Sunday, April 09, 2006

Surveillance technology

Let's talk about surveillance technology. You know, stuff like wiretapping, data mining, spyware, pervasive surveillance cameras. That sort of thing.

What's raised the issue in my mind is stories like this:

If You're Cheating on Your Taxes...
But a few states, such as Texas, are building more sophisticated data mining programs that will predict taxpayer behavior, much as credit-card companies try to estimate how much consumers will spend over the course of a year. "The capability is there to figure out which taxpayers have the highest probability of becoming noncompliant," says Steven E. Taylor, director of the revenue and compliance team of the data warehousing firm Teradata, a unit of NCR (NCR). Iowa, Massachusetts, and Virginia are also in the data mining vanguard.

MANY DATABASES. Typically, each state revenue agency will work with one data management company and its subcontractors, drawing from a list that includes Teradata, Revenue Solutions of Pembroke, Mass., and CGI Group of Montreal. The data miners can construct powerful programs that assign each taxpayer the equivalent of a credit score, flagging those who should be targeted for an audit. They can project who is likely to file on time, who won't pay until they get a visit from a collection agent, and even who is likely to declare bankruptcy before paying their taxes.

(Also available here).

Doesn't sound all that unreasonable -- if everyone pays their "fair share", honest people will not have to make up the difference by paying more. But is it OK for local, state, and federal governments to scrutinize every detail of our lives and our lifestyles in order to catch "cheaters", just because, with the latest current and future technologies, they can?

Or how about this:

Wi-Fi plan stirs Big Brother concerns
Privacy advocates are raising concerns about Google Inc.'s plans to cover San Francisco with free wireless Internet access, calling the company's proposal to track users' locations a potential gold mine of information for law enforcement and private litigators.

The Mountain View search engine intends to use the geographic data to match users with advertising so that they would see marketing messages from neighborhood businesses such as pizza parlors, cafes and book stores.

Google plans to use technology that would allow it to track users' whereabouts within a few hundred feet. The company said in its bid that it would retain the data for up to 180 days before deleting it, as part of an effort to "maintain the Google Wi-Fi network and deliver the best possible service."

Privacy advocates fear the information could by used by government officials to place users under surveillance and are more generally concerned that this new power raises the specter of "Big Brother" run amok.

"The greatest concern is that once you have that treasure trove of information, will people start to come looking for it?" said Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog group.

Is this relatively harmless, if in return for being tracked we get free WiFi access and the "benefit" of (possibly) relevant advertising from businesses just around the corner from wherever we happen to be? Should we just not worry that big companies like Google and their advertisers -- to say nothing about governments at all levels who will be looking over the businesses' shoulders -- can know, within a few hundred feet, where we are at all times our computers or cell phones are turned on? Is it just a paranoid fantasy that some day governments will have real-time access to such Internet traffic, so that we find ourselves arrested at Fisherman's Wharf because some government snoop is on the lookout for a "terrorist" who just happens to have the same name as ours?

What makes such things so scary is the liklihood that today, right now, or if not now, very soon, the government can and does watch every last bit of traffic on the Internet, with the cheerful cooperation of telephone and cellular companies. At least, that's the implication of what I'm reading, like this:

Whistle-Blower Outs NSA Spy Room
According to a statement released by Klein's attorney, an NSA agent showed up at the San Francisco switching center in 2002 to interview a management-level technician for a special job. In January 2003, Klein observed a new room being built adjacent to the room housing AT&T's #4ESS switching equipment, which is responsible for routing long distance and international calls.

"I learned that the person whom the NSA interviewed for the secret job was the person working to install equipment in this room," Klein wrote. "The regular technician work force was not allowed in the room."

Klein's job eventually included connecting internet circuits to a splitting cabinet that led to the secret room. During the course of that work, he learned from a co-worker that similar cabinets were being installed in other cities, including Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego.
More on this story: here, here, here.

Of course, since the New York Times last December broke the story of illegal NSA wiretapping of U. S. citizens, vague information about this has been widely reported. But the latest revelations are rather alarming. There's a lot more to this than ordinary, old-fashioned wiretaps of a few suspected "terrorists". It's looking more and more as though what this is about is the systematic surveillance of (potentially) every last telephone and Internet communication that the NSA can get its hands on.

And that is just about everything that flows over communications lines in U. S. territory. The technology to do this exists and is very real, as this long and technical diary at Daily Kos explains: All About NSA's and AT&T's Big Brother Machine, the Narus 6400.

I won't quote from there, since it's long and geeky. But if you have any doubts about the technical ability of the government to perform such surveillance, maybe you should read it. The bottom line is that the government can monitor, in real time, every phone call, every email, every file download, every Web page access, and every electronic financial transaction that involves anybody located in the U. S.

And that's only the beginning. The Internet is no longer just for computers. All sorts of everyday things are, or before long will be, connecting to the Internet. Many new cars come equipped with "black boxes", like those on aircraft, to record speed, braking action, stops and starts, etc. (See here and here.) They could record location as well, if a GPS device (or similar technology based on the cellular phone system) is on board. With this, and with wireless Internet communications capability (based on WiFi and eventually WiMax), the NSA could monitor this same information -- in real time.

Are you driving "suspiciously" in the neighborhood of some critical infrastructure (even if you're not aware of it)? Have you ever, perhaps, visited a part of town that could get you into blackmail problems? Better watch out, because Big Brother will know.

