One thing has been strikingly absent from the public debate about the terrorist surveillance program run by the National Security Agency: Perspective. While we may not know the full scope of the use of personal information by our intelligence services, we know quite a bit about the routine use and compromise of our most personal data by another little understood and shadowy group.
The methods used by intelligence agencies to collect, evaluate and analyze data on citizens or “US Persons” are derived from policies crafted in the wake of earlier abuses (CHAOS, COINTELPRO, MERRIMAC, etc.). Despite concerns about a return to the bad-old-days after passage of the PATRIOT Act, substantiated cases of abuse are non-existent. When discrepancies are noted, privacy advocates ascribe nefarious motivations when unintentional ignorance is to blame. When mistakes are discovered they are fixed; and anyone who thinks that extensive re-training isn’t carried out in the aftermath of such discoveries doesn’t know much about our security services.
With regard to personal data on citizens, the government only cares if you are a terrorist or some other kind of security threat. If a recently deceased member of al-Qaida has your phone number stored in the memory of his cell phone, someone is going to pay you a visit. It should become apparent fairly quickly if your number is actually one number off from a US-based terrorist (the Tommy Tutone effect) at which point your data is going to get tossed. The goal of mining for data, like mining for gold, is to find valuable nuggets, not useless rock.
Despite all the hard work put forth by our intelligence community there are still major problems associated with efforts to find terrorists.
Recent reporting on the failure of NSA’s TRAILBLAZER program comes to mind. Designed to do on a large scale the kind of work that the much-disputed NSA terrorist surveillance program is carrying out now, TRAILBLAZER is a bottomless money pit. Let us not forget the recently deceased Virtual Case File fiasco at the FBI, the myriad of problems and the expense of the US VISIT system, and the penchant for Customs and Border Patrol computers to just flat out quit. The icing on the cake of course is the DOD’s Able Danger program, which pointed out the threat to the USS Cole and the 9/11 hijackers, but was canceled when it was thought that the effort – you guessed it – spied on citizens.
But what about that other data-hungry group that seeks to vacuum up your information and monitor your activities for purposes that might run contrary to your personal welfare? Unlike the intelligence community these organizations have mastered the technology necessary to know exactly how to most effectively gather and exploit your personal data.
When any of the tens of millions of Capital One credit card customers call the company, the firm’s computers correlate the data they have on their buying patterns and recent purchase activity to predict why they are calling. The call is routed to just the right customer service representative who knows with near certainty what he needs to do to solve their problem and what additional products or services to offer that their likely to buy. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.
ChoicePoint is one of nation’s largest brokers of personal information. They can reach out and grab criminal records, motor vehicle records, credit histories, business records and a wealth of other data about you. Unlike the government, ChoicePoint allowed personal records of nearly 160,000 citizens to be compromised last year.
Unlike the government, private business will almost never get rid of your information as long as there is a hope of selling you something. Maybe you didn’t want the personal loan or the vacation package, but an analysis of your recent buying habits shows the purchase of a lot of baby clothes and diapers; watch how fast you start getting offers for life insurance or cord-blood storage services. And when they’ve tapped you out they’ll sell your data itself to someone else for one last buck.
Terrorists want to separate us from the corporal world. Does it make any sense not to pursue them with all the means within our power – including the very limited use of personal information – with at least as much skill and vigor as the people who are just trying separate us from our money?