Monthly Archives: December 2013

Thwarting Terror: How Much of Your Personal Data is Enough?

Digital art by Rob Shields

Digital art by Rob Shields

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor

(Originally published December 27, 2013):

On Friday, December 27, 2013, Judge William Pauley III, of the U.S. District Court (for the Southern District of New York), ruled that the National Security Administration’s controversial program of spying on American citizens does not violate the Constitution.  In the context of a previous opinion by a federal judge which ruled against the NSA weeks earlier, a showdown on the issue is now likely before the Supreme Court.

Judge Pauley said that the Fourth Amendment does not cover individual protections from the kind of bulk data routinely collected and managed by phone companies and providers of high speed internet data.  Acknowledging that the wide net cast by the NSA is inconvenient and inelegant, Pauley nonetheless cited the terror attacks of 9/11 as an example of what can happen if law enforcement agencies are not able to collect and collate crucial digital data.  In his written decision Judge Pauley said that it is essential that U.S. intelligence operations be able to connect “fragmented and fleeting communications to reconstruct and eliminate al-Qaeda’s terror network.”

Events had already been moving swiftly.  On Friday, December 20, President Barack Obama acknowledged to reporters that the thorny issue of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker now being given asylum in Russia, will have to be settled “by the rule of law,” which was the president’s way of saying that he would not weigh in on the issue of offering Snowden a pardon if he chooses any form of negotiated return to the United States.  In other words, whether one believes Snowden to be a whistleblower in the best sense of the word, or an outright traitor, it would not be for the president himself to decide, but for law enforcement, prosecutors and courts.

On the previous Monday, U.S. federal judge Richard Leon had ruled that the NSA’s longstanding program of data collection was unconstitutional, declaring it “Orwellian,” and days later a panel commissioned by the White House agreed that action should be taken to rein in what was arguably the most penetrative intrusion ever taken by a government against its people—a harvest of personal information so comprehensive that, in fact, it would have once been considered dystopian social fiction.

The troublesome episode, which now—on the surface—appears to be bringing to a close one chapter and opening another, began when Snowden, a mid-level computer geek working at the NSA’s headquarters, walked out with small flash drives containing a trove of thousands of documents, including some which revealed the astonishing extent to which the National Security Administration had been spying on Americans.  And not just “spying” by the garden-variety definition—using warrants, court orders, subpoenas, traditional surveillance methods—but through a massive, unprecedented program begun in late 2003 in which trillions of bits of information were routinely harvested from cell phone records, land line calls, online transactions, emails, text messages, credit card activity, computer uploads and downloads, and search engine requests.

More startling perhaps to civil libertarians was the ease with which many of the companies involved gave up that data, in some cases cooperating grudgingly, in still other cases offering full support.  Huge firms like Verizon, AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, Google and eBay willingly gave the government virtually unlimited access to the data of their customers.  And until earlier this year, the scope and reach of the program had been steadily expanding as new technologies created new pipelines of information, and as ever-more people use digital technology to process data and complete transactions.

In the spring, immediately after the full extent of the NSA’s program hit the news—accompanied by a more complete understanding in the press of the huge data center the NSA was constructing in the dessert south of Salt Lake City, Utah—the spaghetti hit the fan.  Traditional post 9/11 political boundaries were blurred.  Many conservatives were as outraged as liberals.  To some, the program seemed to confirm our worst fears about government activities and intrusions, not our best.  Security hawks defended the program by reminding us that in a world where terrorists could strike anywhere, at any time, such data harvesting was a necessary adjunct to the business of protecting citizens living in porous democracies.

But around the time the young Snowden was planning his getaway to Hong Kong, we learned that the sprawling new multi-billion dollar data center in Utah would house the largest set of mega-computers and file-servers ever built, machines able to capture and cache and presumably sort nearly every electronic activity of your daily life.  And in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the prevailing logic at some of the highest levels was that civil liberties and personal privacy were secondary to national security.  And besides, if you have nothing to hide, why worry if your personal activity is being collected by the government.

Then there was the reasonable parallel argument that businesses have been harvesting and collating your personal preferences and private data for years.  For companies like Amazon, Travelocity and Facebook this is a no-brainer without moral consequence: algorithms once too complex to even imagine are now routinely used to determine your every move, keystroke and preference—often with chilling accuracy and skill.  Big businesses, from banks to retailers to credit cards companies, have their own detailed cache of your personal data which these firms use to market services and products directly to you, or via their partners in overlapping industries of retail areas.  And in a world increasingly wired for video surveillance, your exact physical whereabouts are useful not merely to law enforcement, but also to thousands of retailers who can track your purchases and preferences in real-time.

