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They’re Watching Us!

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Six years ago next month, we began the process of buying a new car for Gail. We soon settled on a particular model, and then had to decide on features and color, given those the dealer could get in. We were somewhat flexible on color. Our principal criterion was that we didn’t want the navigation package. We wanted the other standard multi-feature package, the one that gives you heated front seats and leather interior and a few other “luxury” items. But we didn’t want the navigation package for three reasons: we didn’t think we needed it — we sort of know our way around; why pay for something you don’t need?; but most important, Gail didn’t want the car to be equipped with GPS. I kept tellling her this could be useful, but she was adamant that she didn’t want them watching her. Paranoia or reality? Who knows? Remember the Mel Gibson character in Conspiracy Theory? He turned out to be right. Why bet against him?

Since most of the cars the dealer brought in had the navigation feature, we would have to wait. No problem. Our salesman identified a particular vehicle on its way from Japan and earmarked it for us. Or so he said.

Weeks went by. Eventually he said something had gone wrong and the car wasn’t coming to the dealer. Or maybe it was going to another customer. Whatever. We found whatever he said a little hard to take seriously. Whatever the issue, he was back to telling us that a car with everything we wanted was now available, and as a bonus, it had navigation too! He seemed to have forgotten the whole point, that we were waiting a month so we could do without navigation. We decided to take a look. And then, great car bargainer that I am, I managed to get them to agree to a big discount on the navigation. Gail, in turn, sucked it up and decided she could live with GPS.

Five years and 9+ months later, she couldn’t be happier. She has struck up a friendship with the disembodied woman who tells her how to get places. She finds the navigation more useful than she ever imagined. But best of all, with navigation and the accompanying screen in the dash, you get a rear camera that shows what’s behind you when the car is in reverse. The car I bought three years ago has this too. One quickly comes to appreciate it.

Are they watching? We moved beyond that.

Silly us. As you may have read last week, thanks to the work of Indiana University graduate student Christopher Soghoian,

Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers’ (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.

Read more in his post on the subject. See also emptywheel’s post two days ago, in which she points out that Sprint may have made a significant amount of money from this service. She concludes, “You see, these companies only look like telecom companies. Really, they’re telecom and surveillance companies. The question is, how much telecom is it, and how much surveillance?” And see Scott Horton’s post yesterday at Harper’s. I’ll conclude with one passage from Horton.

In 1999, Congress passed a law requiring annual reporting of “pen registers and tap and trace devices” so that Congress could monitor the use of new technologies for electronic surveillance. This reporting requirement is imposed on the Department of Justice. However, Soghoian notes (I believe correctly) that the Justice Department has simply ignored the law and the obligations it imposes. This is one area in which the Justice Department apparently feels free to do what it wishes, including violating criminal statutes, whenever it feels national security is challenged. It is also free to rope telecommunications service providers into collaboration, assuring them that it will use its law enforcement monopoly to insure that criminal statutes they are jointly violating will not be enforced. This was the criminal enterprise engineered by the Bush Justice Department to subvert FISA. But so far there is little evidence of the Obama Administration charting a different course, or insisting on accountability for their predecessors.

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Categories: Government, Law, Movies, Security
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