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Book Review: Goodbye to Privacy

Marcus Didius Falco (
Mon, 11 Apr 2005 23:47:48 -0400

Goodbye to Privacy

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
348 pp. The Free Press. $26.

Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping.
By Patrick Radden Keefe.
300 pp. Random House. $24.95.

OUR mother's maiden name is not the secret you think it is. That sort of
'personal identifier' being used by banks, credit agencies, doctors,
insurers and retailers -- supposedly to protect you against the theft of
your identity -- can be found out in a flash from a member of the new
security-industrial complex. There goes the 'personal identifier' that
you presume a stranger would not know, along with your Social Security
number and soon your face and DNA.

In the past five years, what most of us only recently thought of as
'nobody's business' has become the big business of everybody's
business. Perhaps you are one of the 30 million Americans who pay for
what you think is an unlisted telephone number to protect your
privacy. But when you order an item using an 800 number, your own
number may become fair game for any retailer who subscribes to one of
the booming corporate data-collection services. In turn, those
services may be -- and some have been -- penetrated by identity

The computer's ability to collect an infinity of data about
individuals -- tracking every movement and purchase, assembling facts
and traits in a personal dossier, forgetting nothing -- was in place
before 9/11. But among the unremarked casualties of that day was a
value that Americans once treasured: personal privacy.

The first civil-liberty fire wall to fall was the one within
government that separated the domestic security powers of the
F.B.I. from the more intrusive foreign surveillance powers of the
C.I.A. The 9/11 commission successfully mobilized public opinion to
put dot-connection first and privacy protection last. But the second
fire wall crumbled with far less public notice or approval: that was
the separation between law enforcement recordkeeping and commercial
market research. Almost overnight, the law's suspect list married the
corporations' prospect list.

The hasty, troubling merger of these two increasingly powerful forces
capable of encroaching on the personal freedom of American citizens is
the subject of two new books.

Robert O'Harrow Jr.'s "No Place to Hide" might just do for privacy
protection what Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" did for environmental
protection nearly a half-century ago. The author, a reporter for The
Washington Post, does not write in anger. Sputtering outrage, which
characterizes the writing of many of us in the anti-snooping minority,
is not O'Harrow's style. His is the work of a careful, thorough,
enterprising reporter, possibly the only one assigned to the privacy
beat by a major American newspaper. He has interviewed many of the
major, and largely unknown, players in the world of surveillance and
dossier assembly, and provides extensive source notes in the back of
his book. He not only reports their professions of patriotism and
plausible arguments about the necessity of screening to security, but
explains the profitability to modern business of 'consumer
relationship management.'

"No Place to Hide" -- its title taken from George W. Bush's post-9/11
warning to terrorists -- is all the more damning because of its
fair-mindedness. O'Harrow notes that many consumers find it convenient
to be in a marketing dossier that knows their personal preferences,
habits, income, professional and sexual activity, entertainment and
travel interests and foibles. These intimately profiled people are
untroubled by the device placed in the car they rent that records
their speed and location, the keystroke logger that reads the
characters they type, the plastic hotel key that transmits the
frequency and time of entries and exits or the hidden camera that
takes their picture at a Super Bowl or tourist attraction. They fill
out cards revealing personal data to get a warranty, unaware that the
warranties are already provided by law. "Even as people fret about
corporate intrusiveness," O'Harrow writes about a searching survey of
subscribers taken by Conde Nast Publications, "they often willingly,
even eagerly, part with intimate details about their lives."

Such acquiescence ends -- for a while -- when snoopers get caught
spilling their data to thieves or exposing the extent of their
operations. The industry took some heat when a young New Hampshire
woman was murdered by a stalker who bought her Social Security number
and address from an online information service. But its lobbyists
managed to extract the teeth from Senator Judd Gregg's proposed
legislation, and the intercorporate trading of supposedly confidential
Social Security numbers has mushroomed. When an article in The New
York Times by John Markoff, followed by another in The Washington Post
by O'Harrow, revealed the Pentagon's intensely invasive Total
Information Awareness program headed by Vice Admiral John Poindexter
of Iran-Contra infamy, a conservative scandalmonger took umbrage.
("Safire's column was like a blowtorch on dry tinder," O'Harrow writes
in the book's only colorful simile.)

The Poindexter program's slogan, 'Knowledge Is Power,' struck many as
Orwellian. Senators Ron Wyden and Russell D. Feingold were able to
limit funding for the government-sponsored data mining, and Poindexter
soon resigned. A Pentagon group later found that 'T.I.A. was a flawed
effort to achieve worthwhile ends' and called for 'clear rules and
policy guidance, adopted through an open and credible political
process.' But O'Harrow reports in "No Place to Hide" that a former
Poindexter colleague at T.I.A. "said government interest in the
program's research actually broadened after it was apparently killed
by Congress."

