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Hid from our eyes

21 June 2013

In holes: analysis of the internet scandal in Saturday'sFinancial Times

In holes: analysis of the internet scandal in Saturday'sFinancial Times

THE big Guardian/Washington Post story on government surveillance of the internet was wrong in one of its central points. Does this matter? The question seems to me to go to the heart of how news is transmitted.

First, the mistake: The Guardian's story - and the first version of The Washington Post's - claimed that the NSA, the American signals intelligence agency, had "direct access" to the servers at Google and other large internet companies. This would imply that they were tapping into anything they wanted without the detailed knowledge or consent of the companies involved.

That seems to be clearly untrue. As further technical details emerged, it seemed that the PRISM programme involved a deliberate and conscious response by the companies concerned to explicit requests from the government. In fact, Google uploaded the data using a system so deliciously low-tech that I use it for sharing music with distant relatives.

On the other hand, the requests were secret. They may have been widespread. We don't know. And, while it had been known to experts for at least ten years that the NSA and similar agencies had access to an enormous amount of our data, this had not filtered through to the general public.

News often works like this. Something that anyone who cares about the subject has known for so long that it is taken entirely for granted is suddenly pitched into the mind of the general public. In the process, quite a lot of accuracy will be lost, but this is mostly harmless.

What causes damage is when a word or a phrase is preserved but ripped from its context: Dr Williams's infamous quote about sharia's being "inevitable" comes to mind. Nothing comparable happened with the surveillance story.

In fact, as foreigners, we in this country are liable to have practically everything monitored through a different system, involving equipment stored in the hubs of the main internet providers in the US. Because of the way the internet works, it is almost impossible to be sure that none of your messages is routed through US territory; if they are, the US government can intercept them.

WHETHER it bothers to do so is another question. Concurrently with the stuff about government spying, the Financial Times ran a story, with an interactive portion, about the commercial market for data.

"Over recent years, the surveillance of consumers has developed into a multi-billion-dollar industry conducted by largely unregulated companies that obtain information by scouring web searches, social networks, purchase histories and public records, among other sources.

"The resulting dossiers include thousands of details about individuals, including personal ailments, credit scores and even due dates for pregnant women. Companies feed the details into algorithms to determine how to predict and influence consumer behaviour."

What gives the story its twist is that this data is now so widely supplied that it is almost worthless. I filled out the FT's interactive questionnaire, and discovered that everything that is known about my life is worth the grand total of $0.53 - if bought in bulk with a thousand other people's lives.

It would be difficult to increase my market value without a sex change: one big company, ALC, "tracks more than 80 per cent of all US births, and competes fiercely against other data brokers in the baby sector. The company recently unveiled a new 'Newborn Network' database containing information about prenatal and postnatal mothers, as well as their aunts, grandmothers, close friends and neighbours. 'It is a saturated market,' says Lori Magill-Cook, an executive vice-president at ALC."

I think I prefer being worth less.

THE big religious story of the week was another example of the way that something that all the experts know is pushed into the public domain. Pope Francis's briefing to the Roman Catholic religious of Latin America was leaked under headlines all mentioning "gay lobby" in the Vatican. To take the New York Times: "For years, perhaps even centuries, it has been an open secret in Rome that some prelates in the Vatican hierarchy are gay. But the whispers were amplified this week when Pope Francis himself, in a private audience, appears to have acknowledged what he called a 'gay lobby' operating inside the Vatican, vying for power and influence."

What was missing here was the question what power and which influence they had. Everything I know suggests that the networks involved have no interest in changing doctrine. What they want, in the words of the German gay theologian David Berger, is "sex and secrecy, and lots of both".

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