My first wife was a privacy fanatic. And like most privacy fanatics I’ve know, she had nothing worth hiding. She had a boring life. (She married me!) I, on the other hand, have lived a very colorful life — often in a very public way. So I’ve long ago given up on the delusion that I had much in terms of privacy. I find myself in a curious position of now living a very boring life, but not caring too much about this issues on a personal level. But in terms of politics, I care a great deal.
Andrew Fishman and Glenn Greenwald wrote a really good article this last week, Overwhelmed NSA Surprised to Discover Its Own Surveillance “Goldmine” on Venezuela’s Oil Executives. What it shows is that the NSA collects so much data that it doesn’t even know what it has. It reminds me of the ozone hole.
NASA was collecting data of total column ozone levels in Antarctica. The geophysicist Joe Farman and his little team from Cambridge were studying ozone levels at the south pole and they noticed a huge decrease. But they were really skeptical. They knew that NASA had been studying this stuff for decades. Why hadn’t anyone published it?! Well, the reason was a kind of computer bug. The scientists at NASA wrote some code that said, “If ozone levels get below a certain level, put it aside for humans to look at it.” The humans never looked. After “Large Losses of Total Ozone in Antarctica Reveal Seasonal ClOx/NOx Interaction” came out, NASA found that they had an enormous amount of data that showed the ozone hole and its increasing trend.
In general, it is not a good idea to collect data just to be collecting it. This is something I’ve ranted about for years with video stores that want your Social Security number. Why? No reason. They are just collecting every kind of data they can think of — just in case. But with the NSA, you have to wonder, shouldn’t they be doing targeted investigations? It isn’t a good idea to just collect everything they can so later they can say, “Oh yeah, the information on that terrorist attack was in our archives.”
But what really bugs me is that in this case, the NSA has been collecting data that can only be described as corporate espionage. Ever wonder about that? Why we hate certain questionable regimes like Venezuela while we love truly horrible regimes like Saudi Arabia? It’s all about our government working in the interests of huge corporations. ExxonMobile is making billions in Saudi Arabia. But ExxonMobile was thrown out of Venezuela. Thus: Venezuela is bad.
At least the NSA isn’t spying on us, right? Well, no. The NSA says that it only collects metadata — basically the public information of our email and phonecalls. But that means nothing. This revelation about corporate espionage isn’t the first. Previously, the NSA was caught spying on Brazil’s oil company, Petrobras. Before that, the NSA said, “The department does ***not*** engage in economic espionage in any domain, including cyber.”
It seems that the NSA sees part of its job as being lying to the American people. So I think we have to assume that the NSA does, in fact, read every email we send — that they know exactly what you read on every website and when. Which, as I’ve noted, is probably not a big deal. But it does mean that if the government ever decides it doesn’t like you, you are toast. But fear not: this is the behavior of a dying empire. Your great great grandchildren won’t have to worry about the NSA, because the United States of America will be a backwater, having lost relevance because it focused on maintaining its power by any means necessary rather than improving the lives of its people.