June 20, 2023

We’re the Product, and They’re Spying on Us

A treasure trove of our personal information is the price we now pay for interacting on the Internet.

We’ve said it often enough: The reason social media is free is because you’re the product. Put another way, you and your fellow social media users are being delivered by the particular platform to its advertisers in exchange for their advertising dollars.

In this era of Internet dependence, we willingly and sometimes unwillingly make a treasure trove of our personal information available to vendors. This includes our behaviors, habits, and preferences — all of which can be collected and sold.

And email lists are so 2003. Search to buy a new truck, as this author did recently, and suddenly your social media feed is filled with ads for trucks from every possible manufacturer. It’s the price we pay — well, besides the wasted time — and we’ve come to accept this cost as the price of doing business online.

However, a report requested in 2021 from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and made available to Congress last year shows that the sheer volume of commercially available data out there has brought us to a point where the government doesn’t even have to work to spy on us. The powers that be have conflated the idea of “publicly available information” with the availability of “commercially available information,” some of which isn’t intended for public consumption. This report, which was declassified last week, shows that the federal government is eagerly purchasing the information, using our taxpayer dollars to, in essence, spy on us.

So much for “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” So much for “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

“I’ve been warning for years that if using a credit card to buy an American’s personal information voids their Fourth Amendment rights, then traditional checks and balances for government surveillance will crumble,” said Oregon Democrat Senator Ron Wyden, who initially requested the report in 2021.

“Intelligence agencies are flouting the law and buying information about Americans that Congress and the Supreme Court have made clear the government should not have,” added Sean Vitka, an attorney for the advocacy group Demand Progress.

And despite the fact that identifying information is supposedly stripped from the data, as Byron Tau and Dustin Volz of The Wall Street Journal point out, “Privacy advocates and researchers say that in the case of geolocation information on phones or cars, a name can often be inferred: Individuals typically park their cars at night and set down their phones at their homes. In the case of certain internet data, browsing behavior also can reveal personal information.”

Needless to say, it’s a case of the public giving an inch and the government taking a mile.

“In the wrong hands,” the ODNI’s advisers warn, the same mountain of data the government is quietly accumulating could be turned against Americans to “facilitate blackmail, stalking, harassment, and public shaming,” writes Dell Cameron at Wired, and indeed there are plenty of “wrong hands” out there. The news becomes even worse when hackers are involved, such as the group of Russians that exploited a software vulnerability in a popular app to conduct ransomware attacks on entities that included local, state, and federal government agencies. Two “entities” associated with the Department of Energy were among the victims. Given the government’s avaricious appetite for our personal data, it becomes an easy and soft target for these hackers, who often hail from Russia and Eastern Europe and are therefore much harder to prosecute.

Knowing all this, the question becomes: What can be done about it? The public is clamoring for a solution — recent polling reveals that half of voters now believe the FBI routinely spies on average citizens, which has chopped its favorability rate to the point where just 57% of voters have a favorable impression of the agency. (Here, it should be noted that the survey was conducted just before the latest indictment of Donald Trump, meaning that those polled may now have even less trust in their government. If that’s possible.)

Finally, and quoting the DNI report: “The government would never have been permitted to compel billions of people to carry location tracking devices on their persons at all times, to log and track most of their social interactions, or to keep flawless records of all their reading habits. Yet smartphones, connected cars, web tracking technologies, the Internet of Things, and other innovations have had this effect without government participation.”

If this were a more perfect union, our government wouldn’t participate in this collection. Frankly, what we do on the Internet is none of its business. Our data might be for sale, but why would a government feel the need to purchase it?

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