The author devotes chapters to the techniques of commercial data
gatherers and sellers like Acxiom, Seisint and the British-owned
LexisNexis, not household names themselves, but boasting computers
stuffed with the names and pictures of each member of the nation's
households as well as hundreds of millions of their credit cards. He
quotes Ole Poulsen, chief technology officer of Seisint, on its
digital identity system: "We have created a unique identifier on
everybody in the United States. Data that belongs together is already
linked together." Soon after 9/11, having seen the system that was to
become the public-private surveillance engine called Matrix (in
computer naming, life follows film art), Michael Mullaney, a
counterterrorism official at the Justice Department, told O'Harrow: "I
sat down and said, 'These guys have the computer that every American
is afraid of.' "

Of all the companies in the security-industrial complex, none is more
dominant or acquisitive than ChoicePoint of Alpharetta, Ga. This data
giant collects, stores, analyzes and sells literally billions of
demographic, marketing and criminal records to police departments and
government agencies that might otherwise be criticized (or de-funded)
for building a national identity base to make American citizens prove
they are who they say they are. With its employee-screening,
shoplifter-blacklisting and credit-reporting arms, ChoicePoint is
also, in the author's words, "a National Nanny that for a fee could
watch or assess the background of virtually anybody."

From sales brochures that ChoicePoint distributed to its corporate and
government customers -- as well as from interviews with its C.E.O., Derek
V. Smith, the doyen of dossiers, who claims "this incredible passion to
make a safer world" -- The Post's privacy reporter has assembled a
coherent narrative that provides a profile of a profiler. As if to lend a
news peg to the book, ChoicePoint has just thrust itself into the nation's
consciousness as a conglomerate hoist by its own petard. The outfit that
sells the ability to anticipate suspicious activity; that provides security
to the nation's security services; that claims it protects people from
identity theft -- has been easily penetrated by a gang that stole its
dossiers on at least 145,000 people across the country.

On top of that revelation, the company had to admit it first became
suspicious last September that phony companies were downloading its
supposedly confidential electronic records on individual citizens. Not
only is the Federal Trade Commission inquiring into the company's
compliance with consumer-information security laws, but the Securities
and Exchange Commission is investigating prearranged sales of
ChoicePoint stock by Smith and another top official that netted a
profit of $17 million before the penetration was publicly disclosed
and the stock price plunged.

'ChoicePoint Data Cache Became a Powder Keg' was The Washington Post
headline, with the subhead 'Identity Thief's Ability to Get
Information Puts Heat on Firm.' This was followed by the account a
week later of another breach of faith at a competing data mine: 'ID
Thieves Breach LexisNexis, Obtain Information on 32,000.' Now that a
flat rock has been flipped over, much more scurrying about will be
observed. This will cause embarrassment to lobbyists for, and advisers
to, the major players in the security-industrial complex. "No Place to
Hide" names famous names, revealing associations with Howard Safir,
former New York City police commissioner; Gen. Wesley Clark, former
NATO commander; and former Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas. (If you
hear, 'This is not about the money' -- it's about the money.)

More of the press has been showing interest, especially since
Congressional hearings have begun and data is being disseminated about
the data collectors. A second book -- not as eye-opening as O'Harrow's
original reporting but a short course in what little we know of
international government surveillance -- is "Chatter: Dispatches from
the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping," by Patrick Radden
Keefe. This third-year student at Yale Law School dares to make his
first book an examination of what he calls the liberty-security

Chatter, he notes, is a once innocuous word meaning 'gossip ... the
babble of a child' that in the world of electronic intelligence has
gained the sinister sense of 'telltale metabolic rhythm: chatter;
silence; attack.' The flurry of 'sigint' -- signals intelligence,
picked up by the secret listening devices of our National Security
Agency -- sometimes precedes a terrorist attack, and almost always
precedes an elevation of our color-coded security alerts.

Keefe does what a brilliant, persevering law student with no inside
sources or a prestigious press pass should do: he surveys much of what
has been written about sigint and pores over the public hearing
transcripts. He visits worried scientists and some former spooks who
have written critical books, and poses questions to which he would
like to get answers. He doesn't get them, but his account of
unclimbable walls and unanswered calls invites further attempts from
media bigfeet to do better. Keefe is a researcher adept at compiling
intriguing bits and pieces dug out or leaked in the past; the most
useful part of the book is the notes at the end about written, public
sources that point to some breaks in the fog.

"Chatter" focuses on government, not commercial, surveillance, and
thereby misses the danger inherent in the sinister synergism of the
two. Moreover, the book lacks a point of view: at 28, Keefe has
formulated neither a feel for individual privacy nor a zeal for
government security. It may be, as Roman solons said, Inter arma
silent leges -- in wartime, the laws fall silent -- but the
privacy-security debate needs to be both informed and joined. This is
no time for agnostics.

For example, what to do about Echelon? That is supposedly an
ultrasecret surveillance network, conducted by the United States and
four other English-speaking nations, to overhear and oversee
signals. "We don't know whether Echelon exists," Keefe writes,
"and, if it does exist, how the shadowy network operates. It all
remains an enigma." Though he cannot light a candle, he at least
calls attention to, without cursing, the darkness.

Keefe's useful research primer on today's surveillance society, and
especially O'Harrow's breakthrough reporting on the noxious nexus of
government and commercial snooping, open the way for the creation of
privacy beats for journalism's coming generation of search
engineers. A small furor is growing about the abuse of security that
leads to identity theft. We'll see how long the furor lasts before the
commercial-public security combine again slams privacy against the
wall of secrecy, but at least Poindexter's slogan is being made clear:
knowledge is indeed power, and more than a little power in unknowable
hands is a dangerous thing.

William Safire writes the On Language column for The Times Magazine.

These book reviews from Sunday, April 10, 2005 issue of the Times
Magazine, copyright 2005 The New York Times Company.

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