Can I look at your Google?

Google searches, library requests, emails, SMS, car trips, voice messages, phone conversations, etc can all be mointored and recorded. Does it make us safer?

There has been a lot of commentary (such as at Road to Surfdom, the Currency Lad and Larvatus Prodeo) on the recent revelation that US President George Bush authorised widespread secret surveillance and communications intercepts on US citizens (not to mention many others). I will leave others to consider and discuss the right and wrongs and politics of this. I refer to the controversy it has created simply to draw attention to other examples on the public record of monitoring and spying, none of which directly involve George Bush and many of which directly affect Australians.

Last month, the New York Times reported the following:

At a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial this month, prosecutors announced an unusual piece of evidence: Google searches allegedly done by the defendant that included the words “neck” and “snap.” The data were taken from the defendant’s computer, prosecutors say. But it might have come directly from Google, which – unbeknownst to many users – keeps records of every search on its site, in ways that can be traced back to individuals.

Google is rolling out revolutionary new features at a blistering rate, most recently Google Base, which could evolve into a classified ad service, and the Google Book Search Library Project, which aims to put a vast number of books online.

Last I looked, Google is able to be used in Australia, and even if you have total faith in the company’s slogan to ‘do no evil’, there are always plenty of other people willing to do evil with information Google might have (and can be compelled to provide).

Speaking of Google’s ‘book search library project’, a story has also appeared stating that “a college student in the USA was personally visited by agents from the Department of Homeland Security, for requesting Mao’s Little Red Book on interlibrary loan. The student is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, and he requested the book for an assignment on communism for a history class. According to the press report, the student’s history professor says he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.”

Still I guess we can assume that such things are on a much lower scale in Australia? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

This speech over two years ago by former Democrat Senator Brian Greig stated that

the 2001-02 Annual Report on the Telecommunications (Interception) Act indicated that 2514 interception warrants were issued to law enforcement agencies during 2001-2002. This amounted to a 17% increase over the previous year and a ten-fold increase in the past decade.

What is particularly disturbing about this figure is that it is almost twice the total number of interception warrants issued in the United States over the same period. This follows the same pattern as the previous year, in which Australia issued 20 times as many interception warrants as the US on a per capita basis. (my emphasis)

It is also important to remember that for every interception warrant issued, many hundreds and sometimes thousands of telephone calls can be intercepted. This is clearly illustrated in the case of the soon-to-be-replaced Western Australian Anti-Corruption Commission which, in the second half of 2002 relied upon 45 telecommunications interception warrants to intercept a total of 61,599 phone calls.

To use a bit of mathematical extrapolation, if 45 warrants enabled the intervention of 61 599 phone calls, then 2514 warrants could have led to over 3 400 000 calls being intercepted. There’s a reasonable chance one of them could have involved you.

The Annual Report for 2003-04 shows the number of telecommunications intercepts authorised under the Act increased to over 3000. These figures only involve authorized interceptions done by law enforcement agencies. They do not include the unknown number of interceptions undertaken by Australia’s intelligence agencies for national security reasons. (Maybe that’s why the US figures are low by comparison – almost everything can be seen as a matter of national security, and apparently the President can circumvent even the secret and very limited court processes required.)

In addition to that, legislation passed the Australian Senate this year which for the first time allowed SMS, email and voicemail to be accessed by a variety of agencies without an interception warrant (needing in most cases just a normal search warrant).

Confronted with this sort of information, many people tend to say “so what, I’ve got nothing to hide,” which is a reasonable enough response and also an adequate protection in most cases. However, to use the last week as an example, if in a phone call, SMS or email you happened to jokingly, (or even semi-seriously in a moment of anger) say ‘I’d love to give some payback to those racist Anglo yobbos/racist Lebanese yobbos terrorizing people at Cronulla’, that could be enough to lead to all sorts of unfortunate consequences for you if someone with access to that information happens to form an assumption from what you said and then decides they should act on it.

As I’ve suggested previously, whilst I support the right to privacy, I think I am more willing that many others who inhabit my region of the political landscape to accept limits to that right. However, I am afraid I have personally witnessed far too many injustices occur from snippets of personal information being (mis)used without proper checking of its veracity. For me, the big problem isn’t so much that people can get access to all this information, it’s that the process of doing so in such a widespread and clandestine way creates a culture which seems to disregard the normal safeguards in checking the veracity of such information before acting on it. It also makes interception so widespread and run of the mill that the chances of catching out those who misuse it becomes much lower.

