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01.30.08

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

A Polite Message From The Surveillance State

By Annalee Newitz


SAY WHAT you want about Google being an evil corporate overlord that steals all your private data, turns it into info-mulch and then injects it into the technoslaves to keep them drugged up and helpless. There are still some good things about the company despite all that.

For example, Google's IM program gtalk sends you a warning message alerting you when the person on the other end of your chat is recording your chat session. Just the other day, I was chatting with somebody about something slightly personal and noticed that she'd suddenly turned on the "record" for our chat. I knew everything I was saying was being logged and filed in her gmail. In this case, I wasn't too concerned. For one thing, I wasn't saying anything I'd regret seeing in print. I'm used to the idea that anything I say on chat might be recorded and logged.

What was different about this experience was that Google actually warned me first—told me point-blank that I was basically under surveillance from the Google server that would automatically log and save that conversation. I appreciated that. It meant I could opt out of the conversation and preserve my privacy. It also meant that other people using gtalk, and who didn't have the expectation that all their chat sessions might be recorded, would be enlightened.

It also reminded me forcefully that Google is a far more polite and privacy-concerned evil overlord than the U.S. government. Right now, members of Congress are actively trying to pass a law that would grant immunity to large telcos like AT&T that have been spying on their customers' private phone conversations and passing what they've learned along to the NSA. The law, called the Protect America Act, would allow telephone and Internet providers to hand over all private data on their networks to the government—without notifying their customers and without any court supervision over what amounts to mass wiretapping.

Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued AT&T for violating the Fourth Amendment when a whistleblower at AT&T revealed that the company was handing over private information to the NSA without warrants. That case has been working its way through the courts and making some headway. In fact, it was starting to look like AT&T would be forced to pay damages to its customers for violating their rights. But the Protect America Act would stop this court case in its tracks by granting retroactive immunity to AT&T and any other company that spied on people for the NSA without warrants.

The whole situation is insane. First, it's outrageous that telcos would hand over their private customer data to the government illegally. And second, it's even more outrageous that when its scheme got found out, the government tries to pass a law that makes it retroactively legal for AT&T to have broken one of the most fundamental of our civil rights: protection of our private data from the government.

Imagine what would happen if the phone and Internet systems in our country had the same warnings on them that gtalk has. Every single time you picked up the phone to make a call, or logged on to the Internet, you'd get a helpful little message: "Warning: The government is recording everything that you are saying and doing right now." Holy crap.

The good news is that it's not too late. The Protect America Act must pass both houses of Congress in order to become law, so you can still alert your local congresscritters in the House that you don't want retroactive immunity for telcos who are logging your private conversations for the NSA. Find out more at stopthespying.org.

And remember, everything you say and do is being logged. This polite message has been brought to you by the surveillance state.


Annalee Newitz (annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who yells 'Fuck you' into her phone as often as she can—you know, just to let the NSA know how she really feels.


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