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No Escaping Dragnet Nation

This week, as the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein publicly accused the CIA of spying on her committee’s computers, Bill talks with investigative reporter Julia Angwin, author of “Dragnet Nation.”

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This week, as the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein publicly accused the CIA of spying on her committee’s computers, Bill talks with investigative reporter Julia Angwin, author of Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.

The book chronicles the indiscriminate tracking of our everyday lives — where government and business are stockpiling data about us at an unprecedented pace. Reporters are a prime target for Internet snooping, says Angwin, “Journalists are the canary in the coal mine. We’re the first ones to seriously feel the impact of total surveillance, which means we can’t protect our sources. But what happens next? What happens next is we’re not good watch dogs for democracy. And that’s a very worrisome situation.”

Angwin and Moyers also discuss our exposure to fraud from online data mining; why mass data collection is not making us safer in the face of terrorism and why European privacy regulations are stronger than those in the US.

Julia Angwin covered the business and technology beat at The Wall Street Journal for 13 years and is a Pulitzer Prize winner now working for the independent news organization ProPublica.


BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company: how we’ve become a “Dragnet Nation” where mass surveillance rules.

JULIA ANGWIN: Journalists are the canary in the coal mine, right? We’re the first ones to seriously feel the impact of total surveillance. Which means we can’t protect our sources. But what happens next? What happens next is we don’t have very good stories and we’re not good watch dogs for democracy. And that’s a very worrisome situation.


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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Just when you thought you were about to sink below the surface of the sea of mass surveillance, that bottomless ocean in which we now swim, there comes a lifeline – this book “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Angwin, reviewers have praised her work as eye-opening, thought-provoking, and disturbing for its insights into how closely we are tracked by the electronic eyes and ears of not only government, but corporate spies. It was inevitable, says Julia Angwin, that these twin big brothers would become inextricably linked. Neither can exist without the other. So it is, we’re living in a “Dragnet Nation,” a world of indiscriminate tracking where institutions are stockpiling data about us at an unprecedented pace.

Julia Angwin covered the tech beat for “The Wall Street Journal” for thirteen years, wrote the book “Stealing MySpace,” and is now an investigative journalist for the independent news organization ProPublica. Welcome.

JULIA ANGWIN: It’s great to be here.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve given me the best list of bumper stickers that I could put on my car to alert people to this digital-age surveillance. You say, it’s a chilling list. “You can always be found.”

JULIA ANGWIN: Yes, right. Your phone is sending out a signal which locates you at all times, unless you don’t have it with you.

BILL MOYERS: “You can be watched in your own home or in the bathroom.”

JULIA ANGWIN: Correct. Hackers are getting much better at taking over control of the camera on your laptop computer or your regular computer and spying on you in your room.

BILL MOYERS: “You can be impersonated.”

JULIA ANGWIN: Right. This is what people call identity theft. I call it impersonation, because you’re still you. You’ve just been impersonated for fraudulent purposes.

BILL MOYERS: “You can be trapped in a hall of mirrors.”

JULIA ANGWIN: This is when everything you see online reflects your previous searches. So you see those ads for everything you just looked for, and Google is tailoring its results to who they think you are. So all you see is a reflection of yourself.

BILL MOYERS: “You can be placed in a police lineup.”

JULIA ANGWIN: This is where the police are watching everybody, and even though they’re not suspects. And so essentially, they’re looking for clues that you might be a suspect. So you’re basically in the lineup until you can prove your innocence.

BILL MOYERS: What has happened to the Fourth Amendment? That’s supposed to protect “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures” such as you have just described?

JULIA ANGWIN: Right. Well, the thing is, the Fourth Amendment protects the actual physical walls of your home. And so in fact, the police still need a search warrant to knock on the door and come in. But the problem is, technology has reached into our homes in other ways and essentially there’s an exception to the Fourth Amendment for that.

