How Has The U.S. Government Been Getting User Data From Major Internet Companies?

Prism****IMPORTANT UPDATE****  Apparently the big Internet companies are not as “innocent” in all of this as they originally led us to believe.  So this additional information changes some of the conclusions that I reached in my original article.  It appears that some of the biggest Internet companies have been cooperating with the government in this data collection effort at least to a certain extent.  The following is from an article in the New York Times that describes how the U.S. government has been getting user data from major Internet companies…

The companies that negotiated with the government include Google, which owns YouTube; Microsoft, which owns Hotmail and Skype; Yahoo; Facebook; AOL; Apple; and Paltalk, according to one of the people briefed on the discussions. The companies were legally required to share the data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. People briefed on the discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing the content of FISA requests or even acknowledging their existence.

In at least two cases, at Google and Facebook, one of the plans discussed was to build separate, secure portals, like a digital version of the secure physical rooms that have long existed for classified information, in some instances on company servers. Through these online rooms, the government would request data, companies would deposit it and the government would retrieve it, people briefed on the discussions said.

****END OF UPDATE****

The U.S. government has been hacking in to the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple and has been taking their user data without their knowledge or consent.  According to the Washington Post, the information being stolen includes “audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs”.  This program is known as PRISM, and it was first revealed by the Washington Post on Thursday.  Since the story broke, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted that PRISM exists and so has Barack Obama.  The Washington Post initially claimed that all of the Internet companies were willingly handing over their user data to the government.  Now we are learning that is NOT true.  In fact, all of the Internet companies named in the Washington Post story have denied knowing about PRISM or ever giving the federal government permission to directly access their servers.  So this means that the U.S. government has been stealing massive amounts of user data from the largest Internet companies in the world without their permission.  Of course this is highly illegal and it directly violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but you can bet that the Obama administration is going to do everything that it can to get the courts to “make it legal”.  Hopefully the revelation of this program will be enough to get the American people to realize that we are rapidly being transformed into a Big Brother police state that is descending into tyranny.

Barack Obama has described the systematic gathering of cell phone records and the Internet spying that the federal government has been doing as “modest encroachments” that we should all just accept as part of the price of living in a modern world, but if we allow the government to get away with this, where will it end?

Even if we had a total “Big Brother” society where the government watched everything that we did 24 hours a day, bad people would still do bad things.  There would still be terror attacks and great tragedies.  No matter how much the government intrudes into our lives, it can never guarantee us 100% safety.

Those that founded the United States understood this.  They did not want this country to be turned into a police state.  That is why they guaranteed us some very important protections in the Bill of Rights.  If the government wants to do a search, there are some very important procedures that must be followed first.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears to believe that the Constitution does not apply to user data on the Internet.  The NSA is apparently hacking into Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple and taking whatever they want without ever getting permission from those companies.

You can bet that there are some very, very angry executives at those companies right now that are trying to figure out how to respond to these revelations.

All of these companies have vehemently denied that they were involved.  At this point, there is no reason to doubt their very strong denials.

For example, the following is what 

Dear Google users—

You may be aware of press reports alleging that Internet companies have joined a secret U.S. government program called PRISM to give the National Security Agency direct access to our servers. As Google’s CEO and Chief Legal Officer, we wanted you to have the facts.

First, we have not joined any program that would give the U.S. government—or any other government—direct access to our servers. Indeed, the U.S. government does not have direct access or a “back door” to the information stored in our data centers. We had not heard of a program called PRISM until yesterday.

Second, we provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law. Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don’t follow the correct process. Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users’ data are false, period. Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received—an order that appears to have required them to hand over millions of users’ call records. We were very surprised to learn that such broad orders exist. Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.

Finally, this episode confirms what we have long believed—there needs to be a more transparent approach. Google has worked hard, within the confines of the current laws, to be open about the data requests we receive. We post this information on our Transparency Report whenever possible. We were the first company to do this. And, of course, we understand that the U.S. and other governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety—including sometimes by using surveillance. But the level of secrecy around the current legal procedures undermines the freedoms we all cherish.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has issued a similar denial.  He insists that Facebook never even heard of PRISM until Thursday…

I want to respond personally to the outrageous press reports about PRISM:

Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the US or any other government direct access to our servers. We have never received a blanket request or court order from any government agency asking for information or metadata in bulk, like the one Verizon reportedly received. And if we did, we would fight it aggressively. We hadn’t even heard of PRISM before yesterday.

