1984: The Bush Version

 
 
By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2006-05-16
 
 
 

Is AT&T, BellSouth or SBC Verizon your phone company? Yes? Congratulations. The National Security Agency has your numbers—all of them.

They know whos been calling you and who youve been calling. They know when your chief engineer called the headhunter, they know how often the SEC has called your CFO, and they know when your girlfriend called you at work because she cant call you at home.

Welcome to 1984, 22 years later.

"Were not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," President Bush said in a statement. "Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaeda and their known affiliates."

Thats cute. Thats really cute. It sounds good, its technically accurate, and its completely misleading.

The NSA is forbidden to listen to calls between Americans. Theyve always been able to listen in on calls between foreign nationals and U.S. citizens.

But thats not what theyre doing here on Bushs behalf. What theyre doing—we think—is collecting the phone call traffic information, not the calls conversation content.

You think that doesnt sound so bad? Think again.

Using an information analysis technique called traffic analysis, you can tell a remarkable amount about anyone simply by looking at who calls that person and who that person calls.

In isolation, that information may or may not tell you much. But, when you have tens of millions of people and billions of phone call records, you can tell an awful lot about anyone or any business by traffic analysis.

For example, your partner can talk all he wants about how close he is to you, but if traffic analysis shows that hes actually spending most of his time talking to your closest rival, your partnership isnt going to be long for the world. Someone with access to that analysis can then use that information against you.

Or, say youre trying to get a raise by claiming that rival companies are asking if youre available. If traffic analysis shows that the only calls between rival businesses and yourself are the ones with you calling them, youre not going to get that raise.

Those are simple examples.

The White House defends NSA data collection. Click here to read more.

Security companies like i2 and Visual Analytics have commercial products for law-enforcement agencies that can tell users far more.

Other companies, like OneStat.com and Urchin Software, now part of Google as Google Analytics, use traffic analysis to track how visitors use and interact with Web sites.

With the right traffic-analysis software, as Googles billions show, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of what your Web site visitors are really doing and what they really want.

Of course, its your decision to go to a Web site. The NSA, under Bushs direction, didnt give you an option.

And, the more data you have—and the NSA seemingly has billions of phone records—the more the government can do with it.

Bush says its to protect us. Excuse me if I have my doubts.

"We all recognize that 9/11 changed things, but I dont remember anybody rescinding the Constitution," said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Exactly.

Some of you might be thinking: "Whats the fuss? The only connection I have with terrorists is watching Jack Bauer foil them on 24. Im OK with Big Brother watching over me."

Are you? Are you really?

What if the Immigration and Nationalization Services decides it really needs to look at who youve been calling for your labor needs? How would you feel about the IRS looking into that gambling service you called from work in 2002? Or how about the SEC looking at all those conversations you had with your rivals prior to your 2004 product releases, which all came out in about the same price range?

Or, say your boss wants to know who phoned OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) about the safety violations that led to the company being fined. Or, say your annoying neighbor files a Freedom of Information request just to see who youve been calling.

Information has this nasty habit of being used once its been collected for purposes far beyond its original intent.

What the government has done isnt just illegal, no matter what Bushs lawyers may have said, its profoundly dangerous to all of us and our businesses. Not only must this NSA initiative be stopped, the data it has collected must be destroyed.

Computers give us great power. In this case, its a power that may have been meant to be used for good, but its far, far more likely to be used for ill.

Ziff Davis Internets Linux and Open-Source Linux Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been working and writing about technology and business since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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