Today’s news brings the startling revelation that the NSA has been harvesting millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, and that many of them belong to Americans. The uproar over this disclosure, made courtesy of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, reminds me of a scene from the 1942 film classic Casablanca, a movie about an American expatriate owner of an upscale club and gambling den in the Moroccan city of Casablanca. The scene depicts a Moroccan police captain, Captain Renault, clearing out the patrons of the notorious gambling den, and announcing in a loud voice “I’m shocked — shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Immediately after this self righteous declaration, his own gambling winnings are handed to him.
For Americans to profess “shock” that the NSA is secretly using every tool available to it to map relationships among people so that it can detect and prevent acts of terrorism is as disingenuous as Captain Renault’s declaration of shock. Of course they are. And of course Facebook and Google (and many others) are fully using every tool available to them to map such relationships for their own commercial gain. And anyone who recalls the words “Watergate” and “Enron” understands that some folks in both private industry and government abuse their power. So let’s be real. The collection and exchange of data, whether by government entities or private entities, can provide citizens and consumers with great benefits, but can also be seriously abused in a manner posing grave danger to our civil rights and to a civil society.
For many policy makers, the tension between the benefits and risks of having our personal information shared presents a “zero sum game.” That is, they assume we must give up the benefits of data sharing if we wish to avoid the risk of data abuse. While that used to be the case, it is no longer so. Using the emerging cost-effective biometric technologies and the very metadata analytical tools used by the NSA, we could anonymously share transaction-specific, measurably credible data, and at the same time protect our privacy. See Metadata-Friend or Foe? and Introducing IDfra.
What we need right now is for people like Oregon Senator Wyden, who has shown the courage to reveal to the American public the risks posed by the NSA’s data collection activities, to show the vision required to move this nation out of its antiquated identity management system into a modern one, where identify information can be accumulated and stored securely and can be temporarily shared on an anonymous, transaction-specific basis. We have the tools. We just need someone with a loud enough voice and a large enough vision to make this happen. Senator Wyden, are you out there?