When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if is required by law. We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.

We strongly encourage all governments to be much more transparent about all programs aimed at keeping the public safe. It’s the only way to protect everyone’s civil liberties and create the safe and free society we all want over the long term.

So how has the U.S. government been getting this user data if they do not have the cooperation of these large Internet companies?

They have been stealing it.

Is this the kind of society that we want to have?  Do we really want the government to be free to hack into the servers of Internet companies and take user data any time that it wants?

And guess what?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the NSA has also been gathering massive amounts of credit card data as well…

The National Security Agency’s monitoring of Americans includes customer records from the three major phone networks as well as emails and Web searches, and the agency also has cataloged credit-card transactions, said people familiar with the agency’s activities.

So if you ever bought something embarrassing with a credit card, there is a very good chance that the NSA knows about it.

If you don’t like where all of this is headed, then now is the time to stand up and say something about it.

Sadly, the truth is that most of our politicians see absolutely nothing wrong with our current system.  The following is what Barack Obama said in response to the recent revelations about the NSA

“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” he said. “I think that on balance, we have established a policy and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable with.”

Do you feel comfortable with the fact that the NSA is hacking into major Internet companies and stealing their user data?

I know that I definitely am not.

I think that the journalist that originally broke the story about how the government is systematically gathering our phone records summed up what many of us are feeling right now pretty well

“There is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world,” charged Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for the British newspaper “The Guardian,” speaking on CNN. “That is not hyperbole. That is their objective.”

What do you think?

Is all of this government spying good for America or bad for America?

Please feel free to share your opinion by posting a comment below…

 

America’s Roads Have Been Turned Into A Revenue Generating Surveillance Grid

Traffic Stop - Photo by DarkKomodoWhat do speed traps, parking tickets, toll roads, speed cameras and red light cameras all have in common?  They are all major revenue sources for state and local governments.  All over America today there are state and local governments that are drowning in debt.  Many have chosen to use “traffic enforcement” as a way to raise desperately needed revenue.  According to the National Motorist Association, issuing speeding tickets raises somewhere between 4.5 billion and 6 billion dollars in the United States each year.  And the average price of a speeding ticket just keeps going up.  Today, the national average is about $150, but in many jurisdictions it is far higher.  For example, more than 16 million traffic tickets are issued in the state of California each year, and the average fine is approximately $250.  If you are wealthy that may not be much of a problem, but if you are a family that is barely scraping by every month that can be a major financial setback.  Meanwhile, America’s roads are also being systematically transformed into a surveillance grid.  The number of cameras watching our roads is absolutely exploding, and automated license plate readers are capturing hundreds of millions of data points on all of us.  As you drive down the highway, a police vehicle coming up behind you can instantly read your license plate and pull up a whole host of information about you.  This happened to me a few years ago.  I had pulled on to a very crowded highway in Virginia and within less than a minute a cop car had scanned me and was pulling me over because one of my stickers had expired.  But these automated license plate readers are being used for far more than just traffic enforcement now.  For example, officials in Washington D.C. are now using automated license plate readers to track the movements of every single vehicle that enters the city.  They know when you enter Washington, and they know when you leave.  So where is all of this headed?  Do we really want to live in a “Big Brother” society where the government constantly tracks all of our movements?

Back in the old days, the highways of America were great examples to the rest of the world of the tremendous liberties and freedoms that we enjoyed.  Americans loved to hop into their vehicles and take a drive.  But now government is sucking all of the fun out of driving.  The control freak bureaucrats that dominate our political system have figured out that giant piles of money can be raised by turning our roads into revenue raising tools.

At this point things have gotten so bad that even some police officers are admitting what is going on.  Just check out what a few of them told Car and Driver

The president of a state police union isn’t pretending it doesn’t happen. James Tignanelli, president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan union, says, “When elected officials say, ‘We need more money,’ they can’t look to the department of public works to raise revenues, so where do they find it? Police departments.

“A lot of police chiefs will tell you the goal is to have nobody speeding through their community, but heaven forbid if it should actually happen—they’d be out of money,” Tignanelli says.

Police Chief Michael Reaves of Utica, Michigan, says the role of law enforcement has changed over the years. “When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement, but if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues,” he says. “That’s just the reality nowadays.”

And as the economy has gone downhill, many jurisdictions have massively jacked up traffic fines.  According to the Los Angeles Times, various traffic fines in the Los Angeles area are far higher than they once were…

If you’re caught running a red light in Los Angeles, be prepared to shell out $446, up from $271 eight years ago. Make a rolling right turn at a stoplight and the ticket comes to $381 — more than double what it cost in 2008.