In the U.S. and many other countries, storefront, restaurant and retail video monitoring by businesses is both legal and unregulated.  By harvesting the data you post on social media such as Facebook, Linked-In, My Space or Google +, these firms can map your image, store it for future reference, merge your purchasing preferences with “likes,” “dislikes” and travel patterns—all to form a digital file so comprehensive that upon recognizing you as you enter a store, restaurant of coffee shop, it can generate personalized offers, specialized discounts and reminders…in some cases, using Twitter to send these nudges directly to your phone or handheld device.

So when we learned that the NSA was already tracking us in similarly comprehensive ways, capturing, collating and storing virtually every digital footprint from our path through life, some merely shrugged and said “well, that was inevitable.”

But the question can be easily reframed: in a free society, should such comprehensive forms of data collection be considered inevitable?  And should we happily, or even grudgingly, accept those conditions as merely part of life in a digital age?

Recent books on the subject have offered no easy answers, even by authors and digital social thinkers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov, who conclude that democratic societies have precious little time to reclaim the “value” of our digital data, creativity and personal identity—before we slip into an Orwellian age in which our every click, chat and facial tick is tracked and screened for “suspicious” activity or “inappropriate” engagement.

A few cynics question whether a government unable to construct and maintain one seemingly simple website (the Affordable Care Act exchange) could actually perform any useful task with the trillions of bits of data the NSA currently collects under its spying program.  Yet, even against the context of the bitter and contentious health care debate and its subplot of a failed websites and cancelled insurance coverage, the NSA controversy continued its seemingly exponential growth.  When some of the documents Snowden gave to reporters revealed that the NSA’s program of collecting phone and cellular metadata had been routinely expanded to include the heads-of-state of other countries, most notably German chancellor Angela Merkel, outrage seemed to flow in from a variety of geographic directions.

The President’s plea had been one of nolo contendere.  As in his previous statements to the press, he said he had been unaware that such unbounded spying was taking place.  He quickly called Merkel and assured her that her private chats, texts and phone conversations were no longer being monitored by the NSA.  But serious damage to relations between the U.S. and its allies seemed likely, even inevitable.

Indeed, his own panel of commissioners had already warned that by allowing the NSA to harvest the private conversations of foreign leaders could have immeasurably bad consequences for international relations and U.S. foreign policy.  How agreeable would heads-of-state of U.S. allies (on any continent) be in the future when asked to cooperate in anti-terror programs or military activities if those same leaders knew that their own cell phone or Blackberry conversations were being recorded or monitored by the most super-secret of U.S. spy operations?  And would such routine spying on the leaders of nations like France, Britain, Italy or Germany have a negative impact on future economic summits and the resulting trade and monetary agreements?

That governments spy on one another is, of course, not a shock to any intelligent reader of the news—of any age.  Such has been the way of the world for over one hundred years, and by the time the Cold War had reached its height in the 1960s and 70s, there was even a sense that such spying was an inevitable byproduct of the tension between two sets of ideas—those of the capitalist west, and those of the Marxist-Leninist east.  But this was tradecraft.  Rare indeed during those dark decades was the spying meant to reach into the behaviors and patterns of private citizens (and in the U.S. rarely without warrants or subpoenas, and rarer still without a paper trail in the post-Watergate era), and spying on foreign leaders was a tool deployed with great care and precision—for the costs were high, and the risk of fallout extreme.

Technology has changed that, enabling data-harvesting to take on a nearly automated appetite with minimal human intervention, and often with little accountability for approval or decision-making.  The current brouhaha centers upon revelations that the NSA’s interests included a wide range of areas: business relationships and regulatory actions of European governments; court dispositions and government positions on antitrust activity involving U.S. companies; foreign ministries and diplomatic outreach of at least 60 countries; private texts and private phone calls by Israeli leaders; international aid organizations such as UNICEF; and a wide swath of data harvested from top government posts in Spain, Italy, Britain, Germany, Canada and France.  Included in the NSA’s wide net, perhaps ironically, was private correspondence between European Union officials regarding antitrust actions against Google for their alleged manipulations of search engine data.

