Unhappily, The Walls Have Ears

I’ve been trading emails back-and-forth with the bank providing our mortgage in California. The sidebar on my Gmail page has two ads for financing. Google/Gmail knows what’s going on.

It’s no secret you are being followed incessantly as you traipse across the Internet. Sometimes the result of this data mining is beneficial, sometimes not.

It’s always creepy.

Last year the New York Times revealed how Target knew customers were expecting without asking.

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

It’s upsetting that Google, Facebook, Target and an untold number of data brokers know. It’s even worse when it’s the government.

News reports in December 2005 first revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been intercepting Americans’ phone calls and Internet communications. Those news reports, combined with a USA Today story in May 2006 and the statements of several members of Congress, revealed that the NSA is also receiving wholesale copies of American’s telephone and other communications records. All of these surveillance activities are in violation of the privacy safeguards established by Congress and the US Constitution.

That’s the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s spin in the last sentence, but I agree. The 4th Amendment has this covered.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Of course the 4th offers no protection when it’s disregarded!

Beyond that, what’s promised and what’s delivered are often two different things. Recently a former FBI agent appeared with CNN’s Erin Burnett.

More recently, two sources familiar with the investigation told CNN that Russell had spoken with Tamerlan after his picture appeared on national television April 18.

What exactly the two said remains under investigation, the sources said.

Investigators may be able to recover the conversation, said Tom Clemente, a former counterterrorism agent for the FBI.

“We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation,” he told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday, adding that “all of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.”

“It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her,” he said.

Some folks doubt what Clemente claims, but even if it can’t be done now it’s aspirational. Certainly the government is looking for easy snoop access wherever they can get it.

The FBI has been lobbying top internet companies like Yahoo and Google to support a proposal that would force them to provide backdoors for government surveillance – Wired.com

I am not one of those people who worries about government gone wild. I am much more worried about government employees connecting the wrong dots and making bad assumptions. I don’t want to be undone by some bug in the system. Even a tiny error rate (or a small number of agents with an agenda), multiplied by our 314 million citizens, could cause trouble for millions.

Mistakes already happen.

Officials say an 18-month-old girl was mistakenly pulled off a JetBlue flight before it left Fort Lauderdale because airline employees thought her name was on the U.S. no-fly list.

You can check your credit report and undo errors. You can’t do that when you’ve been surveilled. Most likely you won’t even know.

When data is secret and conclusions drawn based on secondary or tertiary actions there’s nothing you can do. That’s wrong.

I wonder if writing this will get me watched?

5 thoughts on “Unhappily, The Walls Have Ears”

  1. The “no fly list” is so rife with mistakes that it is astounding more people are not caught up in it.

    1. Not safe to assume that at all. Mortgages get bought and sold by various financial institutions all the time.

      Mine was sold from a local CT bank to the Bank of Oklahoma one time. It’s back safe and sound in Connecticut now.

  2. Geoff,
    I was with you right up until “you can check your credit report and undo errors”. That isn’t as easy as it should be. That is a story of its own. Sorry but bad comparison. I take your meaning though and do agree. -M

  3. I have experienced a couple of similar situations: Frequently, when I browse for camera or electronics gear from e-tailers (is that term still used??), I will see online ads for not just the retailer, but the exact item? (Kinda dumb — hint to Amazon.com, I already bought the digital audio recorder FROM YOU. I probably won’t need another for 2 – 3 years. And since I occasionally buy sports tickets from StubHub, they like to remind me that they have plenty of tickets to local games and concerts.

    But worse is the experience based on a personal email and not a visit to a website. A friend who has just lost their eyeglasses mentioned it in a note — as well as their success in finding low-cost replacements online instead of going back to your typical optician in the mall. I never clicked on any optical firm’s website. My friend had. Yet, I soon began (although only for a couple of days) receiving similar banner and side of page ads for online opticians.

    Does that mean, like a virus, your cookies can be passed onto those with whom you communicate? Or worse, some commercial entity was peering into my private emails to see what product or services I discuss, so targeted pitches could be aimed my way? THAT is disturbing — especially when I may make no direct move to browse such product lines.

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