WEB OF SECRETS

The curious lack of enthusiasm for getting to the bottom of the ties between the current administration and Russia is about more than partisan politics and Americans' general lack of interest in anything substantive. The whole story makes people uneasy because it speaks to a fundamental change in the world that has unsettling consequences for all of us. Privacy is essentially dead, and we don't want to learn just how dead it is. The implications are too frightening.

We get stories about email hacks, computer viruses, information theft, and other forms of electronic snooping to understand – whether we realize it or not – that the concept of privacy on the internet does not truly exist. Anyone willing to devote the time, effort, and resources to getting at our personal information can do so. The only reason it doesn't happen to you and I is that you and I are not important. If we were, hell or high water couldn't stop an interested party from reading your emails, flipping through your text messages, and so on.

Given the extent to which we have transitioned huge parts of our lives onto the internet, this is not a reality we are eager to confront. Not many of us have an internet footprint that would involve issues of national security, but I think it makes people profoundly uncomfortable to see these stories on the news and realize that under the right circumstances, everything we have ever said or done online could suddenly become available for the world to read. If you don't believe that, pause for a moment and imagine that everyone you know could read everything you've ever said (some of it about them, no doubt) in a text, email, IM, and so on. The best case scenario would be some serious embarrassment. The worst is documentation of activities that could land you in legal trouble, given that those text messages to your weed dealer probably aren't nearly as inscrutable as you suppose them to be.

The technology and talent for invading someone's privacy online will only get better in the future. The fact that your credit card number, identity, bank account, and email haven't been hacked is not an indication that online security measures are protecting you, but that you're not important enough for the people who have these skills to use them against you. As the ability to pry improves, electronic blackmail is likely to become the unstoppable billion dollar illegal activity of the future. "Pay up or else everything goes on Wikileaks" is a demand that many people in the professional world are likely to have a hard time ignoring. If you're in a field in which it matters in the least how other people see you (i.e., nearly every profession) you aren't going to be pleased by the thought of the world finding out that you forward off-color jokes, have a deep and lasting fondness for illegal drugs, consume a truly heroic amount of porn, write long harangues against your immediate superiors at work, like taking pictures of yourself in various states of undress, have a thriving account on Furry Fetish Personals, or any of the hundreds of other things people do in their private lives under the assumption that the phrase "private lives" is meaningful. We aren't quite ready to admit to ourselves that if the wrong people take an interest in you, the idea of privacy effectively ceases to exist.

On an intellectual level the majority of Americans believe it's important to know fully what sort of connections elected officials might have to a foreign government or any other potentially questionable interests. When we pause to consider how that information has become available to the public and to law enforcement, though, we are divided into two groups: those of us made uncomfortable by the extent to which electronic spies can pry into our lives and those of us who don't understand the issue well enough to realize the implications.

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30 Responses to “WEB OF SECRETS”

  1. SeaTea Says:

    I wonder what the lag time is between the privacy singularity being reached and a post-privacy world? My nieces are teenagers, and they seem to have zero shits to give about their privacy. They assume everyone knows everything about each other and they willingly put every single moment of their lives online for their peers to scrutinize. Is it possible we'd get to the point, seemingly where we are with politics currently, where nothing is shocking? Where nothing, no matter how vile, precludes you from being President, for example?

  2. ilr1950 Says:

    The Republicans will defend Trump as long as they think they can benefit from his Presidency. Right n ow most Republicans, particularly McConnell and Ryan see no farther than the political party Trump represents and the ignore the damage he is doing to that very same party. On the plus side, Trump has galvanized the American voting public in ways I have never seen before, and I remember voting for Nixon.

  3. Prairie Bear Says:

    Maybe it's time for the Butlerian Jihad.

  4. HoosierPoli Says:

    Optimistic counterpoint: Our attention is so dominated by people who WILLINGLY contribute embarrassing material to the internet to get attention that we could never possibly catch up with the people whose secrets have been bared without their consent. After all, how many sextapes have launched million-dollar careers? Two jump immediately to mind and both cases are ten years old at this point. If anything, the Internet is OVERRUN by people desperate to share their innermost secrets for a half-chance at Interwebs fame and failing miserably in the attempt. Combine that with attention spans that are declining logarithmically and a proliferation of different venues and the odds of an "IRL" encounter on the internet approach zero.

