If you’re a newcomer to issues of privacy and security on the web, Julia Angwin’s 2014 Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance is a good place to start. In accessible language and a relatable context, Angwin delves into the “dragnet nation”, or how multiple entities are grabbing your data indiscriminately to be sold, used and analyzed.
I wasn’t very surprised by anything that Angwin brings up in the book. From your Google search archive to your mobile location data, every bit of activity you do on the web or with your cell phone is likely recorded, stored in a database and may be used for commercial, governmental or covert operations.
To say this is scary would be an understatement. The sheer amount of things that Google knows about you is astounding, and if you want to know what data brokers and companies can discover about you, this is the place to begin. From your favourite takeout restaurant to your clothing size, from your health issues to your political leanings, it’s easy to make quite an accurate profile of anyone through their Google data. Angwin demonstrates this by going through her own data and realizing how revealing it is.
Most of the book is dedicated to Angwin’s quest for privacy in the dragnet nation. She looks for a private email client, a way to hide her location through mobile, and more. She describes the process of getting an alias (a famous early 20th-century journalist) for online shopping. She even gets a credit card in her alias’ name!
As you can imagine, Angwin struggles with living a normal modern life and living privately. From sluggish private browsers (Tor) to unpractical Faraday pouches that cut all signals to and from your phone, it’s difficult to answer to the demands of today’s digital world and protect your privacy. The expectations of availability and the constant surveillance makes it very difficult to live “off the dragnet grid.”
As you can imagine, Angwin is only partly successful at increasing her privacy online. She often finds that the cost of security is too high: it gets in the way of her life or in the way of her work, or somehow overcomplicates a task so much that it doesn’t seem worth it to her.
The most interesting–and alarming–conclusion you can make from reading this book is that the convenience of modern technology comes at the cost of your privacy. There is hardly any way to avoid the dragnet, if only by making a purchase with a credit card or by placing a call with your cell phone. Tasks as ubiquitous as reading your favourite news outlet online, doing a Google search or walking into a store with your cell phone are now all part of the dragnet.
The dangers of the dragnet are also obviously scary: that your information can be retroactively used against you. Proponents of the dragnet argue that it has protected us against terrorism, but as Angwin argues, maybe it doesn’t do it so well. What the dragnet does do well is build a profile of you for advertising purposes. What it is for is not so much protection against criminals (who would be careful to use privacy tools anyway, if they were smart) but for selling you stuff.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of any kind of big organization that knows too much about me, whether it is the government or corporations. I agree that the government should know enough about its citizen to build good policies, but should it be aware of everyone’s every single movement, phone call, Google search? Should it know where you do your groceries, your favourite type of legal pornography or the latest pair of boots you bought online?
As I said earlier, convenience comes at a price. To increase privacy is to forego convenience. But is it too late to turn back? Are we now all so addicted to our phones, laptops, city-wide wi-fi and Google that we’ve all just thrown our hands up and given up?
Is everything that makes our life easier necessarily a good thing, or should we begin questioning the consequences of blindly accepting and integrating ever more invasive technology in our lives?
Dragnet Nation, although admittedly basic for those who are already aware of these issues, is a good place to start your inquiry.
Anabelle Bernard-Fournier is Books Editor of The Cryptosphere.