Internet surveillance: here’s what you should really be worried about

they are watching you

They are watching us. That’s all we’ve heard for the last couple of weeks. And over that time, many people (ok, like one guy on Twitter) have asked me my opinion, as an alleged expert on internet legal issues. In fear the government was reading me, I have been twiddling my thumbs for a week. Screw it, let’s do this thing. And you may be surprised at my reaction.

So let’s take a step back as we often do in these opening paragraphs to explain what I’m on about, for those of you who have been in a cabin in the woods recently. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian had a whistleblower – a (now former) employee at an NSA (National Security Agency) subcontractor – expose all sorts of allegedly nefarious electronic spying by the U.S. Government. All of us in Canada we’re like “meh.” It’s the States, they have terrorists to stop, whatevs, we don’t really care.

Well it didn’t take long for the Canadian media to report that our government was pretty much doing the same thing! We have a super secret organization called Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) which was eavesdropping on Canadians. Panic in the disco! TIME TO FREAK THE FUCK OUT, EH?

Well I didn’t freak out. And I don’t think you should either; you can freak out over something much more nefarious if you like. We’ll get to that. But first, we need to establish what exactly the government is doing. In Michael Geist’s latest, he writes:

The government has tried to downplay the public concern by focusing on two safeguards…  it notes that the data captured is metadata rather than content and, therefore, does not raise significant privacy issues.

That’s the important point here. The government is not (to our knowledge at least) actually reading your emails (you know, like Google does) or tracking your downloads of porn. They are just tracking “metadata”. What is metadata? The CBC article linked to above describes it:

Metadata is data that describes other data – or, put another way, it’s information about the digital envelope that carries specific correspondences… The metadata is the information about a specific communication, but it doesn’t reveal the substance of the communication itself.

So there you go. Should you freak out about that? Geist also writes:

Assurances that metadata surveillance is less invasive than tracking the content of telephone calls or Internet usage also ring hollow

Sorry Mr. Geist, not to me. There is a huge fucking difference between metadata and the actual content of my emails or porn or email porn. I don’t freak out over the government collecting metadata, and here’s why – corporations have been doing this for years. If you want to freak out, freak out about that. What do corporations do? Well, they amass HUGE amounts of data about people visiting their websites. When you go to a website (allenmendelsohn.com for example), a computer program collects all sorts of information about you without you knowing it, even if you do nothing more than read the content on the page without entering any sort of data yourself. Let’s take a look at what is being collected about you on a regular basis every time you open a web page:

  • Your geographic location
  • The server you get your internet access from
  • IP address of your computer or device
  • Your browser
  • Your operating system
  • How you arrived at that website
  • Which pages on the site you visited
  • How long you spent on each page
  • Every single thing you clicked on
  • What you may have downloaded from the site

There is plenty more. All of this technically metadata. Do you worry about that? Well maybe you should. Who do you think is more powerful in 2013? Government or corporations? Exactly. And the list above is just the metadata! The corporations you choose to give data to have a ton more stuff about you that is not metadata. Spend your time worrying about that.

I collect metadata of people visiting my site. I have seen readers who come from servers with a .gc.ca extension, meaning that the government is in fact reading me. Hi Stephen! Now, I am not doing anything with this info (hehehe) because I have nothing to gain by it. Giant corporations? Well maybe they do.

If you want to worry about something that the government may or may not be doing, look at what the corporations are sharing with the government. The Guardian exposé indicated that Google and Facebook had given the U.S. government direct access to their servers. Google and Facebook were quick to deny this, but it was in pretty carefully worded statements (written by lawyers no doubt) that some people are questioning. I don’t know the truth there, but if we want to worry, that is where we should direct our concern.

Yes, we need some oversight to CSEC. If you want to complain about something, complain about that. Government needs to be accountable for what they are doing in our name. But the data that’s actually being collected here? Meh. Amazon and Google know way more about me than the government ever will. Now that’s scary.

Posted in: Commentary
Tagged: .

11 Responses to Internet surveillance: here’s what you should really be worried about

  1. steve says:

    Allen I have the up most respect for your opinion.. I mean that totally sincerely that if I was on the firing line, I would seek you out if I thought I had any chance of defending my liberty. While you may be legally right and your examples of corporations data mining us down to the point they know which creams we might need. I just have to say as a fifty year old man, I need some moisturizer and fungal cream from time to time. Feet do not fail me, but man they do love the fungus. So anyway the corporations know I buy feet fungus products. I really did not want to share that,
    However when the government uses that information its a totally different story. I have nothing to hide, CISIS the FBI and the CIA could search everything in my house , my car and my life and find only petty crime. I should say at this moment all exonerated at great expense. What I fear is the government, and it does not matter as we have seen with the shinning left example of Stalin, and the equally commanding Hitler, is that governments are like rivers, they start small and soon they hang to power like Niagara falls. Lets say Justin Trudeau has looked at the FHF on a Friday.He is dead. The meta data is a prospecting tool of mass destruction of opponents in the wrong hands.

    Allen I will say something in jest, and you know its true.

    How much did Harper pay you to write this and will you be the next senator from Quebec?

  2. So, you’re worried about corporations collecting metadata about you rather than the government.

    How does the equation change when you realise that the government is trying to collect, aggregate and mine data from multiple corporations?

    Or that government is the one that has a lot more power to use that information to cause you harm, particularly if you’re one of the more vulnerable members of society?

  3. steve says:

    Not that I am paranoid, but if you had provided some edit function on your blog I might have edited my thoughts.

    Yes I agree the corporations are more likely to abuse the meta data than the government. However my point was, that when the government and private corporations are one in the same, like you see in the USA today, its like a bad movie. Blackwater, Booze and company Halliburton, and the list goes one of companies that do work for the government in a totally patriotic way returning best practices dividends to the American taxpayer.
    So I was wrong to freak out on first reading your opinion that we are already data mined in detail by industry.

  4. Paul says:

    I actually commend our sacrosanct government and big corporations for trying to obtain every morsel of information about us through the covert collection and use of data and/or metadata, the attempt at warrantless surveillance, and most recently the banning of masks at protests. I also applaud them for their ruthless and fierce protection of their own information through the avoidance of expense disclosure, the deletion of government emails in Ontario, and the attempt to patent life saving genes.

    I rest assured that our government is taking all measures necessary to protect my information after obtaining it, legally or otherwise, and I choose to ignore, as unimportant, the HRSDC loss of student loan information, the numerous breaches at CRA, or the Ontario Elections loss of personal information concerning about 1.4 million to 2.4 million voters. I also trust that although PIPEDA, for some reason or another, does not require mandatory breach notification, big corporations would nevertheless inform me immediately of any loss, or unauthorized use or disclosure of my information.

    And in times of doubt, I shall remember that I always have one last refuge for privacy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *