What’s Up, WikiLeaks? And Other Data Dilemmas

Transparency isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

October 13, 2016

What’s going on with WikiLeaks? A site that originally set out to provide documents of political corruption and reveal war crimes to augment news reports and hold governments accountable has been on a tear of foolishness lately. First a batch of emails supposedly related to the Turkish prime minister were posted there, which turned out to have little to do with Erdogan but rather were personal communications that needlessly violated the privacy of innocent people. Those were taken down after criticism; apparently whoever posted them didn’t read Turkish.

Now it’s breathlessly announcing the release of hacked political emails which (so far) reveal the shocking truth: politicians speaking in private say things they wouldn’t say in public. This is not corruption. This is how humans, including ones seeking public office, communicate. To find scandal in the simple act of making of political sausage seems naïve and silly to me. Whether or not hackers working for the Russian state is involved – I don’t know and I don’t especially care, particularly since all states (including ours) are hacking each others’ political communications. There’s just no there there. Yet it seems WikiLeaks wants to influence the course of our election by targeting Trump’s opponent. What’s up with that?

Meanwhile, Chelsea Manning, who naively thought providing WikiLeaks with information about military atrocities would shock us into morality, is in a military prison, which recently released her from solitary confinement, punishment for attempting suicide. Apparently only the state has the right to kill prisoners.

How much money will local police spend on new technologies for surveillance? Baltimore contracted with a company that used APIs provided by social media companies to build systems for identifying people who either participate in demonstrations or are planning participation. This is un-American policing of dissent. Not okay, Baltimore. (The social media platforms whose data was used have cut off access; the company violated their terms.) While I’m at it, all of those police departments that contract with a data-sucking company that collects records of where our cars are using license plate recognition, creating a massive database that they license to police – not an okay use of public funds. Also, those Stingray devices that mimic cell towers and capture phone information of everyone nearby. In this case, the technology is so secret, prosecutors can’t use it in court and cases have been dismissed rather than expose information about how the evidence had been gathered. Some companies are making a mint off of practices that are the cyber equivalent of militarizing police forces.

When will the personalized advertising bubble burst? Or when will we be so fed up that we insist on regulating this invasive and unsafe practice? Yahoo – yes, that yahoo, the one that lost our emails and spied on us for the government – has filed a patent for auctioning ads that will appear on digital billboards by swiping data from our phones, listening in on our conversations, and weighing the value of our cars to so that billboards can auction the rights to show us ads tailored to passing traffic. Listening in to our conversations? Pulling geo-referenced information from our phones? I can kind of understand companies expecting us to give them personal information in order to get free access to a social platform or a news site, but there’s nothing of value in this for consumers. It’s past time for us to say no. Nope. No way.

Just a few random thoughts on a few of this week’s news stories about involuntary data-sharing gone wild.

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