Book Review: Goodbye to Privacy

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Goodbye to Privacy By WILLIAM SAFIRE

NO PLACE TO HIDE By Robert O'Harrow Jr.

348 pp. The Free Press. $26.

CHATTER 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 thieves.

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 matrix.

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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