Back in July 2012, long before Edward Snowden’s leaks heightened the general public’s concern about online privacy, then Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin set off on a picaresque quest to find some kind of online privacy. The chronicle of that quest, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Surveillance, serves as a kind of user’s guide for our new dragnet world.
I decided, against all odds, to try to evade the dragnets. I would attempt to avoid being monitored during everyday activities such as reading and shopping. I would obscure my location–at home and while out and about. I would seal my e-mails and texts with the digital equivalent of hot wax. I would find ways to freely associate with people and ideas. I would try to find a way to protect my kids from building a digital trail that would haunt them later in their lives.
Dragnet Nation describes the efforts she took — some of which she has retained, some of which she dropped — to regain some privacy for herself and her family. She paid her 8-year old daughter to come up with random passwords. She obtained as much of the data that brokers had collected on her, and made a somewhat futile effort to get them to purge it. She gave up Google for DuckDuckGo. And she created a false identity named Ida Tarbell who could receive her online purchases, make restaurant reservations, and obtain a phone.
Along the way, Angwin describes the stakes for reclaiming some control over our own privacy. She describes how one lesbian got outed to her family when the president of her college’s Queer Chorus added her to the Facebook discussion group and another had gay-targeted ads come up on her work computer because of ad trackers. She tells how the FBI started tracking one American of Egyptian descent — accessing his phone and email content and putting a GPS on his car — because of comments he and another Arab-American made on Reddit. She describes studies of what happens to people who are under constant surveillance.
Perhaps most controversially, Angwin compared the data collected by Google and LinkedIn with that collected by East Germany’s Stasi. Her guide to the Stasi archives was impressed, because the kind of network mapping the government and marketers now routinely do had been a challenge for East Germany’s secret police. “The Stasi would have loved this,” the Stasi expert said. After Angwin collected all her data broker data, she reflected “Even in their wildest dreams, the Stasi could only fantasize about obtaining this amount of data about citizens with so little effort.”
Ultimately Angwin ends her book and her quest for privacy on an ambivalent note. She judges her efforts to regain some privacy amount to no more than civil disobedience that might start a conversation about privacy.
I came to believe that may actions were likely more effective at changing the conversation about privacy than at countering surveillance. They reminded me of the lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s, when black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat at a “whites only” lunch counter in an F.W. Woolworth store, in order to protest the company’s policy of racial segregation. The sit-ins did not immediately destroy segregation, but they led to a national conversation that ultimately unraveled it.
My hope is that if enough people join me in refusing to consent to ubiquitous indiscriminate surveillance, we might also prompt a conversation that could unravel it.
At the same time, however, Angwin didn’t like the paranoia that her quest had fostered.
I didn’t want to live in the world that I was building — a world of subterfuge and disinformation and covert actions. It was a world based on fear. It was a world devoid of trust. It was not a world that I wanted to leave to my children.
She ends with a call to bring more fairness and power balance to surveillance dragnets, in part by making all of us watchers.
Julia Angwin may not have a solution for the societal problem of the dragnet, but she offers an accessible guide to tools we can use to protect ourselves until we find that solution.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]