And of course the cost to the driver does not end with the ticket.  Your car insurance will likely go up as well.  In fact, one study found that a driver that just gets one speeding ticket will pay an additional 20 percent for car insurance for the next three to six years.

That can add up to a lot of money.

But politicians just keep wanting to find a way to issue even more tickets.  One of the hottest trends all over the country is to automate the issuing of traffic tickets by installing cameras.  According to USA Today, this has become a huge growth industry…

Sales of the cameras have nearly quadrupled since companies moved to digital and wireless technology in the mid-2000s. The number of local contracts for cameras was up to 689 last year, from 155 in 2005, according to industry data complied by market leader American Traffic Solutions (ATS).

And these automated traffic cameras can raise an enormous amount of cash.  Just check out what has been happening in Washington D.C.

The speeding and traffic light cameras have become more lucrative as their number in the District has increased. Combined, they issued tickets valued at $24.4 million in 2007. That figure more than doubled by 2010, to $50.9 million, and it reached $84.9 million in the last fiscal year.

But as annoying as those traffic cameras are, automated license plate readers are perhaps even more insidious.

The amount of data that these automated license plate readers are capturing is astounding.  The following is from a recent article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Photographing a single license plate one time on a public city street may not seem problematic, but when that data is put into a database, combined with other scans of that same plate on other city streets, and stored forever, it can become very revealing. Information about your location over time can show not only where you live and work, but your political and religious beliefs, your social and sexual habits, your visits to the doctor, and your associations with others. And, according to recent research reported in Nature, it’s possible to identify 95% of individuals with as few as four randomly selected geospatial datapoints (location + time), making location data the ultimate biometric identifier.

Our license plates have essentially become “our papers” which the government can read whenever it would like without even asking for our permission.

According to L.A. Weekly, local police agencies in the L.A. area have captured more than 160 million data points on private citizens using these automated license plate readers…

L.A. Weekly has learned that more than two dozen law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County are using hundreds of these “automatic license plate recognition” devices (LPRs) — units about the size of a paperback book, usually mounted atop police cruisers — to devour data on every car that catches their electronic eye.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department are two of the biggest gatherers of automatic license plate recognition information. Local police agencies have logged more than 160 million data points — a massive database of the movements of millions of drivers in Southern California.

Each data point represents a car and its exact whereabouts at a given time. Police have already conducted, on average, some 22 scans for every one of the 7,014,131 vehicles registered in L.A. County.

As the use of these devices becomes more widespread and they become even more sophisticated, eventually the government will know where almost all of us are and what almost all of us are doing at all times.

The following is a brief except from a Washington Post article that detailed how automated license plate readers are now being used to create a “dragnet” that will track the movements of all vehicles from the time that they enter Washington D.C. to the time that they leave…

More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time, helping police pinpoint stolen cars and fleeing killers. But the program quietly has expanded beyond what anyone had imagined even a few years ago.

With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the District, which has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well, and local agencies plan to add many more in coming months, creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District.

This is just the beginning.

For now, as long as you carefully obey all traffic laws and you don’t work in a major city like Washington D.C., the changes that are happening probably do not affect you too much.

But the key is to see where all of this is going.  Our roads are slowly but surely being transformed into a revenue generating control grid.  And this is just yet another example of how government feels the need to constantly watch, monitor, track and regulate everything that we do.

Does anyone else feel like the life is slowly being choked out of our society, or am I alone?

Traffic Stop Photo By Jeff Dean

Data Mining: Big Corporations Are Gathering Every Shred Of Information About You That They Can And Selling It For Profit

When most people think of “Big Brother”, they think of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security and other shadowy government agencies.  Yes, they are definitely watching you, but so are many big corporations.  In fact, there are some companies that are making tens of millions of dollars by gathering every shred of information about all of us that they can and selling it for profit to anyone willing to pay the price.  It is called “data mining”, and these data miners want to keep track of literally everything that you do.  Most people know that basically everything that we do on the Internet is tracked, but data mining goes far beyond that.  When you use a customer rewards card at the supermarket, the data miners know about it.  When you pay for a purchase with a credit card or a debit card, the data miners know about it.  Every time you buy a prescription drug, that information is sold to someone.  Every time you apply for a loan, a whole host of organizations is notified.  Information has become an extremely valuable commodity, and thanks to computers and the Internet it is easier to gather information than ever before.  But that also means that our personal information is no longer “private”, and this trend is only going to get worse in the years ahead.

