Thursday, June 20, 2013

Who Needs the NSA to Erode Privacy?

Ernestine: What's that Mr. Veedle? Privileged information?... that's so cute. You're dealing with the phone company, Mr. Veedle. We are not bound by city, state, or federal regulations. We are omnipotent.
A lot of people are apoplectic over the NSA's surveillance program that captures metadata from phone calls (which numbers are calling which numbers). In the past, courts have ruled that persons have no expectation of privacy about this data, which seems to be a surprise to many. Look folks, this isn't news.

After the jump, privacy from the days of Ernestine to Twitter.

People who are surprised by surveillance programs obviously don't remember Lily Tomlin's comedy sketches from the 1960s, where she played Ernestine the nosy telephone operator who knew not only who was talking to whom but everything everybody said as well. The comedy hit home with audiences in the 1960s because everyone remembered the days of party lines and telephone operators. Privacy was non-existent.

People who are surprised by surveillance programs obviously don't remember the 1967 movie The President's Analyst, a spy satire in which the Russian and American agents merrily run spy-vs-spy capers against each other until one side makes the critical mistake of kidnapping an enemy agent by locking him in a phone booth (remember those?) and carting the entire phone booth off. That pisses off TPC (The Phone Company), which turns out to be bigger, meaner, and much more powerful than either the KGB or CIA.

Map of mobile tweets
Source: MapBox.

People who are surprised by surveillance programs obviously aren't aware of just how much information about their own online activities is already available for the taking. That picture above is a map of mobile tweets in Richardson (click on the image to bring up a zoomable interactive map). Red dots are from iPhones. Green dots are from Android phones. Look at where the concentrations of activities are. That diagonal line of dots from lower left to upper right is Central Expressway. Apparently, a lot of people tweet from their cars. That big red swarm of dots in the upper left is UT-Dallas. Smaller swarms show J.J. Pearce High School and Richardson High School. It looks like kids are doing most of the tweeting in Richardson and seem to prefer iPhones to Android phones for some reason. Android activity seems to outnumber iPhones in southwest Richardson for some reason. The intersection of Campbell Rd and Central Expressway is a particularly active area. So is Campbell and Coit. Maybe UT-Dallas students out eating or drinking?

Anyway, this is the kind of metadata that the NSA is capturing for phone calls. For tweets, metadata and content are both available to all, not just the NSA. Many don't seem to mind giving up their privacy day in and day out. Even though this map looks fairly innocuous, there is enough detail that one could, in principle, get a pretty good idea of individuals' daily habits, by cell phone certainly, by Twitter handle probably, and even by name if people use their real names online.

Rail against the NSA if you must, but the Good Ship Privacy sailed long ago. As Ernestine would say, "We're the phone company. We don't care; we don't have to."

1 comment:

glbeach said...

It is ironic when all of this "news" about the NSA security comes to the surface there is a course or series I've been listening to that is . . . very timely. As it happens, virtually everything you've heard on the news (except for the name of 'Snowden') has been available in this course for some length of time. This course discusses the legal framework of the NSA's program.

Instead of simply having a 'gut' reaction, this is a complex topic and requires reasoned thought to understand the subject and the ramifications. Worth the course cost and the time to understand the subject - especially the impact of the 3rd party doctrine.