Why Internet Spying Is Not a Political Problem, but an Economic One

Written by Pablo —  March 22, 2014

massive surveillance internet privacy

Tracking someone through their mobile device is 60 times cheaper than using a pager and 150 times cheaper than car surveillance

Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein has become the butt of all jokes, at least for the United States left. Ten months ago, in her capacity as Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein was one of the most outspoken advocates of NSA activities, as they were exposed by former CIA spy Edward Snowden. According to Feinstein: “It’s called protecting America”. Pure and simple.

What Feinstein did not expect was that the US spies would go into her own computers and steal documents. More specifically, around 920 “documents or pages” (according to Feinstein) pertaining to the torture of more than one hundred al Qaeda leaders by the CIA. Feinstein’s reaction would have made any freedom of speech activist feel proud: she made an impassionate speech on the Senate floor denouncing the CIA operation. The CIA’s reaction would have, in turn, made the Dianne Feinstein of 2013 proud: denying everything. It is a serious matter, though, since the CIA is by law banned from spying inside the United States.


EU Parliament members wear Snowden masks to show solidarity

Having the hunter hunted is some sort of poetic justice, but the episode reveals, once again, that the concept of privacy does not exist in today’s Internet.

In early March, this blogger was politely requested to hand his glasses to some person at no other place than the South By Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi), in Austin, Texas—supposedly the world capital of ‘coolness’. The request was in order to have the glasses searched for any spying device after I had asked to see the interior of an advanced 3-D printer (my glasses have no filming device, and, without them, I can’t distinguish a 3-D printer from a coffee machine, so, once the person saw that there was no device in them, he returned them to me).

Online espionage is not just easy, but terribly cheap.

The glasses anecdote and Feinstein’s apoplectic realizations are just an example. If the concept of privacy does not exist on the Net, it has little to do with the alleged ‘evilness’ of governments , and much more with something more mundane—cutting corners. Here is an example: “The average cost of cell phone tracking across the three major providers is about $1.80 per hour for twenty-eight days of tracking. Using beeper technology for the same period of time is nearly sixty times more expensive, while covert car pursuit is over 150 times more expensive.”

That calculation has been made by the security expert Ashkan Soltani and the Policy Director of the Open Technology Institute of the Washington DC think tank New America Foundation Kevin Bankston in an article published in the Yale Law Journal. Drew E. Cohen, a former law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, has estimated that the NSA costs each American taxpayer a mere $574 per year. That means just 6.5 cents an hour per taxpayer.

nsa usa public opinion graphic

For centuries, spying was difficult to afford. According to Cohen’s estimates, in the 1800s, ten constables were required to follow one suspect in a major American urban center; by the 1940s “the same task still took eight officers in four police cars to accomplish.” Nowadays, monitoring that person’s activity through their cellphones is virtually free. The economies of scale of the Internet have changed everything. With the current technologies, once the infrastructure is set into place, the marginal cost of following one suspect or 10,000 is virtually nil. The technological advances go far beyond the Internet. From surveillance cameras to license plate readers, the new technologies constantly lower the costs of knowing who is who.

Further, Americas’ legal doctrine in this field is chaotic at best. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution establishes “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The evil, of course, is in the details. Two years ago, in United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court had to deal with the practicalities of this statement in the 21st century. The case revolved around the Washington DC police installing a GPS device in the car of a suspected drug trafficker, Antoine Jones. Although it was authorized by a warrant, the Washington police exceeded the amount of time that the device was allowed to be in the car. After four weeks, the police were able to arrest Jones and successfully charge him for selling 50 kilograms of cocaine. Jones was sentenced to life in prison, but the Supreme Court ruled that monitoring his activities for four weeks was beyond reason. Jones was set free. But the Court muddled its own decision, since the most precise limit of what is “reasonable” and what is not was, simply, that “the line was surely crossed before the 4-week mark.”

“When the Constitution was written, there was a huge economic cost [in spying], so certain technologies were prohibited, not just from a legal standpoint, but also from the financial side. Since the 1970s, however, these technologies are becoming cheaper and cheaper, and now, with mass-consumer products such as Google Glass, we, average citizens, have the option of filming people.”

Drew E. Cohen, phone interview on March 16th

Societal changes worsen that lack of privacy. In the Fifties, during the ‘Red Scare’ and McCarthyism—when the United States lived under the paranoia of a USSR-backed Communist conspiracy to take over the country—, the American public fought tooth and nail to keep the public libraries’ records secret. However, in the aftermath of September 11th, the US PATRIOT Act gave Government the authority to search those records. Nowadays, people advertise their readings on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads. “Same thing has happened with firms. Until the 1960s, there was a strong movement to keep corporations out of our private lives. Today, no longer,” explains Cohen.

Finally, there is the macroeconomic component. As the Policy Executive Research Forum (an organization of police leaders from the United States) has explained, in times of fiscal restraint, investing in technology is much more attractive, because it is cheaper than hiring law enforcement personnel.  The problem, again, is who controls the endless devices that are controlling the citizens, and who controls those who are controlling those devices. Dianne Feinstein has, to her chagrin, found out that she is not controlling the controllers. The problem, however, goes well beyond politicians, law enforcement agencies and intelligence services, and has to do with the economics of technology. Simply stated, spying today has become too cheap.

So cheap that it is irresistible. In SXSW, a representative of Ghostery showed me all the elements that were collecting information in TechCrunch’s home site. A flashy banner at the top collected information, for instance, and it was managed by a subsidiary of no other than internet giant AOL. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn also got information through their icons. The list went on, and on, until reaching an astonishing number of 17 sites that get data from TechCrunch’s website.

So, when even small companies with limited budgets can obtain reasonable amounts of data, what can be expected from a giant with an estimated budget of $10 billion?

Photo Credits: Kyz, Greensefa



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El Mundo's hack in Washington / Corresponsal de El Mundo en Washington. Author of 'El Monstruo. Memorias de un Interrogador'