  5. Kovpakistan Says:

    There's another reason for it though- Russia got to where it is today thanks to the global capitalist system. Putin built his fragile empire on high oil prices, foreign investment, and a Western financial system more than willing to open its banks and markets to dirty Russian money. If you really got to the bottom of Trump's connections, you'd inevitably start finding more connections to far more individuals. Some of them no doubt Democrats as well.

    For all the talk about Democracy and human rights, the West has happily hid the money of dictators and their cronies and it continues to do so, because any hard crackdown on those practices would eventually start to affect members of the Western ruling classes. Think of the Panama Papers, for example.

  6. JustRuss Says:

    "Anyone willing to devote the time, effort, and resources to getting at our personal information can do so. The only reason it doesn't happen to you and I is that you and I are not important. "

    Actually, I can think of one important person whose emails did not get hacked. Hint: Her name starts with Hilary.

    Security is expensive and inconvenient. And for many of the entities who hold are data, there's not much downside if they get breached. That needs to get fixed.

  7. Talisker Says:

    Computer security is not unlike physical security. There is no such thing as perfect security; to a large extent, you get what you pay for; and you have to compromise between security and access.

    The British Queen is one of the most heavily guarded people in the world; but on several occasions over the years, skilled or lucky intruders have gotten past security and into the royal apartments at Buckingham Palace. If the Queen wanted to live on an island in the middle of nowhere, it would be much easier to keep people away; but Buckingham Palace is in the middle of London, and has many entrances with hundreds of people coming and going. Lesser security is traded for greater accessibility.

    The problem with online security is, many people don't take even the most basic precautions. Oftentimes, a system is only as secure as the least responsible person who uses it. Metaphorically speaking, many of those users will happily leave the front door wide open or give the keys to anyone who asks nicely.

    @SeaTea: This is beginning to happen already. Mhairi Black was unexpectedly elected to the British Parliament in 2015, at the age of 20. She'd had a Twitter account since her mid-teens and made a number of impolitic tweets (fans of Rival Sports Team are shitheads, that type of thing). General consensus was, "Let's not hold it against her, she was just a kid."

  8. ruston Says:

    The thing is, this is true of ALL security measures, not just online ones. Your front door locks can be picked. Your car locks can be bypassed. Your fence can be climbed.

    However, Ed's got part of this wrong. It's not just that people don't do these things because the stuff in your house/car/whatever isn't valuable enough. It's that you've made it annoying enough to try to access them that it triggers internalized rules.

    Imagine you're walking down an empty street, and you come across a dollar bill on the sidewalk. There is minimal chance of being observed. Would you pick it up? Probably 99% of you say yes.

    What if it's a 20? A 50?

    What if it's not on the sidewalk, but just inside someone's front yard? What if it's five feet in? Ten feet in? What if you have to pass through an open gate? A closed but unlocked gate? Climb a small fence? A tall fence?

    As the barriers become greater, a larger and larger percentage of you will drop out- the potential delay in action gives your brain time to raise objections, and various internalized behaviors will kick in. It could be a case containing $10,000, and a large part of the population would not step into someone's yard to take it.

    This is the actual basis of security, cyber- and otherwise. Perfect security is impossible- the only real way to keep a secret is to tell no one. Real security is always relative, and related to how annoying we can make it.

  9. Jestbill Says:

    Cameras everywhere.
    Suppose the computers could recognize you from your picture. Suppose a bunch of corps decided to link those computers together so that you would be identified wherever and whenever you went.

    No shoplifting. No false alibis. No insurance fraud.

    Yes, even that could be hacked so juries would still have to guess at what actually happened.

  10. Mo Says:

    Gee, it used to be that you could bust loose and move to the big city to get away from prying small town gossips and being identified, tagged, and socially pigeon-holed for your entire life. "Fuck just one pig…"

    Guessing the new cliche phrase is going to be, "So what? Fuck you."

    Oops, almost forgot: Hi, SkyBot! Nice day, huh?

  11. mothra Says:

    Well, the hacking is bad, yes, but the financial dealings are the real meat of the matter and information regarding those are found on boring old paper. However Ed's point is well-taken and I think as Kovpakistan hints, EVERYONE in Congress is probably sweating a bit at the idea of what lifting this particular stone will uncover.

  12. Michael Kimmitt Says:

    Teenagers don't care about privacy right up to the moment where they can't get into their preferred school or job because of lack of it.

    That is — sometimes people who lack life experience make decisions based on a shared lack of life experience. Not their fault, but that's how it is.

