Who is Big Brother?
By Antonio Aguilar
I have come up with a conspiracy theory about the secret identity of Big Brother. Really, bear with me on this one. Big Brother is a secret squirrel organization comprised of all the big tech companies, conspiring together in the Hell Fire Caves in England or some other equally sinister place to annoy the hell out of people around the world; and I can prove it!
Okay, all joking aside, after the NSA leak with Edward Snowden, everyone—myself included—started to get worked up about privacy. At first Mr. Snowden was lauded a hero, until he pulled a treasonous move and ran to communist China, then Putin’s Russia, and presumably let them debrief him about U.S. Secrets. I’m sure there’s a few people out there who probably still see him as a hero but even I, while feeling itchy and wondering if Big Brother was reading my emails, couldn’t see anything good in his move. The fact that Wikileaks also appears to be working with him did not help his case either.
This was followed by a moment of clarity. What direct harm could come to me from the NSA reading my emails or seeing my phone logs? Really? I’m not doing anything illegal. Still, it did not and still does not sit well with me that they have this information but my main concern is not that the government has it; my main concern is what some other little traitor like Snowden might do with it if he or she decides to go rogue too.
And now we come to my conspiracy theory, and the strange phone calls that I got yesterday. My phone rang and when I answered it, a voice began to rattle off a prerecorded message in Spanish. Being the worst half-Mexican ever, I only caught that it was something about money and “…uno ahora” before the call disconnected. A few minutes later my phone rang again and a different number showed up on the caller ID. Again the message rattled off something about money and this time when I pressed one in a desperate attempt to get a live person to cuss out, the call disconnected. I have been getting these calls for months now, always from a different number, and on the few times I have been able to call back the number on caller ID, it’s an English speaking person who has no clue what is going on. How, you may ask, could this happen? It happens because Apple sells a little app that let’s people disguise their phone number. It’s called spoofing and it’s illegal. Of course Apple doesn’t care that it’s illegal to do. Owning or selling the app isn’t a crime, just using it.
These calls got me thinking. The NSAs spying on me has not caused me any real problems and it probably (hopefully) never will. It would be hubris to think that I am so important that an analyst would pick me over millions of others to even look at. But, someone else has gotten my phone number and knows that my name is a Hispanic name too, because they send me prerecorded messages in Spanish. Some insurance companies out there have somehow gotten my address and send me advertisements in Spanish, assuming that because my name is Antonio Aguilar that I would prefer to read about their great low rates in Spanish. My air conditioner broke a few months ago, and I just did a couple of Bing searches for AC prices. Now I am still seeing advertisements for ACs and fans on my Facebook side bar. Damn it! Stop logging my searches you bastards! Oh wait, even my email is hacked! I get an email from Ranger Up! and suddenly the adds in my Google Mail talk about degrees for the military and government only discounts on tactical gear I don’t need. I get an email from a police news letter and suddenly I am seeing adds for criminal justice degrees.
My real fear with the NSA collecting all this data is not that they have my information (like I said before, I’ve done nothing wrong); my fear is that they can’t keep the information safe. If they could not keep Snowden from running to China and Russia to presumably sell the information to them then how can they ensure that some other little traitor doesn’t secretly sell everyone’s phone numbers and email addresses to big corporations wanting the data for marketing? These companies already collect as much data on people as they can and they sell it too. How else did those insurance companies I have never dealt with get my name and address? It makes sense that some company out there would be willing to buy information from an NSA analyst.
Then there is always the chance that the NSA might just leak the data by accident. After all, the IRS leaked thousands of Social Security Numbers by accident. What is to say that the NSA will not in turn leak some of the information that it has gathered? Of course, if they do, the harm will still not come directly from them but rather from the private entities who get the information and turn it to their nefarious purposes.
Finally, I have to worry about hackers. I think that the United States is somewhat behind the curve when it comes to cyber-security. Hacktivist groups have targeted our government with some degree of success in the past. What is to say that the NSA will not get hacked in the future and all of this data they have collected will get stolen? I don’t think that they can ensure it will not happen.
So who is “big brother”? Ultimately, Big Brother is all of us because we consent to all of this. It is common knowledge that any web based email uses the host’s servers. When we use Outlook.com or Gmail or Yahoo Mail or any of the other web based email services, we are giving our consent to the hosts to store our emails and we are trusting that they will not misuse our information. When we get on Facebook it is the same thing. We know that the people who pay to post adds are getting some sort of data from Facebook about us so that their adds in turn will show up on our pages. When we make phone calls off of a cell phone or a land line, those numbers are logged in a server somewhere. When we get calls or text messages it is the same thing. The cell phone companies even collect our GPS data. Everyone collects data on us and most of the time we do not know who exactly is doing the collecting or what they are doing with the data they collect. Do we really need one more entity like the NSA collecting our data? No, but how much harm is coming from them collecting it when so many others already are? At least there is some small bit of oversight on the NSA through Congress. It is much harder to get the same oversight on a private entity. I have already tried to use the National Do Not Call List to stop telemarketers and it has not worked, even with the ones who do not use Apple’s wonderful little illegal app.
There is no easy solution. We willingly use services that discreetly collect data on us on a daily basis because, well, we have to. Unless we want to go back to the era of the 1980s before the Internet was around, this is now a part of our lives. I, for one, do not like mullets so I will just have to get comfortable with the data collection and I hope, ultimately, that the NSA and the rest of the government will stop collecting on me and perhaps one day we can get Congress to take some action regarding all the other data collection going on in the private market as well. Of course if they try, then the very people who are screaming out Big Brother (in this case, the government) will in turn scream about government intervention in the private market. Sorry folks, you can’t have it both ways. No government intervention will mean more data collection, just from private companies with no oversight.