Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dragnet Nation: Our Daughter's Book about Relentless Surveillance

Pervasive Surveillance

Dragnet Nation: A quest for privacy, security and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance was released this week.  Our daughter, Julia Angwin, wrote this book.

The book is about Internet surveillance, and how (if possible) to avoid it.

When we think about how our data is transmitted on the Internet, many of us think that data tracking is something mild and benign.  We think it is something like the way Amazon keeps a list of authors we read, and lets us know when one of our authors has a new book out.  That mental model is sweet but completely inaccurate.

There are at least 200 "data broker" companies building data profiles of people's activities on the Internet. They compete to sell this data to merchants, and will also share it with the government. Most of them won't let you see or correct your own data.

On Fresh Air (NPR) two days ago, Julia described how she tracked down some data broker companies and asked to see her data. Most refused to show it. She did get to see some of her data.  Some files were frighteningly accurate (her college dorm room number) and some files were completely inaccurate (she is not a single mother with only a high school education).  The company with the most inaccurate data about her was planning to sell this data to hospitals for "alternative credit scoring."  By law, traditional credit evaluation companies are required to share their data with you and allow you to correct it. Data brokers are under no such laws.  They own your data.  You have no rights to it.

And think about this: your smart phone is always in contact with the nearest cell tower.  Your phone is a location device, You can be tracked through your smart phone.

The Lighter Side

Despite its difficult topic, the book is enjoyable to read.  Julia decided to try to opt out of the surveillance. She describes some things that worked, and some things that didn't work.  Keeping her smart phone in a Faraday cage so she couldn't be tracked: this sort of worked.  She couldn't be tracked, but she couldn't be called.  Many of her strategies backfired in similar ways.  If you are in the system, you are in it.

Powerful passwords are useful, though not against surveillance. However, there are still ordinary hackers out there, trying to steal your data. Her search for strong passwords led to me being mentioned in the book. Making a strong password is a fairly time-consuming process. Julia taught her daughter (our granddaughter) a system to make passwords, and paid her $1 for each password she created.  I didn't know about this.

Our granddaughter came up with the idea that this password thing could be a cool little business. Out of the blue, my granddaughter emailed me to say that she could make passwords for me at $1 per password.

This was one weird email, from my point of view. I grew alarmed and sent an immediate email to Julia.  Julia reassured me the email was legit: my granddaughter really was setting up a little password business in the family, based on Julia paying her $1 per password. Enterprising kid.

This incident ended up in the book.

What you can do

Julia has suggestions for at least partial protection of your on-line identity.  You can find out more by buying Dragnet Nation or by going to the privacy tools section of her website.

If you want to see the opposite of privacy, you can always go to her website section on Stasi files (East German Secret Police) files on spying on social networks.

More references:

A short Wall Street Journal video clip about helping kids avoid digital footprints.

WSJ article: How to Protect Your Kids' Privacy On-LIne.

Julia on CBS News: Erasing your digital footprints

NPR, Fresh Air, interview with Julia: If you think you are anonymous online, think again

Marketplace: Trying to go off the grid. Completely.

Columbia Journalism Review of the book Data Invasion: Julia Angwin's journey to the depth of data

Bill Moyers essay recommending the book: An Antidote to Big Brother's Chill

JWT Intelligence interview with Julia Angwin

Leonard Lopate Show WNYC: How to Protect (Some of) Your Personal Data in 10 Not-So-Easy Steps

A final word

Yes, George and I are very proud of Julia!


Unknown said...

Great post. You an George have every right to be proud!

S Downs said...

I listened to the interview on "Fresh Air" the other day -- fascinating!