In my time in Parliament, I have been directly involved with far too many cases of people suffering enormously and unnecessarily because a random piece or two of information had led a government official (often in good faith) to assume that person was guilty of something until they were eventually proven innocent, sometimes many years later. This is of course grossly unjust and occasionally life destroying for the people caught up in it. However, for those collectivists who think this is just an unfortunate by-product that people have to endure to keep our society safe, I also note that it (a) has produced no clear evidence (that I’ve seen or heard of) that it has made us all significantly safer, and (b) it is mindblowingly expensive (which therefore means resources are used which could otherwise have been put towards things that do actually make us safer).

And despite my comments above about good faith, I’m afraid I also have to say that I’ve seen a much smaller, but none the less very real, number of examples where private information has been deliberately (mis)used to damage someone (or advantage someone else). The motivations for this can be as varied as the human personality, but the more widespread the gathering and sharing of such information, the more likely it is that people will be tempted to (mis)use it, whether for political, financial or personal purposes.

As another example of the counter-productive inefficiencies that occur when this sort of activity becomes too widespread, this piece on Road to Surfdom details a report from a Swedish newspaper that a classified watchlist of possible terror suspects distributed by the US government to airlines for pre-flight checks is now 80,000 names long. The list carried just 16 names before the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, and had grown to 1,000 by the end of 2001, to 40,000 a year later and now stands at 80,000. A separate report from the US said about 30,000 airline passengers have discovered since last November that their names were mistakenly matched with those appearing on federal watch lists.

PS: A further recent development – The rioting and unrest at Cronulla and elsewhere in Sydney has generated enormous discussion and controversy, but one aspect reported almost as an afterthought is that police –presumably legally – have been randomly taking people’s mobile phones off them on public transport to check SMS messages. More discussion of this at Catallaxy.

UPDATE: 23/12 A story in today’s Independent from the UK has another example of large scale citizen monitoring:

Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

I’m waiting to see if the ID card debate is reignited in Australia in the New Year.

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Google searches, library requests, emails, SMS, car trips, voice messages, phone conversations, etc can all be mointored and recorded. Does it make us safer?

There has been a lot of commentary (such as at Road to Surfdom, the Currency Lad and Larvatus Prodeo) on the recent revelation that US President George Bush authorised widespread secret surveillance and communications intercepts on US citizens (not to mention many others). I will leave others to consider and discuss the right and wrongs and politics of this. I refer to the controversy it has created simply to draw attention to other examples on the public record of monitoring and spying, none of which directly involve George Bush and many of which directly affect Australians.

Last month, the New York Times reported the following:

At a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial this month, prosecutors announced an unusual piece of evidence: Google searches allegedly done by the defendant that included the words “neck” and “snap.” The data were taken from the defendant’s computer, prosecutors say. But it might have come directly from Google, which – unbeknownst to many users – keeps records of every search on its site, in ways that can be traced back to individuals.

Google is rolling out revolutionary new features at a blistering rate, most recently Google Base, which could evolve into a classified ad service, and the Google Book Search Library Project, which aims to put a vast number of books online.

Last I looked, Google is able to be used in Australia, and even if you have total faith in the company’s slogan to ‘do no evil’, there are always plenty of other people willing to do evil with information Google might have (and can be compelled to provide).

Speaking of Google’s ‘book search library project’, a story has also appeared stating that “a college student in the USA was personally visited by agents from the Department of Homeland Security, for requesting Mao’s Little Red Book on interlibrary loan. The student is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, and he requested the book for an assignment on communism for a history class. According to the press report, the student’s history professor says he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.”

Still I guess we can assume that such things are on a much lower scale in Australia? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

This speech over two years ago by former Democrat Senator Brian Greig stated that

the 2001-02 Annual Report on the Telecommunications (Interception) Act indicated that 2514 interception warrants were issued to law enforcement agencies during 2001-2002. This amounted to a 17% increase over the previous year and a ten-fold increase in the past decade.

