Friday, January 21, 2005

Januray 20, 2005

So, Let’s Talk Privacy v. Security

If you feel like someone is watching, you are right. They are. And they will be watching a lot more as time goes on. And, there isn’t a thing we can do to stop it.

The choice that confronts us in this increasingly crowded and hostile world reminds me of the old Jack Benny gag. when a mugger confronted the old tightwad with the traditional threat, “Your wallet or life?” Benny did not respond. When the mugger repeated the threat Benny snapped back, “Give me minute to decide!”

That pretty much sums up the choice Americans face today between the extraordinary level of person privacy we cherish and the new threats we face. While the Bush administration has demagogued the terrorist threat for its own narrow political purposes, there is no denying such threats exist. If you doubt it exists just ask Spanish train riders, Israeli bus passengers, or any of the 9/11 families.

It would be nice if we could have a national discussion about this and agree just how much privacy we are willing to trade for security. But no such discussion is going to happen. That’s because security has taken on a life of its own. It’s one thing when the government says it’s going to start tracking millions of people – because we know they can’t do it. Hell, they can’t even keep track of what their own government employees and contractors are doing much less the rest of us. For example, we just learned that the FBI’s anti-terrorism division wasted $170 million on a computer system and database that does not work and will have to be chucked. (Tip: ever hear of Dell, dudes?)

But it’s quite another thing when private sector companies say they are going to do it, because, if there’s enough money in it, they can -- and they are. Read, for example, this morning’s story in the Washington Post about Alpharetta, Ga.-based ChoicePoint Inc.

The company began in 1997 to sell credit histories to the insurance industry. But in the process the company was sucking in all kinds of data on you and I. When Admiral Poindexter’s plan to build a super-database of real-time consumer behavior blew up in his face when it became public a couple of years ago, it was ChoicePoint that stepped up to the plate. The company has now become a one-stop source of personal financial. Among its clients today, the Dept. of Justice, the CIA and dozens of other government law enforcement and intel agencies.

"We do act as an intelligence agency, gathering data, applying analytics," said company vice president James A. Zimbardi.

And ChoicePoint is just beginning to tap the government market for personal intel. chief executive Derek V. Smith said he'll be reaching out to Capitol Hill in the coming months.

"We have a new responsibility to society, and we want to make sure that's legitimized," Smith said. "We'd like everybody to play by the same rules and standards that society believes are correct."

When a private sector information gatherer like this mates with government agencies a massive transfer of information is inevitable. In return for providing access to, say credit card histories, law enforcement agencies agree to share their criminal databases with the company, which then markets that information to, Say, bail bond companies who will, in return for pricing consideration, share their client information as well. And so it goes, on and on, piece by piece, a mosaic is created of individuals lives and behavior until there are few aspects of an individual’s life not more than a keystroke away from a curious commercial or government eye.

At the other end of the privacy v. security debate are people like Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group in the who describes ChoicePoint’s data base as a " 'Scarlet Letter' society,” where no one will ever be able to escape any aspect of their pasts. A reformed drug addict will have to live with his addicted persona forever – because data is never reformed, never changes, never dies.

Is there a middle ground? Maybe. But, if there is, it’s eroding fast. Because more powerful forces are at work here than even our robust democracy may be able to resist.

It is a statistical, demographical fact that the world of 2005 bears no resemblance to the world of 1776, or 1876, 1946 or even 1996. Quite simply the world is becoming overcrowded.
Competition for finite natural resources, ores, oil, fresh water, grows by the hour. As populations grow and spread, incompatibilities between once far-flung cultures, races and religions will flare as the edges of each meet, each trying to push past the other. Christians fight Muslims. Muslims fight Christians and Jews. Hindus fight Muslims.. possibly with nukes.

And each of those nation states will also spawn thousands of zealots, who will take up their nationalistic/religious causes in the form of terrorism -- some in organized groups, others as freelancers. The first wave of these zealots are already at work, Islamic terrorists. But do you believe for a moment that America can be hit more than a couple of more times by terrorists before our own nutcases grab their guns? You know the ones I’m talking about, the Timothy McVea’s, the Ruby Ridgers, the Waco-apologists, the Walter Mitty- filled “militias” of balding, beer-bellied low brows just itching to shoot a “raghead” (or raghead-sympathizers.) And, since these white guys with red necks would stick out like sore thumbs low-crawling around Middle Eastern countries, these militia types will take their fury out on US soil, against Mosques, Synagogues, family planning clinics, and foreign and US government buildings. You can put money on it.

So then, what of privacy and security in such a world? Clearly the days of lassie faire privacy are over – whether we like it or not. If government doesn’t get into the business of watching what’s going on out here the private sector will. And, as we see they already are.

The trouble is we citizens don’t seem to know what we want either. We are schizophrenic on this issue. The very people out there who are clucking their tongues about intrusions into personal privacy are the same people who will condemn the powers that be for doing too little to protect the nation when the next mass murder occurs on US soil. The privacy v. security equation is a lose/lose for anyone holding power from now on. Apply too much security, and citizens hate you for it. Apply too little security and we will blame them for being too lax on security every time a terrorist strikes.

But in a very real and fundamental way this argument has already been taken out of our hands. There is no force on earth, not terrorism, not democracy, not authoritarian rule, that can stop commercial self-interest. If you need proof look no further than the international drug trade. No matter how much money, military force, police resources, boarder searches we throw at it, the drug trade not only persists, but flourishes. An authoritarian government that bans goods from the West gets what? Smugglers. Commercial self-interest will always serve itself first. Always. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s a bad thing. But, as long as it needs to get something done to make reach its revenue goals, it will always find its way around obstacles put in its path.

And today security has become the business of business, for two reasons. First, commercial trade requires international stability. Terrorism is bad for business. Simple as that. The other reason is that money – big money - can be made selling the stuff. Security is a product now. Selling security services and intel has become a multi-billion dollar growth industry. Try as we may we will not, cannot stop it. Just like drug dealers, companies will find ways around any laws passed designed to deprive them of access to all those honey pots of data out there. And your personal information is right at the top of their wish list.

So what to do? Well, first get used to it… at least up to a point. Too much security is a bit like pornography -- hard to define but you know it when you see it. So we can, and should, throw a fit when we feel they have gone too far. Go to court, sue the bastards and push back.

But you can forget about ever being invisible again. If you live in a city and leave your house a security camera will see you. If you buy something, even with cash, the transaction will eventually wind its way to ChoicePoint, some other data miner or government database.

And a national ID card can only be one more major terrorist attack away -- two at the most. Such a card will serve as a national drivers license as well. It will contain biometric data, a fingerprint most likely. So that when someone checks in for a flight the print on the card will be scanned and checked against the one on the passenger’s finger. While that is happening both prints will be compared electronically with the print “they” have on file.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not endorsing any of this, simply saying it’s inevitable -- and for reasons that are quite out of our control. As realtors like to say when trying to sell a piece of land, “you know, they ain’t making this stuff anymore.” But we are making people. Billions of the little critters, 6.43 billion at this writing and millions of new ones added every month. It’s getting crowded and will get a lot more so. Scientists have studied the effects of over-crowding and you will not be surprised what they found. Whether it’s animals or people, when they crowd them into a finite space they get cranky… very cranky. Then they get nasty – real nasty.

We had been in the cranky phase. But after 9/11 I think it’s safe to assume we have moved into the nasty phase. It will be interesting to see what kind of America emerges.

By Stephen Pizzo
Raconteur at Large

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