have opened during the past decade as the convenience and allure of the Internet —and sleek smartphones— have made it easier and more enjoyable for people to stay connected wherever they go.

“I don’t think there has been a sea change in analytical methods as much as there has been a change in the volume, velocity and variety of information and the computing power to process it all,” said Gartner analyst Douglas Laney.

In a sign of the NSA’s determination to vacuum up as much data as possible, the agency has built a data center in Bluffdale, Utah that is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol —all to sift through Big Data. The $2 billion center has fed perceptions that some factions of the U.S. government are determined to build a database of all phone calls, Internet searches and emails under the guise of national security. The Washington Post’s disclosure that both the NSA and FBI have the ability to burrow into computers of major Internet services will likely heighten fears that U.S. government’s Big Data is creating something akin to the ever-watchful Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984″ novel.

“The fact that the government can tell all the phone carriers and Internet service providers to hand over all this data sort of gives them carte blanche to build profiles of people they are targeting in a very different way than any company can,” Khatibloo said.

In most instances, Internet companies such as Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Yahoo Inc. are taking what they learn from search requests, clicks on “like” buttons, Web surfing activity and location tracking on mobile devices to figure out what each of their users like and divine where they are. It’s all in aid of showing users ads about products likely to pique their interest at the right time. The companies defend this kind of data mining as a consumer benefit.

Google is trying to take things a step further. It is honing its data analysis and search formulas in an attempt to anticipate what an individual might be wondering about or wanting.

Other Internet companies also use Big Data to improve their services. Video subscription service Netflix takes what it learns from each viewer’s preferences to recommend movies and TV shows. Amazon.com Inc. does something similar when it highlights specific products to different shoppers visiting its site.

The federal government has the potential to know even more about people because it controls the world’s biggest data bank, said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who recently stepped down as the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection director.

Before leaving the FTC last year, Vladeck opened an inquiry into the practices of Acxiom and other data brokers because he feared that information was being misinterpreted in ways that unfairly stereotyped people. For instance, someone might be classified as a potential health risk just because they bought products linked to an increased chance of heart attack. The FTC inquiry into data brokers is still open.

“We had real concerns about the reliability of the data and unfair treatment by algorithm,” Vladeck said.

Vladeck stressed he had no reason to believe that the NSA is misinterpreting the data it collects about private citizens. He finds some comfort in The Guardian report that said the Verizon order had been signed by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Ronald Vinson.

The NSA “differs from a commercial enterprise in the sense that there are checks in the judicial system and in Congress,” Vladeck said. “If you believe in the way our government is supposed to work, then you should have some faith that those checks are meaningful. If you are skeptical about government, then you probably don’t think that kind of oversight means anything.”
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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9 Responses to "Big brother monitors just about everything we do"

  1. larry  June 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Shock just shocked that people are shocked.

    And the truth be told, we haven’t even hit our stride with big data analysis.

    It’s worth noting that this sword swings both ways. You can see this with groups like anon and others. As the technology that is used to do this analysis becomes consumable by the general public.
    This truly scares the NSA.

    It can and will be used to do analysis on the government, corporation and others.

    The problem for everyone in not possible to stop this trend- it’s very hard to high information in todays’ world.

    The only solution that I have see proposed that might work – is to encrypt everything. That brings up it’s own problem.

    • Jon  June 8, 2013 at 9:06 am

      I have another solution, and I’ve even written a little csh script to implement it (although it doesn’t entirely work);

      Email totally random data once or twice a day to three or four people you know.

      Swamp the system with garbage.

      J.

  2. woody188  June 7, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    If FISA was created to keep the Executive from casting broad nets and spying on US citizens without probable cause, is it safe to assume that FISA has failed in it’s stated goal as they are casting broad nets and spying on US citizens without probable cause?

  3. Keith  June 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Clearly, if anyone thinks that all this NSA snooping is OK if a person has nothing to hide, then they need to think again.

    Does anyone remember when Ted Kennedy was put on the US Government’s “no fly” list?

    And then there’s at least one supposedly “secret” NSA case (I’m sure there are others that have never seen the light of day) where a single wrong digit in a telephone number resulted in REAMS of private information being gathered on a totally innocent American. It finally took a court order before the NSA would destroy it.

    Unfortunately, that’s the principal problem with “Big Brother” casting such wide nets. This nonsense is all being run by gormless bureaucrats feeding their garbage into faceless computers and who could absolutely care less what their garbage does to people.

