It has been twenty months since Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and TCF fellow Barton Gellman revealed that the NSA was collecting the call records of millions of Americans and the content of e-mails, chats, audio and video recordings from nine U.S. Internet companies. Those first few stories, based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, were a bombshell, setting off a global debate about surveillance and privacy in the digital era that continues to this day.
Meanwhile, the story of how the NSA and its global partners harnessed 21st century technological innovations to inaugurate what one top-secret NSA document calls a “golden age of signals intelligence” continues to unfold. In an interview with British-American technologist and author Andrew Keen in December, Gellman—who’s now writing a book on the subject for Penguin Press —called this process the “surveillance industrial revolution.”
Data-driven marketing is now a $156 billion-per-year industry. And you—your habits, preferences, interests, and desires—are the product. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple promise us extremely convenient products and services that will revolutionize how we live, communicate, and share. In exchange, they only ask for, well, everything. That is, everything there is to know about us, as well as the right to use and sell that information as they please.
As it turns out, that glistening pile of data isn’t enticing only to advertisers; intelligence agencies and law enforcement want in on it, too. And, as we know from the Snowden documents, they frequently have gotten their way.
Thanks to the surveillance industrial revolution, the interests of the world’s most profitable technology companies are now pretty much aligned with the interests of the world’s most powerful intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Data collection is the name of the game, and everybody’s playing.
Here are four ways the surveillance industrial revolution may be directly affecting you:
1. Your car can now be used to track you, hack you, and coerce you into paying your bills. New cars are designed with connectivity in mind. Nissan, Ford, Honda, and GM have all opened new R&D offices in Silicon Valley in the past few years. Thanks to collaborations between carmakers and tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft, all the conveniences of your smartphone or tablet will soon seamlessly integrate with your ride. The catch? A report issued by Senator Edward J. Markey’s office found that most new cars collect vast amounts of data on their owners—where you go, how fast you drive, and so on—and many of them are transmitting that data to third-party companies. Just like your web browsing history, your driving habits are now scrutinized by big data companies, advertisers, and sometimes even law enforcement. More terrifyingly, Markey’s report suggests that most new cars, which contain insufficiently secure wireless technology, are vulnerable to hackers who could monitor your behavior, steal your data, and even manipulate your car while it’s in motion. In another Orwellian turn, about two million cars belonging to owners with sub-prime auto loans have been equipped with so-called “starter-interrupt” devices. If you own one of these cars and miss a loan payment, lenders can remotely disable your car’s ignition until you pay. If you miss a bunch of payments, dealers can use the device’s GPS technology to track you down.
2. Your boss knows that you’re reading this blog post. Or at least, she might. As Esther Kaplan’s incredible expose in Harper’s [paywall] revealed, companies are increasingly relying on advanced workplace surveillance technologies to monitor their employees’ productivity. Programs like Cornerstone OnDemand—used by Virgin Media, Barclays, and Starwood hotels—allow managers to “quickly assess an employee’s performance by analyzing his or her online interactions, including emails, instant messages, and Web use.” A survey by the American Management Association cited in Kaplan’s piece found that 66 percent of employers monitor employee Internet activity, 45 percent track their keystrokes, and 43 percent monitor employee e-mail. “In industry after industry,” writes Kaplan, “this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces, an effort that pushes employees to their mental, emotional, and physical limits.”
3. American and British intelligence sharing may have violated your human rights—and there’s a way for you to find out if they did. On February 6, Britain’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) declared that the legal regime governing data sharing between NSA and GCHQ violated articles 8 or 10 of the European convention on human rights. As Ryan Gallagher notes inThe Intercept, the court “did not deem the surveillance itself to be an illegal invasion of privacy,” only the “secrecy shrouding it” constituted a human rights violation. Nonetheless, privacy advocates have hailed the ruling as a blow against the two intelligence agencies, who have, in the words of Privacy International Deputy Director Eric King, “acted like they are above the law.” Privacy International, who brought the suit against GCHQ, has set up a website that theoretically allows anyone—not just UK citizens—to find out if GCHQ has illegally received information about them from the NSA.
4. You are part of the largest social engineering experiment in the history of humankind. As you probably remember, Facebook was widely chastised last summer for manipulating its users emotions as part of a large-scale psychological experiment. A new episode of WNYC’s popular science program Radiolab—entitled “The Trust Engineers”—updates that story with fascinating examples of how Facebook has used the enormous amount of sociological data (and subjects) at its fingertips to minutely change our behavior. Kate Crawford, a Microsoft researcher and visiting professor at MIT, puts the potential dangers of Facebook’s unprecedented power in context. In a 2010 experiment, Facebook used a non-partisan “I voted!” pop-up message to successfully increase voter turnout by 340,000 votes. Which is a good thing, right? Not necessarily. In the episode, Crawford imagines a scenario in which a platform like Facebook chose only to show that pro-voting message to users who share political interests with the platform’s owners and shareholders. “Now that,” she said, “is a profound democratic power.”