Friday, June 7, 2013

Government "spying" on citizens is not as sinister... or as new... as you think

I'm not going to talk about the legal issues surrounding the government monitoring of major online services. That's a topic for another longer, more technical post. I want to tell a story:

(Keep in mind - I'm not a cop. That's why this post reads like a poorly written episode of Dragnet).
Imagine it's 1965. You're a cop in New York City. You're assigned to monitor the local mob hit man. You know your hit man’s a small piece of a much bigger organization. They are seriously bad people, killing others and terrorizing the city. You know a partial name, where he eats dinner most nights, and you generally know what kind of activities this guy is involved in. What do you do first?

You probably start by watching the restaurant where he eats. You get to know the regulars, and you start building a picture of everyone who comes and goes from this place. You pay special attention to anyone who talks to your target - any of his "friends."
You'll want to know where else this guy goes to so you get a description of his car. You may even follow him and find out the other places he hangs out, night clubs, etc. Then you repeat the restaurant scenario. You watch everyone and find out who knows who.

All this is hard work. It just so happens that this guys is really popular. He talks to everyone. It takes a lot of man power to keep track of all those people. You can't tail them all. You and your squad have to sleep sometime.
There's got to be an easier way... finally you have an idea. You talk to the managers of the restaurants and nightclubs and tell him what you're looking for. Being upstanding citizens, they give you whatever information they can, and they don't tell your hit man anything about it.

All this is done in public, so you don't have to get warrants. You can watch him and tail his car all you want on the city streets. In fact he knows he's under surveillance.
You need to watch the larger organization. But how can you watch 100 guys? 1000? You have serious manpower limitations. If only you could put up camera's and tape recorders everywhere. If you only could get a bug on one of his friends, then you'd really have what you need..... but, it's 1965. You don't have the technology.

Let's fast forward 40 years or so..... Same story, but make the following substitutions in your mind:
  • Mob hit man = Al Qaeda terrorist
  • Restaurants and nightclubs = social media and email
  • Restaurant managers = Google, Apple, Facebook, etc.
  • Hit man’s car = terrorist's cellphone
  • Stakeouts and tails = NSA monitoring
  • Larger mob organization = Global terrorist network (Al Qaeda, for example)

Now we do have the technology to watch thousands, even millions, of people at a time. We don’t need to follow them physically – no one conspiring to harm others has physical meetings anymore. All the planning is done online. We don’t have to watch 1000 different restaurants with 100 people per location. Facebook is a global meeting place. It accommodates over 1 billion people. We don’t need to listen to conversations from the shadows - Gmail and Hotmail host conversations for 1 billion plus users.  The managers of these meeting places have perfect memories, and “eyes-on” coverage of every part of their establishments. People voluntarily post their action and locations regularly – complete with pictures. They carry tracking devices in their pockets (cell phones) or cars (OnStar) voluntarily – and even pay for the privilege. We don’t have to track down their friends – They list and categorize them on Facebook.

From the perspective of the authorities, monitoring this makes perfect sense. They've been doing the same thing for decades. Same methods, new location.
Ponder these questions as you read about the scandal in the coming weeks and months:

We wouldn’t question the actions of the cop in 1965, why do we question the actions of the “cops” in 2013? The cop in 1965 wasn’t out to “spy” on innocent Americans, why do we assume cops in 2013 are?

And the question that gets to the heart of the matter:

Everyone involved in my story in 1965 - criminal, cop and bystander - knew their actions were public and observable, and the cop didn’t need a warrant, why have we forgotten that in 2013?

Facebook, email, Google, et al are private entities, but they are “open to the public” just like a restaurant or bar. You should not expect  ANYTHING you do on the internet to be private. Interactions on the internet are the equivalent, privacy-wise, of meeting in the middle of Times Square at rush hour.

Jason Perlow at provides the unapologetically pro-government position, and explains why this isn’t a new issue at all. He also has good links to additional reading.