There’s something called the Third Party Doctrine. Which is a Supreme Court precedent that basically says once you give your data to a third party, whether it’s a bank, a telephone company, then you have lost your privacy interest in it. And so the police can get it there. Well, nowadays, our papers and effects that we used to store at home, we basically store outside the home at these digital places – Google, even our online banking. And so then there’s a much lower standard for the government to get this information.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck by the realization in reading your book that while Europe doesn’t have a Fourth Amendment, they have stricter regulations of data mining than we do. How do you explain that?

JULIA ANGWIN: Well, Europe has a totally different approach. Which is they view privacy as a human right. And they offer everyone this baseline privacy, which is basically if there’s data about you at one of these places, you have the right to see it. You have the right to correct it. And sometimes you have the right to delete it.

And it also limits the company’s desire to collect that data. Because then they have to pay the cost of giving access. So— and we don’t have that law. And we’re the only Western nation that doesn’t have a similar type of law.

BILL MOYERS: So what’s going on? I mean, has technology made Swiss cheese of the Fourth Amendment? Or is it fear of terror and terrorists? Or do we simply concede in America that corporations’ interest come first?

JULIA ANGWIN: I think it’s a bunch of things. Like, first of all, we can’t ignore the fact that we want everything for free. Okay, so we also have to take a little bit of blame on ourselves. We want all of our technology for free. We used to pay for software. We used to buy it in boxes, they were in the store, shrink-wrapped. Do you remember that? And it cost $60.

And now we get it all for free. But we’re realizing we are paying in another way. We’re paying with our data. And so we have to under— we have to maybe decide to make some different choices for ourselves. But at the same time, our laws are outdated. And all of the big tech companies have been advocating for some reforms about the fact that it’s easier for the police to open up your email than your postal mail.

BILL MOYERS: What’s it going to take, though, to make us move in that direction? I mean, did the Snowden revelations— were they a real wakeup call, do you think?

JULIA ANGWIN: You know, I can’t tell yet, because the weird thing about the Snowden revelations is they continue to dribble out.

BILL MOYERS: 1.7 million files and only a relative handful have come out so far, I think.

JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah, and I think what’s happening is people are sort of overwhelmed by the flood of information. Every week there’s a new story about what is the N.S.A. or the G.C.H.Q., which is the U.S. or British spy agencies, what are they tapping. And we’ve seen some pretty shocking revelations, that they’re getting every single domestic call in the U.S., that they’re tapping the cell phone locations overseas and sometimes in the U.S. That they are stealing people’s address books, that they’re breaking into Google Data Centers. So it’s been a shocking amount of revelation. I feel like we’re still absorbing it.

BILL MOYERS: Did you learn something from Snowden that you hadn’t come across in your traditional pursuit— dogged pursuit of journalist revelations?

JULIA ANGWIN: I knew the government was coming to these companies with secret orders from the secret FISA court asking for data about their customers. I did not know that at the same time, the N.S.A. was coming to the front door, they were climbing in the back door, and hacking into those companies’ systems.

For instance, breaking into the Google Data Center. Or they were intercepting the traffic that your Angry Birds app would send to an advertiser while you’re playing the game. And these were things— I hadn’t envisioned them going to those lengths.

BILL MOYERS: The companies have objected, have they not? Aren’t they beginning to protest—


BILL MOYERS: —this collusion that was tacitly taking place?

JULIA ANGWIN: It seems like they themselves were surprised about the amount that was being broken into and their traffic. And a lot of the big tech companies are taking measures to encrypt their traffic, to put in much bigger barricades so that it’s harder for the N.S.A. to get in.

BILL MOYERS: Something of a catch 22 there, because as you write, “Government data are the lifeblood for commercial data brokers. And government dragnets rely on obtaining information from the private sector.” I mean, it’s a real yin and yang.

JULIA ANGWIN: Right. I mean, a perfect example of that is your voting records. So when you go to vote, you have to give a bunch of information to the government.