This goes far beyond the notion of drones capturing high-resolution images of Iranian facilities suspected of housing nuclear materials.  This goes beyond tracking al Qaeda operatives in a truck on a highway near the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Many of the president’s apologists have defended his reputation by pointing out that some of these programs were set in motion in the latter years of the Bush administration.  Obama’s critics—both left and right—find this form of artful dodge disingenuous, at best.  Candidate Obama had campaigned on a platform of international cooperation and transparency, promising to end the age of unilateralist action so embraced by so-called neo-conservatives.

Further, the blowback seems to include concerns beyond the borders of the U.S.  The NSA was joined in its program of spying on foreign leaders and international regulatory agencies by its counterpart in the United Kingdom, GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters), which may have also been central to the wide tract of information being gathered among the European nations.  Many reporters see in this an indication of specific approval and support by top White House officials—hardly the action of rogue supervisors, nor the result of NSA computer geeks with an abundance of code-writing skills and too much time on their hands.

Still, at the core of the current debate is the concern by some libertarians (of a variety of political stripes, not just liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans) that at the heart of our new technologically-interdependent world is a profound loss of privacy.  If the U.S. health care website’s failure represents the limitations of a government to understand how technology engages its citizens, then the NSA’s penetrations seem to represent a less comical but surely darker view of how far governments may go—almost entirely in secret—to track our activities and movements.

Last week, during his end-of-the-year press conference, the typically unflappable President Obama was noticeably uncomfortable with his explanations and mea culpa in front of reporters.  Several top-tier journalists pressed the issue of Snowden—as well as the overall issue of accountability—with persistence.  But the president was not willing to take responsibility for the fiasco, nor was he willing to offer any executive direction as to the legal fate of Snowden, who now lives in Moscow.

But in the meantime (especially in the wake of the recent theft of millions of credit card accounts from Target’s retail database), many Americans are left to wonder if there are any safe boundaries left intact when it comes to their most personal data and private information.

When it comes to their government and its security apparatus, it looks now as though the question will soon be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The Not-So-Lonely Travels


By Krista TaniThursday Review Contributor

(Originally published Friday, December 13, 2013).  The Tube was packed. An animated man, oblivious to those around him, whacked my forehead with a British flag plastered with the Queen’s face. I smiled.

I love how much some Britons adore their Queen, and their fondness for the royal family was in full stride this week. I was visiting England for five days, and my trip had unintentionally and providentially coincided with Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. I knew I had to get back to my sketchy hostel before dark, but I just wasn’t quite ready. I wanted to walk around the city a bit more, but hadn’t picked a place to go. The passengers around me began moving towards the door as we approached the St. James’s Park station, so I decided that this stop was as good as any. As soon as I stepped onto the platform, I was swept along by a river of people all flowing in the same direction. I mentally shrugged my shoulders and walked along, curious as to our destination. Before I knew it, I was right outside Buckingham Palace where hoards of people were cheering in front of a giant screen broadcasting the Diamond Jubilee Concert, which featured musical stars ranging from Jessie J to Sir Elton John. Once again I was amazed. I had stumbled across a totally unexpected and completely rewarding experience.

t traveled alone prior to my semester abroad in Spain, but it became necessary in order tot expected that of myself.

Traveling alone also had more practical benefits. I tended to meet more new people than when I travelled with friends. When I have travelled alone, I could go where I wanted to go and spend more time in the places that aligned with my interests. I also found myself traveling with a more defined purpose rather than aimless wandering or quick sightseeing. I am interested in pursuing a career in the museum field and was able to purposefully visit various institutions, spending hours examining their exhibit content and methods of engaging their visitors. I doubt I would have been able to do that had I been with a group.

Solitary travel definitely has its drawbacks and requires a great deal of practicality and common sense, but I think that everyone should take at least one trip alone, whether it’s ten miles away or ten thousand. It is wonderful to wander, but I have personally found it more rewarding to curb some of that aimlessness by intentionally choosing destinations that can teach me something new about the things that I’m interested in. Travel with friends, travel with family, but also take time to travel alone because you may surprise yourself.

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To Return on Time is Kind, to Rewind is Divine


By Earl H. Perkins,  Thursday Review Associate Editor

This past November the marketplace finally killed Blockbuster Video—the company that starting dying long ago for its refusal to see the handwriting on the wall.

They say the popularity of digital movie distribution brought on its demise, but I like to consider another scenario.

At one time, Blockbuster seemed to have a store on almost every corner in this country.  Founded in 1985 by computer programmer David Cook, the first Blockbuster store opened in suburban Dallas, Texas.  Cook and his partners developed and implanted what was—by those standards—a sophisticated computer database and check-out system for VHS and Betamax video cassettes of popular movies.  Cook quickly attracted more investors, including Wayne Huizenga, who bought the majority of stock in the new video rental chain.

