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Author of Dragnet Nation, Julia Angwin, won her Pulitzer Prize while working for the Wall Street Journal. She is now is an investigative reporter for ProPublica. Her new book builds upon her years of work while at the WSJ that detailed how our privacy has been eroded by the modern digital age, updated for the Ed Snowden NSA revelations.
When I saw her recently on “CBS This Morning” promoting her book, I thought, “Well, that’s a nice book, but her work was made largely irrelevant by the fact that the NSA collects more data than private sector companies. Google’s snooping into our website searches pales in comparison to what our own government is doing”.
Nevertheless, I agreed to review the book, and now realize that my first impression of the book’s importance was wrong. Dragnet Nation is truly a “must read” for anyone with children or who values their privacy and believes in the Constitution.
The next time you discuss in casual conversation the topic of how one’s smartphone is nothing but a GPS spying device, and then the person with whom you are speaking exhibits a defeatist apathy about being violated, Dragnet Nation will help you better explain the reasons why they should care.
The book begins by explaining why everyone should be profoundly interested in protecting their privacy, by listing numerous cases in recent history of Nazi, Fascist, and Communist atrocities subjected upon millions of people, enabled by crude data collection methods of the 20th Century. It explains how the Communist East German government Stasi spies, which could only rely on peeping into paper letters and tapping phones, would have been in heaven with today’s electronic data gathering. Even our own country used lists from the Census Bureau to round up people of Japanese heritage living in the states during WW2.
Dragnet Nation also reminds the reader that the paramount reason for the founders of the country declaring independence from the British was their outrage over the “writs of assistance”, or general search warrants, that allowed any home to be searched for any reason by British Redcoats. This led to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution that forbids searches and seizures without probable cause.
Of course, the biggest debate before congress now, and certainly to be decided by the Supreme Court at some point in the future, is whether the broad collection of phone records, emails, and web traffic patterns of American citizens, by our own NSA, violates the Fourth Amendment. Several lawsuits are pending.
Dragnet Nation becomes an indispensable guide for regular Americans when it explains in detail the types of data that are not only collected, but then sold for cheap, by hundreds of data collection companies. All of those web ads promising to “find people” or give you “criminal records” on anyone you want are not scams. For a few bucks, anyone can truly find out the social security numbers and addresses of every place anyone has ever lived. And the worst part is that it is all legal.
A big reason that all of this personal data collection is largely unregulated is that every elected politician uses the same data to locate potential voters (and the lobbying money of the huge data collection industry that employs millions of people). The book describes this as “dark data cycles”. Information that is stolen from you, then peddled by a sleazy industry, ends up being purchased by the members of congress and presidents who are supposed to protect you and the U.S. Constitution.
Dragnet Nation explains how populations who know they are being closely watched become withdrawn and unhappy. It explains that video cameras on every block, or the dragnet collection of all phone records and emails, does not even help identify the very rare behavior of the typical terrorist. In fact, recent congressional oversight hearings and reports concluded that the NSA metadata had not helped catch any bad guys.
Ms. Angwin lists numerous terrorist attacks that almost succeeded since the NSA began widespread data collection, such as the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and the Times Square Bomber. She also lists the Boston Marathon bombing and the Fort Hood shooting that did succeed. She left out the Benghazi attack of the Libyan embassy on September 11th, 2012, which is now known to have been an orchestrated terrorist attack.
Dragnet Nation empowers the reader to properly debate one of the most important threats to The United States of America, which is not terrorism. It is the violation of the Constitution by our own government, as well as large tech companies.
America is truly exceptional from all other countries because of the freedom granted to citizens for speech and the right to assemble. In the “Post 9/11” America, did President Bush, and now President Obama, allow our own government to violate the Fourth Amendment on a grand scale, or will our communications and actions made in the privacy of our homes be deemed fair game to be sold by Facebook and collected by the NSA?