Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Dragnet Nation

Once again I was lucky enough to win an ERC (Early Reviewer Copy) from Julia Angwin's soon-to-be-released book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago. Thank you Librarything!


Angwin begins by talking about advances in technology that have increased the ability to track people - phone calls, web browsing history, credit history, etc. She posits that it was a confluence of events that created the surveillance culture we live in now.

The attack on 9/11 brought us fear, and with it the desire to be able to predict - and of course stop - terrorist attacks. At the same time, our ability to use technology to track people's phone calls, messages, email, and and even geographic location was coming into its own. The dot com bubble had burst, and people who worked in technology were needing to find something to do with their knowledge. The answer? Data gathering and tracking.

Angwin explained how people are being tracked. She described "wardriving", which I'd never heard of...

"The private sector race to map the location of every device in the world started with a practice called 'wardriving'. I first went wardriving in Denver in 2002 with some cable company technicians who were showing me how it worked. We drove around in a car, while the technician in the passenger seat kept a laptop open. On his computer was software that would scan the surrounding areas for Wi-Fi networks. When we found an unencrypted Wi-Fi hotspot, we would stop and watch the Internet traffic streaming through his computer screen. We didn't read any of it, but we could have."

And that was in 2002.

We are being tracked. Ostensibly the tracking started to protect us from terrorists. But it has turned into vast sweeps of data gathering including data that has nothing to do with terrorist activity.

You know how those ads pop up on your computer that are related to something you searched for online? You searched for a bathroom sink and then for weeks after, you get ads for bathroom fixtures following you wherever you go? Companies track our shopping searches, and related ads are then targeted to us. Ads seem fairly innocuous. Annoying maybe, but innocuous.

But Angwin looked more deeply into what companies are doing with information they are gathering. They aren't just gathering your searches for bathroom sinks. Companies are compiling income levels, geographic locations, ages of shoppers, web browsing histories, credit histories. They are then using that information to predict who will buy what and for what price. They are using tracking information to change their pricing based on all this information. People are not only being targeted to buy a specific item or related items, they are being given specific pricing based on what the companies predict they will be willing to pay.

About half of cell phone apps transmit phone locations to outside companies, and the vast majority of those do not "provide privacy policies that state what they might do with the information". So not only does that fun phone app use your geographic location to tell you where the nearest burger joint is, but it also transmits your exact location to a huge assortment of companies.

The location tracking companies say that their tracking is anonymous. They also admit that tracking someone's location is some of the most sensitive data you can collect on a person. If you have the unique identifying number of a phone, and the location of the person using the phone, companies can not only find out where you've been, but predict where you will be in the future. And they are. I do not care for this.

Neither did Angwin. She decided to find out if she could erase, or at least dramatically reduce, her digital footprint. She also wanted to explore how to minimize the ability of companies as well as our government to be able to track her through her cell phone.

These proved to be difficult tasks.

As she attempted to try not to be tracked, she turned off wifi as well as all location apps and settings on her phones, both her iphone and her burner phone. She identified 58 tracking companies and opted out of the eleven that offered opt out options. She realized that she wasn't able to opt out of nearly enough to make her location untrackable, so she got a Faraday bag, which, when she put her cell phone in it, made it untrackable. It also made it unable to receive calls or emails or texts, so she could only obtain those when she took it out of the bag and turned it on, which was almost the same as not having it with her at all.

She felt that her attempts at securing cell phone privacy resulted in mostly failure.

Angwin tried to figure out how to use the technology we have and rely on - email, online shopping, research - anonymously and securely. She consulted with software experts and privacy experts, and tried many different strategies and programs, from not using Google and using other browsers such as DuckDuckGo, to developing passwords that are much stronger. She encrypted her email. She used fake identities.

She took extreme measures to try and stay anonymous. I was impressed and daunted, both by the extent of the data gathering and tracking that happens as well as her efforts to reduce companies' abilities to track her. It was discouraging and scary that she took such extensive lengths to become untrackable, lengths that quite often proved ineffective and/or unwieldy.

Europe has laws that require data tracking companies to provide their tracking information to those they've tracked, i.e. regular citizens. We do not have those laws here. In the U.S., information on individuals gathered by data tracking is difficult or impossible to obtain, and tracking itself is difficult or impossible to avoid, unless one does not use computers or cell phones at all.

Angwin went on to describe further developments in technology. Some stores are exploring using eye scanning technology, scanning all customers' eyes as they enter a store to identify them. This can be helpful to a store in terms of loss prevention. If someone has shoplifted from that store, and the scanner detects that that person is in the store again, measures can be taken to ensure that that person doesn't steal again. But identifying people so specifically is a slippery slope. Stores are supposed to (at least the stores I've worked in) provide excellent customer service to all of the customers. What if scanning technology identifies the big spenders as well as the thieves? And it identifies the customers who only come in for one or two items and always use coupons? Mightn't stores be tempted to direct their limited customer service resources to the customers who are most likely to spend more in the store? In addition, that information, that a person shops at a certain store on a certain day/time, can and will be shared with other companies and entities who want to determine a person's location. We already are under surveillance. This takes it even further and concerns me.

I don't want to go to the lengths that Angwin did to try to be less trackable. At the same time, I am dismayed by how much tracking is going on, and share her concerns about where this might lead.

In addition to specific strategies she employed (and programs she used, etc.) to try to reduce her digital footprint, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance is filled with information about the kinds of tracking that is happening now, how it evolved, the effect that being under surveillance has on people (not good), as well as the dangers of where it might be headed. The concerns she raises are important.

This is one of those books that I want everyone to read or at least know about. It seems vital to raise awareness about the level of surveillance and tracking that is going on now. To get people at least thinking about how they are being tracked. Is this the kind of society we want to live in? And if not, how can we make it better?

Clicking on the underlined book title will take you to Powell's web page for each book. Clicking on the book cover will take you to Amazon's page for each book. Clicking through either link will result in further tracking. Purchasing through these links also helps support the blog.

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