What is particularly disturbing about this figure is that it is almost twice the total number of interception warrants issued in the United States over the same period. This follows the same pattern as the previous year, in which Australia issued 20 times as many interception warrants as the US on a per capita basis. (my emphasis)

It is also important to remember that for every interception warrant issued, many hundreds and sometimes thousands of telephone calls can be intercepted. This is clearly illustrated in the case of the soon-to-be-replaced Western Australian Anti-Corruption Commission which, in the second half of 2002 relied upon 45 telecommunications interception warrants to intercept a total of 61,599 phone calls.

To use a bit of mathematical extrapolation, if 45 warrants enabled the intervention of 61 599 phone calls, then 2514 warrants could have led to over 3 400 000 calls being intercepted. There’s a reasonable chance one of them could have involved you.

The Annual Report for 2003-04 shows the number of telecommunications intercepts authorised under the Act increased to over 3000. These figures only involve authorized interceptions done by law enforcement agencies. They do not include the unknown number of interceptions undertaken by Australia’s intelligence agencies for national security reasons. (Maybe that’s why the US figures are low by comparison – almost everything can be seen as a matter of national security, and apparently the President can circumvent even the secret and very limited court processes required.)

In addition to that, legislation passed the Australian Senate this year which for the first time allowed SMS, email and voicemail to be accessed by a variety of agencies without an interception warrant (needing in most cases just a normal search warrant).

Confronted with this sort of information, many people tend to say “so what, I’ve got nothing to hide,” which is a reasonable enough response and also an adequate protection in most cases. However, to use the last week as an example, if in a phone call, SMS or email you happened to jokingly, (or even semi-seriously in a moment of anger) say ‘I’d love to give some payback to those racist Anglo yobbos/racist Lebanese yobbos terrorizing people at Cronulla’, that could be enough to lead to all sorts of unfortunate consequences for you if someone with access to that information happens to form an assumption from what you said and then decides they should act on it.

As I’ve suggested previously, whilst I support the right to privacy, I think I am more willing that many others who inhabit my region of the political landscape to accept limits to that right. However, I am afraid I have personally witnessed far too many injustices occur from snippets of personal information being (mis)used without proper checking of its veracity. For me, the big problem isn’t so much that people can get access to all this information, it’s that the process of doing so in such a widespread and clandestine way creates a culture which seems to disregard the normal safeguards in checking the veracity of such information before acting on it. It also makes interception so widespread and run of the mill that the chances of catching out those who misuse it becomes much lower.

In my time in Parliament, I have been directly involved with far too many cases of people suffering enormously and unnecessarily because a random piece or two of information had led a government official (often in good faith) to assume that person was guilty of something until they were eventually proven innocent, sometimes many years later. This is of course grossly unjust and occasionally life destroying for the people caught up in it. However, for those collectivists who think this is just an unfortunate by-product that people have to endure to keep our society safe, I also note that it (a) has produced no clear evidence (that I’ve seen or heard of) that it has made us all significantly safer, and (b) it is mindblowingly expensive (which therefore means resources are used which could otherwise have been put towards things that do actually make us safer).

And despite my comments above about good faith, I’m afraid I also have to say that I’ve seen a much smaller, but none the less very real, number of examples where private information has been deliberately (mis)used to damage someone (or advantage someone else). The motivations for this can be as varied as the human personality, but the more widespread the gathering and sharing of such information, the more likely it is that people will be tempted to (mis)use it, whether for political, financial or personal purposes.

As another example of the counter-productive inefficiencies that occur when this sort of activity becomes too widespread, this piece on Road to Surfdom details a report from a Swedish newspaper that a classified watchlist of possible terror suspects distributed by the US government to airlines for pre-flight checks is now 80,000 names long. The list carried just 16 names before the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, and had grown to 1,000 by the end of 2001, to 40,000 a year later and now stands at 80,000. A separate report from the US said about 30,000 airline passengers have discovered since last November that their names were mistakenly matched with those appearing on federal watch lists.

PS: A further recent development – The rioting and unrest at Cronulla and elsewhere in Sydney has generated enormous discussion and controversy, but one aspect reported almost as an afterthought is that police –presumably legally – have been randomly taking people’s mobile phones off them on public transport to check SMS messages. More discussion of this at Catallaxy.

