Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Had the Red Coats monitored Paul Revere's Facebook, would America be independent today?

The Globe and Mail reported  that Canadian intelligence captures private data without a warrant in its fight against Chinese hackers. As one would expect, the article discusses how there is calculation performed to determine whether the harm of invading privacy of Canadians is outweighed by preserving national security.

The privacy debate ranges between two camps. One camp, such as EPIC, work to shed light on how organizations and governments encroach on individual privacy and see encroachment as a threat to the individual's ability to express ideas and the like. The other camp is the likes of Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY and self-admitted-Google-fanboy-extraordinaire, who often defends Google's encroachment on the lives of people by slamming people's fear of Google by forcing his opponents to quantify "what's the harm". He especially takes issue with the emotional response of how of people feel that Google's knowledge of them is "creepy".

In a sense, I understand where Professor Jarvis is coming from: consumers want more customized services and they don't want to pay cash for them, so companies have to resort to advertising revenues to be paid. Google, Facebook, et al, are profit making companies and they want to be paid.

To me this is not the real cost in terms of privacy.

The real cost is how the government uses that data it gathers directly, or indirectly via Facebook (according to RT the mood study FB was performing was part of a gov't contract to deal with "civil unrest") , Google, et al,  to interact with the politically objectionable.

One way to look at the cost is being spied upon, deemed a threat to national security and then sent somewhere to be tortured. This is what happened to Maher Arar. He was allegedly fingered by 15-year old Omar Khadr to be a terrorist. Based on this information, the US sent him to Syria to be tortured. According to the Garvie Report, the RCMP gave sensitive information about Arar to the US government. Ultimately, Arar was exonerated and all charges were cleared. The Canadian government paid him 10.5 million + legal fees and apologized to him. But how do you put a price on torturing an innocent man?

And to be sure democratic government do actively monitor the political active within the countries. For example, this article in the New York Times goes to describe in great detail how the government captured this information. Ultimately, Occupy was defeated through by police actions resulting in 8,000 arrests as well as other means. If it hadn't, how would the government have used this information to interact with the protesters on a go-forward basis?

From another perspective, the harm is also political engagement. Although the Maher Arar case shows that the government can mishandle the data it gathers about people and put them in harms way, this happens to a few people (e.g. Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin and Abdullah Almalki) and is not a commonly used approach with dealing with protesters. For example, it's not like the Occupy protesters were rounded in the 1,000s and sent to Syria.

But there is another cost. Such surveillance and the potential for being harmed, puts a chilling effect for those that want to speak out against the way things are running. Why protest when you will lose your job and can't pay the bills?  Think about the American War of Independence. If the British were able to spy on the "facebook" pages, email accounts and cell phones of  Sam Adams, Paul Revere and pro-separatist sympathizers in the colonial militias - would the British had been able to arrest these separatists in a timely manner? Or would have pre-colonial surveillance society taught the Founding Fathers to self-censor and tow the pro-British line?  It is pure speculation, but I think the Union Jack would still be flying in the land we now call America.

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