Yesterday I fell for an April Fools’ joke for the first time (that I can remember, at least).
A blog post, ostensibly from Georgia Tech, announced a new program to award credit to students who use their smartphones while logged on to the campus Wi-Fi system. “Every website visit, post, tweet, photo, and yes, even yaks are available and tied to a user,” it said. “Grades are assigned using machine learning that has been trained to recognize intellectually valid content. The student receives a monthly report of their progress. The more they use the Internet, the faster they graduate.”
At first I thought, “So much for digital privacy on campus.” When I realized I’d been had, I chuckled, seeing my bamboozlement as a by-product of age.
But I soon realized that my gullibility wasn’t funny at all. Instead, it’s grim proof that nothing about our digital world, no matter how outrageous, seems unusual anymore. Every day reveals a new abuse of digital privacy, each more insane than the last.
In fact, one of the biggest privacy outrages in a long while is about to pass through our supposedly “hopelessly divided” Congress…
Most of us know about the digital surveillance practices of the National Security Agency, revealed by Edward Snowden almost two years ago. There are other authorities under which the government spies on “We the People,” but the most egregious is the hated U.S. Patriot Act. The act has been so abused that even its author, Michigan Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., thinks it should be repealed.
So far, Congress has missed every opportunity to reform the Patriot Act and other vehicles that allegedly authorize government to spy on us — sometimes by very narrow margins. In August, however, a key provision of the act, Section 215, is scheduled to expire. If it does, the NSA will no longer be able to collect and analyze the bulk internet and telephone data of U.S. residents.
Considering the widespread revulsion at Snowden’s revelations, you’d think that Congress would make that a priority for debate. You’d be wrong. In fact, Congressional leadership and the White House are much more intent on adding yet another layer to their surveillance powers — one that makes the Patriot Act look like small beer.
Big Brothers United
The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), now before Congress, is an urgent response to illegal digital spying … on multinational corporate behemoth Sony, Inc. (The corporation was allegedly hacked by North Korea in response to the trashy comedy “The Interview,” which depicted the assassination of Kim Jong-un.)
The cybersecurity bill CISA would “give companies legal liability protections when sharing cyber threat data with the government.” The rationale is that cyberattacks on American private businesses are acts of digital warfare, so the NSA, CIA, FBI and the rest should know about them as soon as they happen. The problem is that current U.S. law, the Constitution and plain common sense in a democratic republic dictate that the private information we share with businesses is specific to those transactions, and not to be shared with the government except by order of a court.
But in one of those instances of bipartisanship that make a mockery of the “Red versus Blue” horse-race approach to U.S. politics, party leaders on both sides of the aisle are determined to meet the threat to our corporate overlords by giving government spies access to everything Big Data has on us. Under CISA, the companies that know everything about you and your online activity will be able to hand it over to government … and you won’t have any legal recourse.
Somebody Pass the Freedom Fries
Well, at least we know how to get Congress to act … just threaten the interests of a deep-pocketed corporation like Sony. When that happens, everything else goes on the back burner and our supposedly “deadlocked” system springs into action to limit our liberties even further.
I have a personal theory about all this. I don’t buy the conspiracy theories; there’s no single hand behind the decline in our freedoms. Instead, the vast inequality in our society means that our political system is fixated on the interests of the corporate oligarchy that feeds it. That means nobody is really looking out for the interests of ordinary citizens like you and me.
If I’m right, it’s entirely up to us to defend ourselves against this new threat to our liberty. Stop using Google, Apple, Amazon and other companies that hoard our data. Give your business to encryption-based services like Silent Circle instead. I guarantee you there will be more entrepreneurs coming out with privacy-friendly solutions in the near future … in fact, I’m in talks with some of them right now.
And in the meantime? Make up a fake online profile when you transact … mine is Donald Duck, 1113 Quack Street Duckburg, Calisota, USA. Let them try to track me there.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor