Welcome to Newscoop Footnotes — the weekly review of important news no one’s talking about.
Hi, I’m Zoe Licata, with Newscoop Footnotes for April 23-29.
Today I’d like to talk again about the Internet. I want to bring your attention to a number of Internet-related events that have occurred recently, and that should be concerning us.
There have been some disturbing developments in the U.S. in the area of personal privacy. One of the harbingers of bad things ahead came in March of last year, when the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress overturned Obama-era Federal Communications Commission regulations that had previously required Internet service providers (like Comcast and Verizon) to get permission from consumers before selling their private data. Those privacy protections for U.S. consumers are now gone, and service providers or ISPs (which have access to all consumer data), can sell it at will. This is particularly disturbing given the fact that in many parts of America, consumers do not have a choice of ISP. The U.S. legislators went even further by specifically disallowing the FCC from issuing any such consumer protections in the future.
In the year following that move by the U.S. Congress, there have been disturbing events indicating that this Congress had little idea of the seriousness of the privacy issue. We learned this week that law enforcement tracked the so-called “Golden State Killer” through DNA that was easily accessible in public genealogy websites. There are now wide concerns that consumers can be identified and tracked by law enforcement and others through those sites.
We’ve also been watching the legal and political fallout from the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting and data mining firm in London founded by Republican donor Robert Mercer and former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon. Hired by the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, Cambridge Analytica harvested data from more than 87 million unsuspecting Facebook customers to create voter profiles. On April 11th, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before Congress to answer questions on that shocking breach of consumer privacy.
And now this past week, we’ve learned that Cambridge Analytica had assistance in their voter profiling efforts from employees of Palantir Technologies, the data-mining firm co-founded by Silicon Valley investor and Trump advisor Peter Thiel. Funded in part by the CIA, Palantir has been using war-on-terror tools to help the Pentagon – and law enforcement at all levels – track private citizens, with data gathered from a shocking number and variety of sources. Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie testified before British lawmakers that even senior Palantir employees had worked on the data from Facebook for the Trump campaign. Complicating the picture, Palantir founder Peter Thiel is also on the board of Facebook.
Hacked emails released by the international hacker collective known as “Anonymous” showed Palantir and other defense associates pitching a plan to “spy on the families of progressive activists, create fake identities to infiltrate left-leaning groups, scrape social media with bots, and plant false information with liberal groups to subsequently discredit them.”
Palantir is already working with the Chicago police department and the LAPD, and reporters at Bloomberg described the company as compiling a “constantly expanding surveillance database that’s fully accessible without a warrant” – including everything from a person’s social media, lovers and parking lot records, to toll road usage and pizza deliveries. Most disturbing, they described “whole communities being algorithmically scraped for pre-crime suspects.” Palantir has just won a much-coveted $876 million contract with the U.S. Army.
All of this reminds us somewhat of the Stratfor scandal several years ago, which brought with it the legal demise of the young hacker Jeremy Hammond. In 2011, hackers from the so-called “Anonymous” group broke into the website of the private intelligence firm Stratfor. Hammond downloaded troves of Stratfor data, including millions of emails showing that Stratfor had been spying on protesters and NGOs, including Occupy Wall Street – with governments, politicians, mercenary military firms, and law enforcement as their information sources and clients. Jeremy Hammond received 10 years in prison. While some were disturbed by Stratfor’s shocking spying on U.S. citizens, there were no legal ramifications for Stratfor – they continued on with their regular business.
Palantir’s data gathering and analytical methods are a good deal more sophisticated than those of Stratfor, and the courts have not yet ruled on whether they are constitutional. We do know that all of it points to a very disturbing trend in U.S. consumer privacy and tracking. And while the risk of these privacy infringements right now is primarily to those living in the U.S., we can expect there will also be spillover for Internet-users elsewhere in the world. The hope is that the new EU privacy regulations will serve to rein in at least some of the U.S. political and corporate excesses.
This has been the latest edition of Newscoop Footnotes – important events getting too little attention. Tune in next week for more.
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