Monday, November 28, 2005

Google, privacy, and outsourcing Total Information Awareness

The NYT has an OpEd on Google's privacy policies. There are no surprises there; one should always assume anything done online is public knowledge. Only the very sophisticated have any privacy now, and even they may be tracked by textual analysis software that can match text to identity based on idiosyncracies of expression (and, presumably, of thought -- giving new meaning to the concept of "thought police").

In general, privacy is very 20th century. I tried to fight this, but eventually I realized this was a losing battle -- especially after 9/11. Humans lived most of our existence in small communities with very little privacy; that is the world we've returned to.

There was one slightly interesting point raised in the article, though in reality it has little to do with Google:
What Google Should Roll Out Next: A Privacy Upgrade - New York Times

The government can gain access to Google's data storehouse simply by presenting a valid warrant or subpoena. Under the Patriot Act, Google may not be able to tell users when it hands over their searches or e-mail messages. If the federal government announced plans to directly collect the sort of data Google does, there would be an uproar - in fact there was in 2003, when the Pentagon announced its Total Information Awareness program, which was quickly shut down.
This is not new, in fact even I've written about this over the past few years. The Feds discovered during the 90s that the best way to deal with inconvenient legislation was to route around it by outsourcing key functions; the FBI in particular outsourced many of their information gathering functions in the 90s. More recently, of course, our wonderous government has routed around inconvenient prohibitions by outsourcing torture. In the same manner Poindexter's "Total Information Awareness" didn't "disappear" (silly idea), it merely changed names and was outsourced.

Google isn't an outsourcing tool for the TIA project, but it the Patriot Act has made Google and other online services unwitting accomplices.

Will Americans' ever catch on? Not if the media continues to completely miss the real story. I'm saddened and amused to read of privacy legislation that targets government rather than corporations. Really, it's a total waste of paper.

If Americans did catch on, what could be done? We can't stop TIA now, privacy really is history. We could, however, make the corporations implementing TIA and other programs legally liable for errors. If we don't learn lessons of the utterly incompetent 'do not fly' list program, thousands of Americans will be injured by these outsourced program. We will then be living in Gilliam's Brazil.

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