‘Dragnet Nation’ looks at the hidden systems that are always looking at you
To understand how much commerce has changed in recent years, consider a simple trip to the grocery store. When you drive to the store now, your movements are recorded by your cellphone provider, your car’s GPS, your smartphone apps and police license-plate scanners. At the store, a sensor system recognizes your phone and notes that this is your first visit in several weeks — which spurs a piece of software at the chain’s Midwestern headquarters to send you more coupons for your favorite items. CCTV cameras log your movements and may read your facial expressions so as to gauge your reactions to certain products. Your frequent-shopper card and credit card ensure that your purchase is recorded permanently. As you drive home, the store already may be selling your personal information to data brokers. From there it potentially goes anywhere.
Welcome to life in a society of ubiquitous surveillance, tracking and data mining — the subject of “Dragnet Nation,” the new book by Julia Angwin, a Wall Street Journal reporter who along with her colleagues has produced essential reporting on privacy and security. Drawing on interviews with activists, hackers, lawyers and the occasional malware peddler or intelligence operative, Angwin’s book aims to illuminate the costs of living with systems that track nearly everything we do, think or say.
“Dragnets that scoop up information indiscriminately about everyone in their path used to be rare,” Angwin writes. That’s no longer the case, as “these dragnets are extending into ever more private corners of the world.” As a consequence, daily life is increasingly crosshatched by threat assessments, market-research studies, “nudges” and other data-driven enterprises designed to sort, score, manipulate or guide us toward desired outcomes.
In trying to reclaim her privacy, Angwin investigates data brokers, opts out of tracking systems, buys burner phones, creates a fake identity, installs encryption software and even takes to carrying her smartphone in a pouch that serves as a Faraday cage, blocking electromagnetic signals.
Besides upending your life, the potentially maddening thing about such a project is that it’s tough to know if you’re succeeding. Data brokers and tracking companies are terribly secretive. Want to see your NSA file? “What file?” they say. Facebook allows you to download an archive of your data, but it only includes a fraction of the information it has on you; the rest it saves for its data scientists and commercial partners.
We do live in a version of what author David Brin once called “the transparent society,” but it’s one in which we are transparent to the corporations and governments managing this enormous surveillance infrastructure. Their influence on us, their knowledge of our habits and beliefs, is stubbornly, if not legislatively, opaque.
“Dragnet Nation” is the product of a newspaper reporter — its language is plain, its conclusions practical. Angwin, despite her experience, sometimes expresses shock at the extent to which data brokers violate privacy or so-called reputation services fail to follow through on their promises. I wished that Angwin would show more guile and throw the occasional elbow. Still, the book is a good primer on the technologies and practices undergirding our culture of surveillance.
Angwin admits to fearing that we are creating the framework for a system of totalitarian control. She notes that automated systems of data collection and analysis, combined with outdated privacy laws, have eroded the 4th Amendment. You no longer have to be suspected of a crime to be put in a police lineup. Massachusetts, to take one example, now runs all drivers’ licenses through facial-recognition software to catch identity fraud. False positives oblige ordinary citizens to prove their innocence to recover the freedom to travel. (This is a more prosaic version of the “no-fly list,” from which names are seldom removed.)
It’s debatable whether these practices help to keep us secure. More than one study has “concluded that terrorism events aren’t common enough to lend themselves to large-scale computer data mining.” That’s partly why America’s intelligence agencies have missed a number of attacks in the same period when surveillance has grown to industrial proportions.
In considering policy remedies, Angwin cites the European Union, which “requires holders of personal data to be transparent about their data collection practices and to keep data only as long as necessary for the purpose for which it was collected.” She also points to the useful example of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which allows consumers to examine their credit reports and correct any errors. She introduces questions that should be applied to every dragnet: Does it benefit society? Does it abet racism or other prejudices? Does it go beyond its stated purpose?
These injunctions aside, Angwin overlooks some of the political and class dimensions of ubiquitous surveillance. She performs a herculean effort to regain her privacy, but many Americans struggle even to find files they’ve downloaded, much less to enact baroque privacy measures that require hours of work and frequent maintenance.
We need new privacy legislation to rein in the excesses of the information economy. But such measures wouldn’t do much to provide resources for the poor and technologically inept or to correct broader injustices abetted by law enforcement, big corporations and other powerful players.
“Dragnet Nation” is certainly a useful, well-reported study. Its lack of a more radical critique of digital capitalism may say more about the scope of the problem than our paucity of solutions.
Silverman is writing a book about social media and digital culture.
A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance
Times Books: 304 pp., $28
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