Beyond Government Spying, Corporate Surveillance Is A Fact Of Modern Life

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MINNEAPOLIS — Last month, the National Security Agency was finally forced to end its bulk collection of data on Americans, a direct result of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations.

However, Americans continue to be under unprecedented levels of surveillance both online and in their daily lives. Many of these everyday invasions of privacy are driven not by the government, but instead by some of the largest corporations.

On Nov. 29, the day the U.S.A. Freedom Act entered into effect, the NSA ended its bulk collection of telephone data, one of the key surveillance programs revealed by Snowden’s leaks to reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in 2013. Under the program, “metadata” about who every American called and how long their conversations lasted was routinely recorded in the NSA’s massive Utah-based data center. The new law removed government funding for the program.

Additionally, on Nov. 9, a major court decision found the program to be unconstitutional, a move that didn’t go unnoticed by the whistleblower. He tweeted:

Human rights and national security lawyer Jesselyn Radack noted on Twitter that the court ruling makes it difficult for the program to continue even if someday reauthorized in Congress.

Unfortunately, these changes do not mark a newfound commitment to privacy on the part of the U.S. government. Surveillance of Americans is increasingly being outsourced to corporations like Google and Facebook, which can then be required to turn over their data to the government.

“Sure, massive amounts of data are no longer being collected — by the NSA,” wrote Claire Bernish for The AntiMedia, after the Freedom Act became law. “That’s because now, telecommunications corporations have simply taken over where the government left off.”

Bernard E. Harcourt, a professor at Columbia University and author of “Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age,” a study of pervasive surveillance in modern life, concurred in a Nov. 29 essay for The Chronicle Of Higher Education:

“Google collects and mines our Gmails, attachments, contacts, and calendars. Twitter watches our activity on all the websites that carry its little icon. Facebook’s smartphone app collects information from all our other phone apps. … And, thanks to the Snowden revelations, we know that the federal government can easily obtain all of this information. The National Security Agency has direct access to search histories, emails and contacts, file transfers, Facebook messages, and live chats.”

Both Google and Facebook have acknowledged intensive research into facial recognition software, and the use of this technology is beginning to stretch beyond simply identifying site users caught in embarrassing party photos.

In June, Ben Sobel, a Google Policy Fellow at the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, wrote in The Washington Post that “being anonymous in public might be a thing of the past.” Cautioning that courts have yet to evaluate the legality of these technologies, he elaborated:

“Facial recognition technology is already being deployed to let brick-and-mortar stores scan the face of every shopper, identify returning customers and offer them individualized pricing — or find ‘pre-identified shoplifters’ and ‘known litigious individuals.’ Microsoft has patented a billboard that identifies you as you walk by and serves ads personalized to your purchase history. An app called NameTag claims it can identify people on the street just by looking at them through Google Glass.”

Researchers are even studying “gait recognition,” which allows people to be identified by the pace and rhythm at which they walk.

In his analysis of modern surveillance, Harcourt lamented that “[s]urrounded by a Lernaean Hydra of retailers, data brokers, social media, multinational corporations, hackers, and our own intelligence agencies, we have experienced a total breakdown of the boundaries between the state, the economy, and society. This fundamentally transforms our citizenship.”

For those uncomfortable with this modern surveillance state, he suggests a reevaluation of their participation in it:

“In the end, it falls on each and every one of us — as desiring digital subjects, as teachers and students, as conscientious ethical selves — to do everything we can to resist the excesses of our expository society.”

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