20th Century Laws Meet 21st Century Surveillance: Why Metadata Surveillance is a Serious Concern


  1. Dan Misener says:

    So, we have U.S. government officials claiming that PRISM doesn’t target U.S. citizens. And we have Peter MacKay saying, “We don’t target Canadians, okay.”

    But what if I’m a Canadian citizen, using a proxy server or VPN service (like TunnelBear or Unblock-Us) to appear as though I’m in the U.S.?

    In the eyes of a government surveillance program… where am I?

  2. Thomas Cooke says:

    Great post, and really good question, Dan. Admittedly, my familiarity with the implications of VPN needs refreshing. However, when considering how some of the bigger third party service provides, like Google, use HTTP cookies to collect meta-data (to generate revenue via Google Analytics), they compile that information against other data sets, either of their own or gathered from their clients like Facebook or DataLogix. My point is simply that there are other databases accessed by different parties using various techniques and practices that would simply workaround using VPN. google’s ga.js cookie is incredibly efficient and documents device IDs; pairing that info with your name or email address facilitates other conditions of possibility for exacting identity and geophysical whereabouts. Now, the extents to which PRISM mines data similarly to Google Analytics, Facebook or any of the big third party players is another question. I’m researching the relationship between third party data mining and how various securitization regimes perform their mining techniques. It is not clear to me how similar or effective PRISM is to the private sectors’ methods, but given the intimacy between these service providers and the NSA and FBI, I am certain their practices utilize far more than simply HTTP cookies. Christopher Soghoian’s dissertation from 2012 is a good reference here for exemplifying said relationships.

    Bottom line is that VPN can’t hide the things that DataLogix and Facebook purchase about you from a multitude of sources, both physical and digital. If the state compiles enough info, they can figure it out pretty easily.

  3. We have nothing to fear?
    A recent poll by the Washington Post asked 1000 Americans if they were OK with the activities of the NSA as recently outed by Mr. Snowden. The response was for the most part was yes, but there are some interesting points to consider.

    - Did those surveyed understand the full issues?
    - Did they believe, without proof, that the activities of the NSA (and the Canadian equivalent) were effective?
    - Were they of the misconception “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”

    Let’s touch on each of those subjects …

    As Michael points out, the issue is much more complex than most people realize. Without taking the time to look at all the ramifications for oneself and society as a whole, a simple poll result is essentially meaningless. This is an important and serious issue that requires informed contemplation.

    Another question being, is this surveillance effective? Well the answer to that is we just don’t know. It certainly didn’t catch the Boston bombers and the American authorities even had warning from Russia that they ignored, or failed to integrate. Further, without any transparency or public oversight there is no way for us to know if it has worked in the past. We are asked to just trust the government, which is ironic as trust requires accountability which there seems to be none.

    Finally, and perhaps most ominously, the catch phrase to pacify the masses is “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” is widely believed. Again, this is where informed understanding is needed. The link below is a great primer, but the basic premise is the power afforded by unconstrained surveillance will at some point be misused, at which point it is also too late to so anything about it.

    Take the time to read this article so you can help educate people to the fallacy of indifference …

  4. to be honest, i don’t think this will change internet usage drastically. I think this will only make people more aware of the government’s tactics.

  5. This is more indicative of the danger of this data

    Malte gave a talk to TED, this is the data behind that talk. This is the level of detail that is available on movement and activity while carrying a cell phone without having some one’s name.

    And of course the cooperating governments are not stupid, of course they know that the bilateral agreements they make cover the in-country legal aspects while still giving them access to their own citizens info. Do not believe for a moment that the are stupid.

  6. Ferguson T. says:

    Well… I’ll have you know.