You have probably never even heard of many of these companies that are making millions of dollars selling your personal information.  Acxiom and Epsilon are two of the biggest names in the industry, and most of the time they are selling your information to companies that want to sell you stuff.

Almost every single day, very personal information about you is being bought and sold without your permission and it is all perfectly legal.

A recent article in The Week says the following about Acxiom….

An Arkansas company you’ve probably never heard of knows more about you than some of your friends, Google, and even the FBI — and it’s selling your data

The scale of the information gathering that Acxiom does is absolutely mind blowing.  If you can believe it, Acxiom actually keeps track of more than 190 million people inside the United States….

The company fits into a category called database marketing. It started in 1969 as an outfit called Demographics Inc., using phone books and other notably low-tech tools, as well as one computer, to amass information on voters and consumers for direct marketing. Almost 40 years later, Acxiom has detailed entries for more than 190 million people and 126 million households in the U.S., and about 500 million active consumers worldwide. More than 23,000 servers in Conway, just north of Little Rock, collect and analyze more than 50 trillion data ‘transactions’ a year.

So what does Acxiom want to know about you?

Everything.

The following is from a recent New York Times article about Acxiom….

IT knows who you are. It knows where you live. It knows what you do.

It peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the I.R.S., or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google. If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams — and on and on.

Companies such as Acxiom literally want every shred of information about you that they can possibly get.

Once they gather all that data, Acxiom analyzes it, packages it and sells it to large corporations such as Wells Fargo, HSBC, Toyota, Ford and Macy’s.

And being in the “Big Brother business” is very, very profitable.

Acxiom made more than 77 million dollars in profits during their latest fiscal year.

Some members of Congress are very alarmed by all of this.  According to U.S. Senator John Kerry, this industry is virtually unregulated….

“There’s no code of conduct. There’s no standard. There’s nothing that safeguards privacy and establishes rules of the road.”

So what do big corporations do with all of this data after they purchase it from companies like Acxiom?

Well, for one thing, they use it to try to predict how you will behave.  A Daily Beast article gave some examples of how this works….

Predicting people’s behavior is becoming big business—and increasingly feasible in an era defined by accessible information. Data crunching by Canadian Tire, for instance, recently enabled the retailer’s credit card business to create psychological profiles of its cardholders that were built upon alarmingly precise correlations. Their findings: Cardholders who purchased carbon-monoxide detectors, premium birdseed, and felt pads for the bottoms of their chair legs rarely missed a payment. On the other hand, those who bought cheap motor oil and visited a Montreal pool bar called “Sharx” were a higher risk. “If you show us what you buy, we can tell you who you are, maybe even better than you know yourself,” a former Canadian Tire exec said. 

I don’t know about you, but I find that a bit creepy.

Later on in that same article, how some U.S. companies are using this kind of information was explained….

Other industries have bolstered their bottom lines by predicting how consumers will behave, according to Super Crunchers. UPS predicts when customers are at risk of fleeing to one of its competitors, and then tries to prevent the loss with a telephone call from a salesperson. And with its “Total Rewards” card, Harrah’s casinos track everything that players win and lose, in real time, and then analyze their demographic information to calculate their “pain point”—the maximum amount of money they’re likely to be willing to lose and still come back to the casino in the future. Players who get too close to their pain point are likely to be offered a free dinner that gets them off the casino floor.

So is all of this data gathering harmless?

Does it simply make our economy more efficient?

Or is there a greater danger here?

At some point could all of our personal information be used for more insidious purposes?

One thing is for sure – this is a trend that is not going away any time soon.

As our society becomes even more integrated through the Internet, data gathering is going to become even more comprehensive.

Eventually these complicated computer algorithms will be able to make very detailed predictions about your future behavior with a very, very high degree of accuracy.

When you add government snooping into the equation, it becomes easy to see why privacy advocates are going crazy these days.

Our society is literally being transformed into a technological monitoring grid.  Virtually everything we do is monitored, tracked and recorded in some way.

If we are not very careful, eventually we could end up living in a society that is much more oppressive than anything George Orwell ever dreamed of.

So what do you think of all of this snooping, spying and data mining?

Do you believe that it is harmless or do you believe that it represents a significant threat?

Feel free to post a comment with your thoughts below….

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