UPDATE: 23/12 A story in today’s Independent from the UK has another example of large scale citizen monitoring:

Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

I’m waiting to see if the ID card debate is reignited in Australia in the New Year.

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10 Comments

  1. Geez who’s more paranoid I wonder – government or us unwitting individuals? I guess it all helps to keep us ‘terrorfied’ and in check. Soon people will be getting unceremoniously hauled away for ‘thought’ crime.

    Its very difficult to buy George Bush’s line of – I did it for national security reasons. I think it will only take a little digging and analyses to see that he also did it primarily for reasons of personal gain and profit.

  2. The USA governments have worked off paranoia and fear for quite a few years, the cold war, McCarthyism and Watergate for example. The war on terrorism is largely an extension of this. This does give the government reasons for less than transparent activities.

    National security is thrown around a lot as a reason and I have yet to hear anyone question it, not as if they would provide any details but blind faith can be dangerous too because it reduces the accountability of the politicians.

    US governments have used this fear and paranoia to justify military spending and to get re-elected, its a keep the people scared but let them know that we will protect them. John Howard has also used this effectively, no one will argue that Australia is more likely to be attacked by terrorists now than we were 6 years ago, Howards blind obedience to Bush has certainly painted a target on Australia but Johnny is here to save us, or so he would want us to believe.

    As Link says, there could be personal reasons involved, politicians at the top of the heap are a opportunistic lot and certainly do use any information they can to preserve their power.

    Politics, as Andrew will atest too, is never a case of simple black and white, it makes for strange bedfellows as the saying goes but in this case of the student, it just shows that there is nothing common about commonsense, particularly when politics gets involved.

  3. The previous two comments are an excellent example of fear and paranoia.

    While I’m not in favour of excessive governmental surveillance, the immediate assumption that it’s all part of a huge political conspiracy for personal power and profit is just crazy talk.

  4. EP, do you think McCarthyism was anything more than a power play, an attempt to instill fear and paranoia in the American people? I don’t.

  5. Of course McCarthyism had a genuine basis. The Soviet Empire was the world’s biggest mass-murdering dictatorship, and was actively plotting against the US through its agents and sympathisers.

    But what has that to do with your rampant paranoia over surveillance?

  6. You miss my point EP, I am not the paranoid one, its the politicians that initiate such wide spread surveillance that are the paranoid ones. Nixon and Watergate was fueled by paranoia, McCarthyism was fueled by paranoia and the present Bush administration is, if not being fueled by paranoia, is doing its best to promote it in the minds of the public.

  7. Surveillance of suspected terrorists is not “paranoia”.

    The murder of 3000 people in New York by terrorists was not “paranoia”.

    The murder of 200 people in Bali by terrorists was not “paranoia”.

    If you think all this is about some evil government plot to spy on you, you’re the one who is being paranoid.

  8. I think the point is not “is there a danger” – it’s fairly clear that there is, although people can argue about how large a danger it is compared to various other issues.

    The issue for me is “are all these actions helping make us safer”, or are they mainly a case, as Amanda Vanstone said about plastic knives on planes, of creating an appearance of something being done (and in many cases Governments giving themselves more power in the process).

    My main objection to the ID card for example is not privacy concerns per se, but that it would cost a lot of money, probably not make us much safer, make it far more likely that the information could be misused by government and divert resources from areas which could do a lot more to make us safer.

    The same sorts of conerns apply to many other large scale ‘solutions’. That’s not to rule all of them out, but to suggest that there should a lot greater demonstration of the value of some things and much more attention paid to ensuring there are protections against misuse by governments (or others).

  9. I always object to stuff like national ID cards, traffic monitors, and other broad surveillance for two reasons.

    The first is Andrew’s concern that these projects are expensive and rarely work properly. (Project managers all have horror stories of “simple” projects that blow the budget, skip merrily past multiple deadlines, and wind up in the “There’s $500,000 down the drain” file.)

    The second is that, when they do work, they can be used in really awful ways. With the traffic tracking, what if an employee decides to find out where that hot girl lives, or wants to blackmail someone by finding out where they have their trysts? Even legally, I got embarrassed this year when “a certain search engine” worked out a medical condition I was dealing with and decided to have run ads about it.

    Sure, go for sensible, doable surveillance. But make sure it has strict data destruction policies and even stricter access controls!

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