Dragnet Nation Finds Personal Privacy Unobtainable with Some Tips

Ideas and Issues

dragnetLittle Rock  One of my crew of personal librarians at the Alvar Street Library recommended that I read, Dragnet Nation:  A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance by former Wall Street Journal reporter, Julia Angwin.  Since usually they comment after I return something, rather steering me towards something, I thought I should honor them and their efforts by checking it out and giving it a good, hard look.  It’s a good book, but after reading Angwin’s overview and exhaustive personal experience in trying to reduce her digital footprint, deal with her own “threat model,” protect her family, and regain some semblance of privacy, here’s my own takeaway:  it’s virtually impossible!  Literally.

            And, not for lack of trying, because Angwin went above and beyond from buying services to disguise her phone number, creating false identities, buying $200 “burner” phones, and hiring companies to supposedly d-list her from computer cookie based ad tracking services. She took all of the easy steps as well, trying to navigate all of the security controls on Google and Facebook, without feeling she was making much progress.  She even abandoned Google except for “mom business” to a new search engine, DuckDuck Go, which saves nothing, and with great effort switched email services to the anarchist collective, Riseup, which swears it will fight any effort at government seizure. 

            I was eager to learn all of that, as well as to discover from her that Google has a Data Liberation Project that allows a Googler to find all of the records of their past searches, contacts, emails, and seemingly just about everything else where fingers hit the keys under their auspices. Fascinating and scary, huh?  When she mentioned that she discovered pictures she had forgotten on Google’s Picasa, I tried it but at least so far have not been able to access anything there, though I know that we all used Picasa at some point, so WTF? 

And, those were the easier and cheaper parts of her journey.  Being a journalist with an eye out of her next job in a declining industry, Angwin believes in saddling up with a smile to every paywall she sees and paying for the best, so she does things like buy a Faraday case to hide her burner phones for a pretty penny, and contracts wildly with companies to try and get her off the grid, along with paying a researcher and using her own time to do countless thankless tasks.  All of which irretrievably separates her already from all of the rest of us, meaning that as the book progressed, we quickly went from fellow travelers to bystanders watching her journey as voyeurs knowing that it was all a bridge too far from our energy and pocketbooks. 

I learned valuable tidbits though, and I’m thankful for them, even if I’m not sure how to get there from here or am honest enough to say, I won’t even try.   Things like the fact that it’s possible to reorder Google search so that it will first find things that you wrote when they hit your name rather than things written about you.  Of course she got someone to show her how to do that, and I wish she had shared that with the rest of us, because I would love to get the haters off my front pages so that they are part of the search caboose, rather than the engine.  The tip about using mnemonics as passwords was fascinating, such as converting phrases like “It’s 12 noon now I am hungry” into <I’s12Iamh> to thwart hackers and spammers.  I’d never heard the term, “wardriving” used by tech companies driving on streets to find wireless hotspots.  Scary, huh?  I loved the story about Charlie Ward from the Conway, Arkansas Ward Bus Company family having founded Demographics to help his buddy, Senator Dale Bumpers, with direct mailing in his political quests, which has now evolved into Axciom with a fancy building in downtown Little Rock, and truly one of the scariest companies in the world in this area.  I had to agree with Angwin that the “irrational compulsion to keep doors open” that undoes so much of our efforts to achieve privacy is universally shared.

But, mainly I learned something that she may or may not have intended to teach which is that at the present time given the state of corporate control, lack of regulation, and the inability of policy makers to even imagine the fact that the internet has no boundaries and trumps all borders, we simply can’t expect privacy or that we can escape the dragnet.  Angwin created an alias to escape named Ida Tarbell after the famous muckraker, and constantly worries that the fake Ida would become a part of her “family” network and defeat its purpose.  She failed to mention the fact that Osama Bin Ladin met his fate the same way using a courier to handle all communication, until eventually they found the courier and tracked him to Osama.

Meanwhile in making the best of a terrible situation here are two safeguards that I pulled from the book.

One is that if you’re worried, do as much of your business as possible in real time conversations on land line telephones.  The government still needs specific search warrants to get a seat in the old school where the law understands the tech.

The other is achieving “privacy by obscurity” by accepting all friends, all Linked-In invitations, and essentially “burying good data (real friends) under bad data (people not known).” 

Yeah, it’s counter intuitive, but it works and what the heck, if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em, and embrace people and the public sphere, since there’s no way of escaping anyway.