BILL MOYERS: Name, address, birth—

JULIA ANGWIN: Sometimes birthday, political affiliation, it can be comprehensive. And then the states sell those lists.


JULIA ANGWIN: To commercial data brokers, who add it to the list that they buy commercially, like which magazines are you subscribing to and which catalogues are you ordering from. And then nowadays, they add internet stuff, what are you doing online, because they have found ways to finally merge all this stuff. And the files that they create are very robust. And sometimes the government buys them back in order to do counterterrorism investigations or to send mailings to their campaign constituents.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think people know that’s taking place? Does your reporting suggest people know it?

JULIA ANGWIN: No, people seem to be surprised every time I mention this or write about it. And that is what is shocking about this industry in general, the data brokers in particular are the— among the least transparent. In my reporting, I identified more than 200 data brokers who had my information. I could only— only about a dozen of them would let me see it. And less than half of that would let me opt out. So they are one of the least transparent industries that I’d come across, actually.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of companies were collecting your data?

JULIA ANGWIN: All kinds of companies are collecting my data. In the data broker business, there are people who sell my name and address and actual voting records and all that. Those people— there are the big ones who compile it all on the backend, like Acxiom, InfoGroup, and then there are the ones you look online with whoever’s Googled your stuff. You might see them show up, they’re selling your data. There’s Spokeo, Intelius, all of those lookup sites. And they do a very big business in selling your data. And unfortunately, your data sells pretty cheap.

BILL MOYERS: In your reporting of government spying, did you find that all this surveillance is making us safer?

JULIA ANGWIN: No, that was a really interesting part of my reporting, which was I thought, “Okay, let’s see, maybe this is really worth it. Maybe we’re going to find out that we’re really safe.” So I looked at all the literature about government surveillance and crime and how much does it work. What I found is, it’s not particularly effective.

So cameras on the street — there are studies that show they are either as effective as streetlights or less effective than just having more streetlights. So essentially, you can have better lighting to make the criminals show up on the street, or you can have the cameras and it’s not clear that it makes a difference. And in some controlled studies, the cameras made no difference to crime at all.

Then what I found is that when you move away from the street-level policing to the counterterrorism policing, which is where they take these vast data sets and try to look for clues, that in fact, the track record is even worse, right? As we have seen, after the Snowden revelations came out, the National Security Agency tried to justify the mass collection of data by saying there were 54 different cases that had contributed to thwarting. But in fact, the case that they held up as the best example was one that was really just solved by legwork of F.B.I. on the ground, trailing a guy actually in a car, like, in a very old-school way.

One thing we do know is that almost every time there has been a successful or quasi-successful terrorism incident, there has been information about those people in their counterterrorism databases, the Boston bombers, the underwear bombers, they had all been flagged at some point. And it makes you think that there’s too many people being flagged because they haven’t been able to follow up on all of them.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you quote one of the experts who created the computer code for the National Security Agency in the first place, Bill Binney who says the agency knows so much it can’t understand what it has. That all this data is making it dysfunctional.

JULIA ANGWIN: Yes, right. And he makes a very compelling argument that they would do better to focus on the known bad guys and the people that they talk to, which is a narrower slice of data than collecting everything and then trying to figure out where are the bad guys. And I think anyone who’s tried to sort through their— even just their own email inbox would agree that data can be overwhelming.

What I’m particularly concerned about and I think actually what Bill Binney is particularly concerned about is that you have all these agents and who are spy agents, are supposed to look through this giant amount of data, but there are abuses, right? There are people who look up their ex-wives and who look up information that they’re not supposed to look up about people they are just interested in. And that’s unfortunately what happens when you have a secret system with no oversight. Often, abuses can be hidden.

BILL MOYERS: Well, this is true of both the government surveillance and the corporate surveillance. We all are colluding in that, are we not? I mean, when you open a bank account, you sign a document that says they can, in effect, sell the information. We know that we are buying into a system in which our data is being commercialized and commodified and sold to strangers whom we don’t know.