  13. Nunya Says:

    Shame seems to be nonexistent in Millenials and Gen Z. I'm not sure how valuable blackmail will be when absolutely everything is shared automatically and without thought.

  14. quixote Says:

    Getting into specific schools, yes, your internet trail can be a small problem. But the real in-your-business screws get applied in the work world.

    I'm betting that once enough of the who-cares people get denied incomes, insurance, mortgages, whatever based on their histories we're going to see a lot more Right To Be Forgotten laws passed.

  15. Michael Kimmitt Says:

    I certainly hope the fuck so.

  16. democommie Says:

    New York (and other states?) is looking at instituting the use of a "Textalyzer" that will enable the cops to look at the cellphones of drivers in MV accidents and see whether they were using their phones while driving–ilegal most places. The civil libertarians are up in arms about it because of privacy issues.

    I'm not sure what it mighty take to guarantee privacy for everyone (I'm kidding, privacy is pretty much over) but I think it would be more than fine with me if the service providers were put on notice, immediately, following an incident and told to lock access to those records of activity on the cell phone.

    The guy who is pushing this apparently lost a son who was riding in a vehicle with a texting driver.

    Sorry if someone already brought this up and I missed it.

  17. Katydid Says:

    @Demo; every single member of my immediate family has been the victim of an accident by an asshole on a cellphone while driving. Three totalled cars, one car with $14,000 worth of damage (on a 2-week-old car) and the victim in the hospital for 3 months. One follow-on fatality (the asshole on the cellphone slammed into my spouse's car at a red light, spouse's car was propelled through the intersection where it t-boned another car and killed that driver).

    I'm fully in favor of people on cellphones while driving to be pulled from the car and their eyes ripped out of their heads with a rusty screwdriver and all their fingers amputated.

  18. April Says:

    Katy – Me too. Me. In 1997 (?) when only the rich had those big cell phones. A guy in a truck turned in front of me. Broke my ankle.

  19. democommie Says:

    @ Katydid:

    I have similar feelings about people who get angry at cyclists, other motorists or pedestrians for real or perceived violations of THEIR rules of the road. And then, of course, we have the idiotz wit teh gunz in their carz and cellphones AND drinking.

    I was on a bus this afternoon, an hour or so before I typed my previous comment and the driver said, "What an idiot!' after a guy pulled out and turned left in front of the bus while the bus had the right of way. Bus drivers have the added burden of being aware of what's going on IN the bus and what will happen if they have to slam on the brakes or take evasive action. I would testify against an asshole like the one that cut the bus off this afternoon, in a NY second.

  20. GunstarGreen Says:

    Oh, privacy exists alright. But achieving it requires an understanding of the computerized systems that rule our lives that the common person simply is not interested in acquiring. Not that they aren't capable, mind — they're simply not interested.

    Computers are not magic. They are machines. There is no magical "private place" that your facebook posts or your tweets or your text messages go to, safe and sound in the ether. In order for someone to read computerized data, that data must be stored someone to be read from. You don't control that storage, if you're a typical person. Every time you submit data to a computer system, you can rest 100% assured that said data is being stored somewhere. And if you can access that place over the public network, so can everyone else.

    Privacy exists, but you must work for it. You must actively, consciously decide not to throw your data into the street, which is what you are doing any time you submit it to a publicly-accessible computer system.

    I do not have a Facebook account. I never will. Every time someone learns this fact — a friend, a coworker, less-connected family members — they look at me like I'm some sort of space alien. I've had coworkers remark, flabbergasted, about the sheer difficulty of locating any information about me online. The explanation is as simple as it is apparently shocking: They can't find it because it does not exist. Because I have consciously chosen not to make that data available by not submitting it to these various platforms. Mark Zuckerburg has openly stated that his users are fools to trust him with their data, and I take the man at his word. I have not given him my data, and I never will.

    Your data is only as secure as you wish it to be. When you submit your data to publicly-networked systems, you are opening your front door and throwing it out into the street. Don't act surprised when someone picks it up afterward. This isn't new technology; networked computers have existed for decades now.

    At some point, people need to accept responsibility for not giving a crap about how the world they live in works, or how any of the things that govern their lives function. You don't have to have a degree in CS to know that data that you can see is stored on a hard drive somewhere.