Using a flexible business model which allowed each retail location to easily adapt to its community or neighborhood—and by employing mostly teenagers and young people willing to work for relatively low wages in button-down shirts—Blockbuster became a cultural and marketplace phenomenon akin to McDonalds or Burger King.  Indeed, at its height Blockbuster operated over 9000 video stores, making it one of the biggest retail brands of the 20th Century.

There was fierce competition, but Blockbuster bought up the companies it couldn’t run out of business or marginalize: Sound Warehouse & Music Plus, Movie Gallery, Erol’s Video, Ritz Video, Hollywood Video, Xtra-vision and others.  More profits rolled in.  Swollen with cash in the early 1990s, Blockbuster bought Spelling Entertainment and a one-third interest in Republic Pictures before a huge merger with Viacom in 1994, a deal in which Viacom shelled out a record-breaking $8.4 billion.  And still the company grew, expanding into sports entertainment, theme parks, and buying up video rental chains in dozens of countries, including Canada, Britain, Portugal and Japan.

But a software geek named Reed Hastings, and his drive to the gym one day, put the video giant on a path to permanent bankruptcy.

Back in 1997 Hastings forgot about a copy of Apollo 13 that he’d rented, but the memory of that videotape came rushing back after he received a late fee for $40 from Blockbuster.  He decided there had to be a better plan than purposely alienating all your customers.  After all, who on this planet hasn’t accidentally forgotten to return a video on time?  Later that day, as he was headed to his gym for a workout, he had his business epiphany: the gym charged between $30 and $40 a month for unlimited access.  In short, for one simple, flat fee, you could work out as many times as you wanted, any time the gym was open.  Franchises like Gold’s Gym had a retail model that was flexible enough to meet almost any customer’s schedule or lifestyle.

This was certainly a better business model than what the major video players offered.  By that year Blockbuster had what was rapidly becoming a monopoly, and that meant that they didn’t have to worry about customer service, especially in those markets where Hollywood Video or Movie Gallery were fading.  Some of Blockbuster’s employees were truly wonderful, but when you ran into a bad one it was like negotiating with the Third Reich.  They let you know they were on every corner and they weren’t going anywhere.  Nor would they budge.

After extensive research, Hastings teamed with Marc Randolph to start a flat-rate film rental-by-mail service, which took the industry by storm.  Just about every customer has had a disagreement with Blockbuster, but Hastings was already a millionaire from the sale of his software company.  It turns out he had a knack for debugging software, which had previously not been done very effectively.

Next, he decided to debug the world of video rental, where the simple act of forgetting to rewind, or the return of a tape a day late, would become cause for customer grief.  He would simplify that model to eliminate the hassles.  Hastings called his by-mail operation Netflix.  Soon, Netflix became just as ubiquitous as the iconic Blockbuster storefront, but with the apparently decisive advantage of no late fees: the movie shows up in your mailbox, you watch it when you get around to it; then, you mail it back at your convenience by sticking in a little prepaid envelope.  No late night drive to the video store; no arguments with the obtuse clerk behind the counter; no store manager pointing to the blue and white sign that said “to rewind is divine.”

Almost overnight, Netflix became its own cultural phenomenon.  The explosion of Netflix (and the parallel growth of Redbox, a kiosk-type machine from which customers can rent movies with the same ease as purchasing a vending machine Dr. Pepper) to provide first-run movies for a couple dollars combined to sound the death knell for Blockbuster.  Blockbuster was bought and sold by larger companies at various times in the last several years, and each new investor struggled to halt the downward slide.  There were even late attempts to replicate the Netflix model.  But the bleeding continued until its stock became worthless and its inventory meaningless.

The retail giant will close its DVD-by-mail business by mid-December, and its remaining 300 US stores should be shuttered by early January.

Dish Network paid $320 million for Blockbuster as it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2011.  The satellite pay TV service retains the company’s licensing rights and its huge video library. Dish is focusing on Blockbuster @Home’s streaming service (added fee for Dish Pay-TV subscribers) and Blockbuster On Demand’s streaming service for the general public.

Interestingly enough, Hastings says internet television is the wave of the future. And I wouldn’t be betting against this guy again.  After all, he offered the Netflix deal to Blockbuster first, but they saw no future in it and showed him the door.

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