Monday, June 24, 2013

Meta-data and Privacy

Meta-data and Privacy
Tony E Dillon-Hansen
June 2013

Meta-data is data that describes data without supposedly knowing the content of the data (describing the objects without actually telling you what the object is). Information technology has been using meta-data for years to determine things such things like buying habits, various user systems, location of the user and more without even asking your name. The question today becomes how good are the inferences based upon that information and should the government be in the business of scanning this. Then, we find that the government has been taking it upon themselves to review similar type of data about phone calls, emails, and other contact mechanisms. Further, they have been using a secret court to gain justification and authorization for the wiretapping where only the judge can challenge government suspicions.

A majority of people polled do not feel threatened by the NSA surveillance program because apparently this data “about data” is supposedly without content. Also, people want to be safe from the growing terrorist threats. Perhaps, people feel safer because they can stock up on AR-15s and ammunition while Congress is willing to send young soldiers to die in some foreign land in the “cause of freedom.” Yet, we want government to stay out of our lives and out of our bedrooms, but we are willing to give a blank license for them to collect and to survey data about us without feeling spooked.

Let me give you an example of what is conceivable. A spouse learns that the other spouse has been spending time with a couple individuals in quiet conversation. This spouse also learns the times and places of a couple encounters and discussions upon learning this information, the spouse may naturally approach the questionable nature of the actions with a sense of betrayal, distrust, anger or fear. Then, this spouse decides to confront the other person with an idea that the apparent shenanigans need to stop. At the revelation, the other spouse is horrified by an unexpected confrontation and subsequently reveals that the encounters of question were to prepare a surprise vacation for the couple as a gift to the offended spouse.

Now, one can question or judge whether the one spouse was correct for planning a surprise vacation or if the one spouse is correct in questioning or concluding those plans. The point here is that this mistake may be resolved between the couple as how to communicate between each other and the levels of trust between them. Yet, the government, via the NSA and law enforcement, is cataloging data about the “circumstances” of discussions and encounters without supposedly listening to the actual conversation. The government is, by definition, not trusting when it is looking.

The question then becomes whether the government will realize when they have made errors of judgment and how will they correct them. For instance, if a U.S. citizen gets accused of terrorism or plotting for a mass attack by talking to friends in South Korea where the citizen was only planning to meet with longtime associates for collaboration on research and education. (South Korea is almost North Korea right?) Of course, under current enemy combatant statutes, you, as the U.S. Citizen, may find yourself exceptionally interested in the prison conditions at Guantanamo Bay.

We know that some government officials may decide to continue prosecutions regardless of facts, and McCarthy's Red Scare can tell you exactly how that has been done in the past and how wrongly that can be pursued.

People are too eager to trade freedom and liberty away, and thus, they ignore an individual responsibility of having freedom is to also ensure that freedom endures despite external or internal attacks. We must ensure that freedom is respected or we may find ourselves at the end of a baton or rifle for some comedic remark. Expect no good will from unwarranted seizures as they will find something to use. As well, a good agent of the government may not want to waste the taxpayer money on a misguided lead, and we have seen where those people may be out to prove something that does not exist to save face or some other false based story. They, the trusted government, may even find a way to use a portion of code to justify smearing a group of people.

Even more, people around the world look to the United States as an example of liberty and individual rights. When the U.S. government starts secretly investigating the press, spying on citizens, or killing suspects without trial, we, by example, provide legitimacy and authorization for dictators in other countries to continue “crackdowns” on their people. This cannot be the continued legacy of the United States, that to teach the world's tyrants on how to ignore individual rights.

Privacy is a critical part of our freedoms and has been defended at length before and by the U.S. courts. Privacy is part of the Bill of Rights. To suddenly excuse an administration of circumventing privacy rules for some apparent security reason is to be subject to unwarranted search and seizures (even an unlawful intrusion) by the government at any time and for any reason. Whether you “trust” the administration (whether Bush, Obama, or even consider if Romney was elected), what happens when an administration attempts to find and then begins to jail opposing viewpoints using these same methods? Will we know the difference from actual terrorism versus strong political conversation based upon what the government is telling us? Who guards the guards?

When such intrusion is allowed to continue unchallenged, the whole of liberty in society is rendered a myth. The future and the foundation of this republic is at question.