  21. Hazy Davy Says:

    5 or 6 years ago, we had our kid tested for ADHD. I don't mean "can we have meds?", 'cause 80% of kids would qualify for that. I mean, sit down with an expert who's covered by medical secrecy laws, and assess whether there's something going on there. [Conclusion: no. He's just bored and kind of oppositional.]

    I have nothing in common with this psychiatric professional. We're different in generation, interests, etc. We have NO friends in common.
    And…yet….Facebook recommends that I become her friend.
    How the Hell did they put us together?

  22. Qwerty Pi Says:

    A commonly cited example of machine competence is the four-color map theorem, which was recently proved, to the satisfaction of those experts who were qualified to assess it, by a complex computer program. No human has read all the code, or knows all the details, but the theorem is considered proved. But GunstarGreen's point still holds: if they don't have the data, they can't perform their voodoo.

  23. democommie Says:

    The only way to have privacy is to not have any accounts of any sort with anyone.

    Not just Facebooks, Twitter, Snapchat and all of that "cool, instant" shit. Blogging, e-mailing, accessing your OWN web based medical records, RE tax information, any other governmental activity (SS, Mediciad, Medicare, SNAP, HEAPP–and on and on).

    IRS has been telling people for at least 30 years that they share data with states and municipalities for tax collection/assessment purposes.

    If you've ever used a customer care card (usually necessary for discounts, promotions, preferential interest rates–usually confiscatory at the businesses that issue them) they have, at the very least, a lot of information that they will give up in a heartbeat if there's any profit to be had.

    There are a lot of posse comitatus types who are "off the grid" excepting their activity on the internet. Fucking morons.

  24. democommie Says:

    Major Kong, if you're reading.

    Are you familiar with the anti-gay, anti-tolerance screeds of a shit-stain USAF LtCol by the name of Jonathan Douty?

    There's a post up about him, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

    I am not the least bit shocked that he's a complete asshole, I knew a fair number of them when I was in uniform. What amazes me is that his public attacks on gays and others he deems degenerates, sub-humans or just notKKKristian enough to meet his standards, have gone on for a number of years and he's still, apparently, flying and wearing USAF flight suits.

    Do you know anything about this asshole?

  25. Major Kong Says:

    @demo

    Yes, I'm familiar with him. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation writes about him periodically.

    http://mrff.org/

  26. skyskier Says:

    Sorry Ed but I totally disagree with you on this one. The only reason this is not screamed at us on a daily basis is that ….. it's not happening to a Democrat. Remember a few months back? Hilary should be sentenced to death for having maybe 2 sort of nationally sensitive emails not on government servers.
    This is more a reflection on how the outrage machine is dominated by republican world view.

  27. Tteddo Says:

    @Hazy Davy- I would be willing to bet that you or the professional used the calendar on your phone, or in their Gmail or something similar. The instant I put a customer in my Google calendar they show up in Linkedin.

  28. Chase Johnson Says:

    One difference between network security/privacy and physical: physical privacy requires labor to crack and is nowhere close to being automated. Tools can make it faster (like a lockpicking gun) but there are no tools that remove the need for a human being to be physically present rifling through your file drawers.

    Network privacy can be, and routinely is, compromised at industrial scale. There are only a few tens of thousands of programmers in Silicon Valley but they have collectively gathered as much information about billions of people as the East German Stasi might have had about East Germans, who needed a far higher fraction of the populace employed to the task. One good hack on a hospital (not at all hard as followers of security news will know) could net tens of thousands of detailed medical and billing records, and require only the labor of one reasonably skilled hacker with an internet connection.

    Scaling like that is scary. The FBI has always had similar capabilities to the Stasi, just with far fewer agents and informants by ratio to the populace. Modern technology means they can now operate at the same scale as the Stasi did in terms of their pervasive invasion of privacy, without increasing headcount one bit.

    Securing yourself is a whole 'nother post of its own, and depends a lot on what the individual's needs are. "Don't use Facebook" is not plausible advice for a modern activist. "Don't bring your phone to the protest" is, though.

  29. democommie Says:

    While the gummint has the resources to gather a lot of information and has satellites and spycams in a LOT of places it is impossible to have all that data and go through it all.

    I don't understand algorithms but I hear them talked about a lot for making the sifting process easier but I think that the level of incompetence in all large organizations works against our gummint or most gummints …but for how long, I have no idea.

    @ Major Kong:

    How does that shitbird get away with it?

  30. Kaleberg Says:

    Maybe we've gotten to the point of the Duke of Wellington's "Publish and be damned!"