JULIA ANGWIN: Right. But I think that there’s a difference between exchanging your data for a service, right? You know, you have to give some information to the bank. That’s part of the transaction. What’s disturbing is how many other parts are involved that you don’t know about, right? So one of the things that was shocking to me is how many parties are looking at any website that I’m going to. You can see, put software on your machine to see all the little tracking companies that show up. And even in my online grocery shopping, there were six companies watching what I was buying.

BILL MOYERS: Could they connect your name to those purchases?

JULIA ANGWIN: It depends on whether my grocer shares it with them. And once again, we don’t always have insight into what is being shared about us. But what we do know is we do know that people are already being charged different prices for things online. So I did this big survey when I was at “The Wall Street Journal” of how prices are different for people based on the information that retailers can find out about them. So we found that Staples was selling its office supplies for different prices to different people even if they like, were ten miles away from each other, because they had determined which ones they thought could afford to pay more and which ones were living closer to their competitor and might be able to choose a cheaper product.

And so I think we’re going to have to think about what is the future of redlining when every single company that you interact with already knows everything about you and could give you a completely tailored price and you wouldn’t have that much visibility into what other people are paying for the same thing.

BILL MOYERS: You describe a system that sounds impossible to opt out of. And yet there came a moment in your own life, a day when you said, “I’m going to escape the dragnet. Or I’m going to try.”



JULIA ANGWIN: Try is the operative word. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: So describe what happened.

JULIA ANGWIN: So I tried to get out of as much indiscriminate tracking as I could. So I quit using Google, I gave up on my LinkedIn account, I got a prepaid cell phone in another name. I set up accounts with other names online so that I could mask my identity. I tried to opt out of all these data brokers that had all this information about me.

BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about yourself when you tried to opt out?

JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah, well, what I learned was that I had been accepting all this technology, you know, just taking Gmail at face value and thinking, “This is the way it has to be.” Or using Google search and thinking, “This is the way it has to be.” And what I learned was that by spending a little time and effort, I could change the rules of the game. I was able to find another search engine, DuckDuckGo that was privacy-protecting. And at first, I found my searches weren’t as good, but when I figured out how to use it, I was able to do it. And I felt very proud of myself. Because I thought, you know, in the end, as we become more of a technology society and more machine-based, my ability to control the machines is important, because otherwise they’re going to control me, right? And so I felt very empowered by my ability to switch off of these services.

BILL MOYERS: Is it feasible? Practicable for everyday people to do what—


BILL MOYERS: —you did?

JULIA ANGWIN: Absolutely not. That was actually what I felt at the end of it was I had spent an entire year doing this. And by the end of it, I was marginally successful, but not more than 50% successful. And I had spent an enormous amount of effort. And so by the end, I really felt this was an unfair situation. People can’t get out of this.

This idea that we were talking about at the beginning, which is the third-party doctrine, which is that you voluntarily give up your privacy when you give your information to third parties. It’s not really true because there’s not another option. When I tried to find, for instance, an email service that I could pay for that would be privacy-protecting, I couldn’t find one, right? So we don’t— there’s not actually a real market choice that we can make in many of these situations.

BILL MOYERS: You said you did not dislike Google, even though you said goodbye to Google. And you acknowledged that Google had tried to do right things about transparency. But still, you cut the bond.

JULIA ANGWIN: Well, yes. I mean, the thing is, Google’s operating under these outdated laws that require them to hand over my Gmail in a situation where the post office would not have to hand over my actual mail. So the laws are not stacked in their favor. So they do what they can to protect their users. But they have the most data. They have the greatest data.

They had, I think, about 24,000 email conversations that I’d had ever since I opened my account in 2006. They also had stored every search I’d done, which was 26,000 a month.