    In some cases, their errors have inflicted life-long damage to the reputations of absolutely innocent American citizens who just happened to erroneously get caught up in their web of snooping.

    Welcome to the United Police State of America.

    It’s times like these that I’m glad I now live in Canada…the TRUE land of the free (and cherished home of the decidedly UN-paranoid.)

    • Jon  June 8, 2013 at 8:59 am

      “This whole Buttle / Tuttle confusion evidently came from inside.”

      From Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”, a film that should be required watching in elementary schools worldwide.

      J.

  4. Carl Nemo **==  June 7, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    What’s ludicrous about all this intense data mining is that it seemingly doesn’t produce any useful product when it comes to interdicting terrorist or violent activity leading to mass destruction of infrastructure and personnel such as the recent Boston Marathon bombing.

    The Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are a prime example. No doubt they used cell phones as well as land lines. Our intel services received a warning from the FSB (Russian equivalent of our FBI) about these guys. They were interviewed and passed over as a potential threat…say what?! /:|

    So too investigations concerning pre-911 intel indicated our FBI and other agencies were aware of an impending strike against the U.S. Both German and Saudi intel warned us of the dangers, but everso conveniently the reigning ‘Bushistas’ and agencies under their control made no effort to do anything. Research into this major intel failure was conveniently swept under the rug with the post 911 hearings. The end result being the implementation of the “Patriot Act” along with the creation of a lame, behemoth org known as “Homeland Security” along with its sub agenciesa, all bleeding U.S. tax debtors white with little demonstrated beneficial results for their very existence.

    The ‘war on terror’ is not about such, but it’s moreso a ‘war on freedom’ for all time and places with the terrorists simply being ‘useful fools’ for the implementation of a worldwide “Orwellian” styled police state; aka ‘plantation planet’.

    Carl Nemo **==

    • Jon  June 8, 2013 at 9:10 am

      I quote, “What’s ludicrous about all this intense data mining is that it seemingly doesn’t produce any useful product”

      Actually, that is *exactly* the point. The contractors are making fortunes and they don’t even have to provide anything that works…

      As a contractor, I’d love a gig like that, especially at milspec rates.

      J.

  5. Pondering_It_All  June 8, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    And how would you know it has produced no useful data? Does the NSA personally brief you on every actionable item they find?

    I suspect they HAVE found all sorts of useful info, and that has resulted in several terrorist plots thwarted in the last 12 years. They are not building hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure for nothing!

    Have you seen any airplanes flying into skyscrapers since 9/11?

  6. Carl Nemo **==  June 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Hi Pondering_It_All

    “Have you seen any airplanes flying into skyscrapers since 9/11?” …extract from post

    No, but we’ve just witnessed the Boston Marathon tragedy. Granted it didn’t have the magnitude of 911 with direct connections to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, but the plot still slipped through intel ‘cracks’. The Russian FSB warned our enforcement entities about the Chechen brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but so too they fell through our highly expensive ‘war on terror’ apparatus. Supposedly either one or both were interviewed by the FBI, but seemingly passed ‘muster’. Talk about being laid back, lax or what when it comes to screening potential malcontents with deadly intent. If they ended up on the FSB’s radar, then rest asssured they represented a threat.

    Granted some plots may have been interdicted and stopped, but at what cost to our core freedoms?

    Are we any better off today as a nation than we were prior to 911 in terms of Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms? Americans now fear their government bigtime. Is that what the founders wanted for our future as a nation. I think not!

    We’re spending hundreds of billions on warfare/welfare for the MIC fighting an endless ‘war on terror’; I.E., a war against a ‘noun’. There’s no national front to make parley with any hope for the cessation of such hostilities. The same for the ‘war on drugs’. Seemingly all U.S. tax debtors have gotten in return is the relentless growth and maintenance of a police state along with an uber expensive monitoring apparatus.

    Terrorists are criminal malcontents; I.E., ‘thugs’ having deadly intent of wreaking havoc on anyone who does not embrace their flawed ideological constructs. It’s simple as that, but they do not necessarily represent a national front that can be bargained with in order to reach a truce or peace accord. That’s why the ‘war on terror’ will bleed this nation white until we become a footnote of history. We’re on the fast track to becoming such. Believe it! : |

    *****

    “Those who would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.”…Benjamin Franklin

    *****

    Carl Nemo **==

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