Earlier this week, Obama’s hand-picked panel charged with reviewing the nation’s surveillance state issued a set of recommendations that includes limiting the indiscriminate mass collection of telephone records and other reforms. This came right after a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon issued a preliminary injunction barring NSA metadata collection related to a conservative activist (he later stayed the order to allow for an appeal).
However, while it may look like the NSA and surveillance state are on the run — it’s too soon to break out the applause. The White House panel’s recomendations also included the suggestion that data collected on individuals should be held by telecommunications providers or a private third party. There is a threat that this surveillance state may simply reconstitute itself into an increasingly privatized apparatus that the government can access through fees and subpoenas.
VICE‘s Megan Neal reports that so-called “data brokers” — firms that spy on Americans’ behavior and then sell that information to businesses looking to profit off of it — have become a $156 billion industry. Neal notes that the Senate Commerce Committee recently published a report looking into how these data marketers spy on Americans — the report shows how these firms label Americans under various categories depending on their financial security and other demographic categories, including “Ethnic Second-City Strugglers” and “X-tra Needy.”
One firm named in the report, Experian’s “ChoiceScore,” says that it “helps marketers identify and more effectively market to under-banked consumers.” The consumers targeted for data collection include “new legal immigrants, recent graduates, widows, those with a generation bias against the use of credit,” and “consumers with transitory lifestyles, such as military personnel.” That’s right — these data companies now want to spy even on American soldiers, so that they can be located and marketed to by firms selling cheap credit.
This massive private surveillance state has many reformers looking for ways to reclaim our privacy. Federal Trade Commission member Julie Brill has called on the industry to create an online portal where data brokers would be open about their collection processes and consumer access properties. She calls this initiative “Reclaim Your Name.” “Reclaim Your Name would empower the consumer to find out how brokers are collecting and using data; give her access to information that data brokers have amassed about her; allow her to opt-out if she learns a data broker is selling her information for marketing purposes and provide her the opportunity to correct errors in information used for substantive decisions — like credit, insurance, employment, and other benefits,” Ms. Brill she said in a speech to the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington earlier this year.
Which brings us back to efforts to reform the NSA’s spying powers. Earlier this month, eight prominent IT companies, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and Apple — published an open letter asking for reform of government surveillance programs.
But as The Nation’s Zoe Carpenter notes, these tech giants are only advocating for narrow changes to how the government can spy — they are not asking for or promising any reforms to the massive private surveillance states. This isn’t only a problem because private surveillance in and of itself is harmful for American privacy, but because the government has used the private sector as a conduit for its surveillance activities.
The Washington Post, utilizing leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden, reported earlier this month that the NSA “is secretly piggybacking on the tools that enable Internet advertisers to track consumers, using ‘cookies’ and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.”
We also know that the National Security Agency has been able to spy on the communications of Google and Yahoo users without even accessing the data centers of either company, instead choosing to utilize the fiber-optic networks these companies use as an in.
What all this means is that as long as private surveillance companies collect so much data on Americans, the government has a proven capacity to access this data. Thus any true spying reform must not only seek to tie the hands of direct government data collection, but must look at the spying activities of data brokers that both for-profit corporations and the government itself want access to.
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