BILL MOYERS: As a journalist, you’re looking often for research in a story—

JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah, right, this is my job. I sit there and Google—

BILL MOYERS: So they know what you’re covering if they wanted to—

JULIA ANGWIN: Yes, right. If anyone wants information about me from the government, that’s going to be their first stop. And so it seemed to me that it was just not a good idea to put all of my data in one place, right? I had Google Docs, I had Gmail, I had Google Maps, I had an Android phone. I mean, I don’t think there was a part of my life that they didn’t have on their server somewhere.

BILL MOYERS: What does it mean that most of us cannot escape the dragnet and yet at the same time, we’re uncomfortable knowing the dragnet’s there even if we don’t know what it is seducing from us. How do we live in such a world?

JULIA ANGWIN: I think that is where we need some assurances, right? If there’s going to be a world of pervasive dragnets, which is essentially where we live right now, in order for it to not end up with a very repressive, scared society where we’re afraid of how our data will be used against us, we have to have some assurances.

And if those assurances are you can see your data, you can get it back, you can take it down if you don’t want it there, unless it’s something that is, you know, criminals shouldn’t be able to remove their criminal record. But, you know, within reason, there could be some deletion rights. Or maybe we could have some laws that said, “You know what, if you use data for these things to deny employment or insurance in these ways, then it’s against the law.” So if we had those kind of safeguards, we might feel better about the dragnets. But the problem is right now we don’t have any of those safeguards.

BILL MOYERS: I was impressed to hear that one of the reasons for your attempt to opt out is because you wanted to protect your sources. JULIA ANGWIN: Well, it’s a terrible situation for journalists, right? Because it’s so hard to tell people, “Trust me with your secrets and important things that the public needs to know. And I promise not to reveal your identity.” Because that promise can’t be made. In a world of total surveillance, every single call or email or even if you meet in person, your phones will have appeared near each other in some location database, there’s no way to really say to somebody, “There’s no way that we can’t be linked.”

Unless you go completely old-school and somehow try to do the flower pot thing that they did for Watergate where they moved the flower pot and met in garages. Maybe that would have worked in today’s world. But it’s a very difficult situation. And I think that journalists are the canary in the coal mine, right? We’re the first ones to seriously feel the impact of total surveillance. Which means we can’t protect our sources. But what happens next? What happens next is we don’t have very good stories and we’re not good watch dogs for democracy. And that’s a very worrisome situation.

BILL MOYERS: Are you hopeful that we can come to grips with this new phenomenon, with this state and corporate creature that hovers above us all the time?

JULIA ANGWIN: I am hopeful. And the reason is because I actually really love technology. I want all the benefits. I want my phone. I love the power of the internet to connect me with people and ideas from around the world. So I am possibly irrationally optimistic that I can keep all of that. I do think if we could minimize the risk and put some legal contours around it, which is maybe that you have some right to see your data, that you have some right to challenge it if it’s used against you, those kind of measures I think would provide me the assurances. And I think that’s something we could achieve in this country.

BILL MOYERS: Before my viewers read your book, what’s your advice for them?

JULIA ANGWIN: Change your passwords. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: Change your passwords?

JULIA ANGWIN: The most common password is 123456. And there is so much hacking going on out there right now that you’re leaving yourself exposed. So if you do one thing in your life to protect your privacy, change it to something long, like 30 characters. Pick some words from the dictionary randomly, string them all together, and do that.

BILL MOYERS: What a world.

JULIA ANGWIN: I know. It is a ridiculous world that we live in.

BILL MOYERS: But this is a marvelous guidebook through it. “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Julia Angwin, thanks for being with me.

JULIA ANGWIN: It was great to be here.

BILL MOYERS: President Obama has asked his special advisor John Podesta to investigate the dangers of big data invading our privacy, and 68 percent of Americans say our current laws are too weak to help. So more than a year ago, before any of us had even heard of Edward Snowden, the President proposed a “consumer privacy bill of rights.” Congress, of course, has done nothing. But you can– go to our website to find out more. I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you here, next time.

Producer: Gail Ablow. Segment Producer: Lena Shemel. Editor: Rob Kuhns.

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