On Capitol Hill and the 24/7 cable talk shows, the national debate over government surveillance of domestic phone calls has been framed as a struggle between privacy and national security.
Yet, the furor over warrantless wiretapping and phone records collection is part of a broader information revolution in which Americans voluntarily surrender vast amounts of personal data for the sake of commerce and convenience.
As politicians ponder how much leeway the National Security Agency should have to track electronic communications, they face a stark question:
Is Big Brother worse than Big Business?
“We keep discovering, to our surprise, how much of what we considered our private lives has actually left traces in the public domain _ and that that information is being collected,” said Steven Aftergood, who heads the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
“At the same time, we continue to engage in practices that compromise our privacy,” he said. “We list our phone numbers, we make online purchases, we subscribe to magazines that sell our names and addresses, we enter all kinds of personal information into public and private databases for the sake of convenience. We contribute to our own loss of privacy, but then are surprised when we find out the extent of the loss.”
Aftergood and other experts trace the accelerating erosion of privacy to the dot.com boom of the 1990s, when technology firms in California’s Silicon Valley and elsewhere vastly increased computer-processing speeds and data-storage capacities.
The result has been an explosion of “data aggregators” _ businesses that collect information from many sources, repackage it and then sell it on the open market.
“We’re definitely in an information economy, in which information has become a valuable currency,” said Nancy Libin, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. “A lot of companies like Lexis-Nexis and ChoicePoint sell it to the government and other huge consumers of information. It’s a big business.”
Some of the data is of strictly commercial interest to businesses focused on learning more about their customers in order to market their products better. Barcodes that have produced invaluable information on consumer buying habits for 35 years are now being replaced by “radio frequency identification” tags _ tiny computer chips that eventually will allow retailers to track products long after they’ve left the store.
Artur Dubrawski, a data-mining professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, cited a 30-fold increase in corporate data collection between 1999 and 2004. Walmart, he said, gathers and analyzes information on about 20 million transactions _ a day.
The use of data mining has even hit politics. Consultants to office-seekers from Congress and the White House to state legislatures are using “niche data” _ specific economic, demographic and lifestyle information about voters _ to frame their candidates’ campaigns and fine-tune their messages.
But since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, some data aggregators have parlayed the nation’s focus on security into small fortunes. They have landed multimillion-dollar contracts to sell boatloads _ or terabytes, as the techies say _ of data to government agencies responsible for protecting the homeland, and to corporations seeking to ensure their employees’ safety.
ChoicePoint, an Atlanta-based industry leader, describes the opportunities this way on its Web site:
“ChoicePoint has grown from the nation’s premier source of data to the insurance industry into the premier provider of decision-making intelligence to businesses and government.”
For the NSA, the giant signals-intelligence agency at the center of the phone-surveillance controversy, the overriding concern is no longer how to collect data, but how to manage it.
“Whereas NSA once predicted it was in danger of becoming proverbially deaf due to the spreading use of encrypted communications, it appears that NSA may now be at greater risk of being ‘drowned’ in information,” Jeffrey Seifert, a Congressional Research Service analyst, wrote in January.
Some of the intelligence agencies even face the threat of having the data proliferation turned against them. By using a commercial online data service, the Chicago Tribune reported in March that it had identified more than 2,600 CIA employees, 50 internal phone numbers within the agency _ and the location of two dozen secret spy facilities around the country.
Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said there is a connection between the increased government secrecy of recent years and the decrease in Americans’ privacy.
“Privacy and secrecy are flip sides of the same coin,” he said. “There are common factors at work behind both trends. There is pressure to increase secrecy and to reduce privacy _ both in the name of security. And both trends are unfolding in the absence of serious public deliberation.”
Even though the collection of personal data has dominated the private sector, Aftergood said, Americans might be more upset by disclosures of government initiatives such as the NSA’s collection of phone records.
“The government has law-enforcement powers,” he said. “Government investigations are backed by legal, military and intelligence authorities that have no counterparts in the commercial sector. So a government role in data mining raises questions that commercial practices do not.”
Libin of the Center for Democracy and Technology said the government has legitimate law-enforcement, intelligence and financial needs to obtain data about Americans. The controversy over the NSA phone surveillance, she said, points to the need for adequate controls.
“It’s not so much that the government shouldn’t have access to any information about us,” Libin said. “We just need to make sure that there are checks on its use, that it is not abused and that there are opportunities for innocent people who might get swept up in a web of suspicion to challenge false assumptions that are reached.”