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Privacy Government

Helping the FBI Track You 193

Posted by Soulskill
from the here-is-a-list-of-my-favorite-socks dept.
Hasan M. Elahi writes in the NY Times about his run-in with the FBI several months after September 11th, 2001. They'd received an erroneous report that he had explosives and had fled the country, so they were surprised when he showed up at an airport and was flagged by watch-list software. Elahi chose not to fight the investigation, and provided the FBI with enough detail about his life to convince them that he was a lawful citizen. But then, he kept going, providing more and more information about his life, documenting his every move and making it available online. His experience has been that providing too much information affords almost the same privacy blanket as too little. Quoting: "On my Web site, I compiled various databases that show the airports I’ve been in, food I’ve eaten at home, food I’ve eaten on the road, random hotel beds I’ve slept in, various parking lots off Interstate 80 that I parked in, empty train stations I saw, as well as very specific information like photos of the tacos I ate in Mexico City between July 5 and 7, and the toilets I used. ... A lot of work is required to thread together the thousands of available points of information. By putting everything about me out there, I am simultaneously telling everything and nothing about my life. Despite the barrage of information about me that is publicly available, I live a surprisingly private and anonymous life."
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Helping the FBI Track You

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  • Is it just me... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by errandum (2014454) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @08:21AM (#37885476)

    But if a suspect fellow is giving them access to everything he's supposedly doing I'd be trying real hard to find what he was trying to hide?

  • Criminals (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mfh (56) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @08:23AM (#37885486) Journal

    The problem is if you're a criminal and you want to pin something on a sucker, if you have a dude with his life posted online then you can set the poor guy up. I wouldn't ever recommend posting every move you make to the internet because at some point someone will use it against you. This world is predatory in nature.

  • Idiot. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 30, 2011 @08:26AM (#37885490)

    A lot of work is required to thread together the thousands of available points of information.

    No, it is not. Data-mining is real and getting better every day. Huge amounts of data are no hindrance. It is certainly not harder to find a specific piece of information about you just because you put much more online.

  • Re:Not a good idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lev13than (581686) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @08:39AM (#37885538) Homepage

    Interesting thought, but I don't think it's a good idea. Volunteering everything might work as long as there are very few people doing it -- but if everyone starts doing it, it then (i) the feds will focus on improving software that automatically filters out suspicious traits from the online data, and (ii) not sharing everything will be deemed suspicious.

    We already have this - it's called Facebook.

  • by Jafafa Hots (580169) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @08:53AM (#37885582) Homepage Journal

    ...he's doing exactly the same thing as every Facebook user. and twitter user. and foursquare user. etc.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 30, 2011 @09:41AM (#37885752)

    But if a suspect fellow is giving them access to everything he's supposedly doing I'd be trying real hard to find what he was trying to hide?

    It's just you.

    That said Mr.Elahi should not confuse lack of interest with privacy. It is a fallacy to believe that flooding information about yourself into the system makes it impossible to analyze in a timely fashion or to identify the things you don't willingly share. I'm not a huge privacy freak and in general don't care what you know about me as long as basic civil rights are still enforced by law (something that is starting to fail) but I'm also not stupid enough to believe that you can't figure out what I'm doing if you have almost everything. I just don't care that you know what I'm doing under the current system with my current lack of nefarious activity (this lack of interest will undoubtedly hurt me someday in some way though it will likely be minor and related to employment or income rather than incarceration).

    Mr. Elahi seems to confuse the fact that the FBI may no longer care about his daily whereabouts with the fact that they can't sort through the data should every one do what he's doing. Will it be more difficult? yes, but it's not impossible. Google searches the web in near real-time using sophisticated indexing strategies and there is no reason to believe that the FBI couldn't do the same with people and publicly available information to obtain statistically meaningful deviations from normal behavior on your part which could then be referred for human followup. Defeating that type of strategy will take more than sharing almost everthing and hiding the little you you want. It will require a sophisticated disinformation algorithm to produce a statistically nominal profile with original media content while you perform nefarious activities in secret (or just have a beer, smoke, and watch porn in private after they've finished outlawing the last of our vices).

  • Re:Criminals (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @10:23AM (#37885960) Homepage Journal
    Especially because the FBI makes extensive use of well-paid criminal snitches to gather intelligence. If the snitches have no real leads, then they can manufacture them by saying that ol' Abu down the street is up to no good. The FBI then stalk and browbeat Abu until he admits that he is up to activity that may be considered support of terrorism in the loosest sense.

    The FBI then busts Abu and all the mainstream media hail the "operation" as thwarting another terrorist attack. Another "terrorist" is jailed, the snitch is paid anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year(I'm not joking, Google it), all while your family is eating ramen noodles for dinner.

    Also keep in mind that all of these "terror plots" are manufactured in their entirety by the FBI. All they do is find a moron who is dumb enough to attempt to enact them, then they goad end entrap the poor fool.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 30, 2011 @10:51AM (#37886082)

    Actually, the top statement is true. The real problem is that what with the ton of idiotic laws we have, almost every person is surely doing *something* illegal, often enough not even knowing about it.

  • Wrong. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dogun (7502) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @12:03PM (#37886478) Homepage

    His assumptions about the nature of information sharing and privacy are dangerously wrong.

    The problem of information sharing is inequity; if it turns out that he documents his presence at a laundromat on some random dull October day, and later it turns out that some terrorists used to meet up there, his documentation of that random laundromat appearance will put him under scrutiny all over again - without any concrete reason. Meanwhile, some other fellow who rode his bike and paid with cash and didn't document his life on the web will probably never be scrutinized.

    There is a fundamental issue with all mass intelligence/data collection: Humans don't understand conditional probabilities.

    When we start to use large databases of essentially random data to inform investigations, we greatly increase the likelihood that investigations impact random people.

  • Re:Criminals (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kent_eh (543303) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @12:14PM (#37886554)
    Facebook is probably more of an issue that what this guy is doing, because he's aware of how much info he has put out there.
    90% of the people who do the same VIA Facebook don't realise how much aggregated info there is about them out there for sale.
  • Blog = alibi? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DeadboltX (751907) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @12:28PM (#37886612)
    Why would any information on a blog be taken as 100% truth? Since you can edit photo meta-data there is no way to prove when a photo was taken, where it was taken, by whom it was taken, or what camera it was taken with; all of this data can be spoofed. Combine falsified photos with an elaborate story about your whereabouts and make a post on your blog through a vpn from your phone so it looks like you were at home when you posted it. If you're doing this on a regular basis then it wouldn't be hard to create a semi-automatic system to do most of this work for you.

    Are we to believe that an investigative authority such as the FBI is going to simply take someones electronic word for it?
  • Re:Criminals (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MikeB0Lton (962403) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @12:59PM (#37886780)
    You, sir, need a new foil hat.
  • by Bob9113 (14996) on Sunday October 30, 2011 @02:23PM (#37887226) Homepage

    Good post, solid analysis of the flaw in Mr. Elahi's perception.

    I just don't care that you know what I'm doing under the current system with my current lack of nefarious activity (this lack of interest will undoubtedly hurt me someday in some way though it will likely be minor and related to employment or income rather than incarceration).

    I think that the reason that it is important to you is the same reason that it was important to let Larry Flynt continue to publish Penthouse. I have seen Penthouse a number of times, and it is not to my taste. That is not the same as saying that I would not have been harmed if Mr. Flynt had lost his case. My interest lies not in my right to free speech, I have nothing particularly controversial to say. My interest does not lie in protecting, specifically, Mr. Flynt's right to free expression, because I do not like what he has to say. My interest lies in protecting the right of people to say things that I do not like -- things I would not say and do not agree with.

    It is just the same with privacy.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 30, 2011 @04:21PM (#37887738)

    All of this is obviously propaganda to encourage people to forfeit their privacy. Don't fall for it people.
    You're telling me the guy didn't mind being investigated and questioned for months? That he was ok with even taking polygraphs?
    You're telling me he had nothing better to do than to make a website about everything he did? And that we should all do the same thing?
    And how does putting information out there protect you in any way? Those who want to use the info for practical purposes can still get it. It only lowers the value of the info to those who would not use it but would instead sell it. In the end, people can still use it against you.

    Americans need to realize what kind of tyrannical police state the live in.

"There are things that are so serious that you can only joke about them" - Heisenberg

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