It would be reassuring to think that such concerns were merely paranoid fantasies. But how much should we, as individuals and as citizens, stake our future on a belief that the intentions of our government are entirely benign? Perhaps we should at least understand what they're capable of. Of course, they will never disclose their full capabilities, let alone what capabilities they're actually using. That stuff's highly Top Secret. It wouldn't do to allow the "terrorists" to find out, now, would it?

But of course, none of us are terrorists, right? And we never have cheated on taxes, and never will. So what do we have to be afraid of?

Well, simple mistakes for one thing. Many people, including Senators and Congressmen, have already not been allowed to board an airplane or even been detained at an airport, simply because some name that happened to be the same as theirs was on a list of suspected "terrorists".

But it's worse than that. Today, everybody who has a bank account, a credit card, or a commercial loan has a credit rating, whether they realize it or not. In the near future, if not already, everybody could also have a loyalty rating. Government computers at the NSA, and elsewhere, will be computing this score on a profusion of data collected from existing business and government databases and all the data flowing over the Internet itself. That's what "data mining" is all about. There are plenty of excuses they can come up with for doing this -- watching for "terrorists", tracking down fugitives and deadbeat dads and people with unpaid traffic tickets, screening for potential tax cheats, seeking out money launderers and drug dealers and pedofiles. For just about every law on the books, there's a good excuse for snooping to find anyone who's breaking it.

The point is, governments will be doing this data mining. And the "profiles" compiled about you by all these government computers will be passed around and shared with other computers as long as you're alive. In particular, this "loyalty" rating. Even if you're not a "terrorist" or "subversive'.

Who knows what might go into the ratings? If the government knows you like Christian music, maybe you'll get points added to your rating. But if you prefer music genres that are more in favor with other groups (Islamic music?), you'll lose points on your rating. No discrimination intended, mind you. It's just that, well, church-going Christians who give more than $1000 a year to the church are known statistically to need less thorough scrutiny than your average potential "terrorist". Same with your political preferences. If you're a known supporter of the party in power, your rating goes up. If you support the opposition party, it goes down. Again, nothing personal, you know. The statistics just say that contributors to the party in power are more trustworthy than those who hang out with people associated with the other party.

The govenment has the ability today to compute such "loyalty" ratings. Can you say you're confident that the government would never, ever, use the available technology to do it? (If so -- and the government will probably know this -- your rating will certainly be higher than if not.)

And here's one more thing. Even if we personally are as pure and loyal as the driven snow, what's to stop a government overly infatuated with holding onto power from snooping into the lives and opinions and finances of any politician or office holder belonging to an opposition party at any level of government? Could be helpful to know about any and all skeletons in their closets, no?

Just in case I haven't made you sufficiently concerned, here are a few more news items to think about:

Tax tech pays dividends
From data mining to predictive modeling techniques, information technology is an increasingly important tool for state governments that want to improve their tax handling performance by speeding tax processing and boosting tax collections. Such technologies are components of a financial enterprise in which one tax application links to another to produce an overview of individual portfolios.
Pay attention to the part about applications linking together. These same applications can feed into another set that generates a "loyalty" rating. Want to bet it will never happen?

IBM Announces Advanced Analytics to Help Revenue Agencies Optimize Tax Auditing Process
IBM today announced a Tax Audit and Compliance Solution that uses advanced analytics to help revenue agencies zero in on questionable tax returns. The solution is currently being used by U.S. state revenue agencies as well as international government agencies.

By providing a more scientific, data-driven approach to tax audit case selection, the Tax Audit and Compliance Solution goes well beyond existing methods of tracking tax compliance, which range from manually matching internal data with lists of taxpayers to using data warehouse and query tools. By identifying possible compliance problems at the time a tax return is filed, the solution, which is capable of data mining thousands of tax returns in seconds, can potentially help save years of tracking, investigation and collection costs.

Developed by IBM scientists, the solution uses algorithmic data mining and predictive modeling to compare individual taxpayer behaviors to those of similar taxpayers. The resulting analysis helps agencies to detect new tax evasion methods and provides auditors with lists of potentially fraudulent tax returns.
So, this kind of sophisticated data mining software is available for purchase off the shelf. Is there any doubt it will also be used by credit rating "services", marketing organizations, ... and political parties? In fact, such tools are already used to target voters in fund raising and GOTV operations. The party in power definitely knows who its friends are, and as for everyone else... points can be taken off their loyalty rating. The government need not fear disclosure of how it computes the loyalty rating -- that's all highly classified, of course.

Policing Trade to Nab Terrorists
In the first formal effort to combat these techniques, the U.S. in January teamed up with the governments of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to create "Trade Transparency Units" that allow the countries to share detailed information about each others' import and export transactions. Armed with a U.S.-designed data-mining computer program, investigators sift through the information looking for anomalies in commerce that could indicate terrorist financing or other criminal activity.
The same software, of course, can be used internally to the U. S. to scrutinize any financial transaction at all -- buying a house or car, trading stocks or options, contributing to political organizations... Given that such transactions do now, or will, take place over the Internet, cooperation from banks or any of the parties involved isn't even needed.

OK, enough of this for now. There are plenty of other things to fret about, some of them problems today, some of them for the not-too-distant future. Such as smart-card driver's licenses, passports, and ID cards that can get on the Internet themselves and rat on the people who carry them. Or future personal computers that come from the factory with government-mandated spyware embedded in the hardware. (Media companies and organizations like the RIAA are already clamoring for this sort of thing in order to "protect their intellectual property".) Together with Internet access, the NSA can then read any of your files, watch your every keystroke, and learn all your passwords and encryption keys.

All without any search warrant or court overview required, of course!

Worried yet?

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