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Monday, January 27, 2014

Personal Data in NSA hands is Bad Enough, but what about TARGET?

All of a sudden, I’m discovering inconsistences, ironies and contradictions of major proportions.  Well, to be more precise, I probably missed them before, but now they seem to be coming forth in ways I can’t ignore.

First, there’s the conundrum of data collection by intelligence agencies that tends to restrict individual rights and liberties. Second is the fact that Congress keeps cutting programs and then complains when the outcomes are unsavory when related to that stance.  For instance, there is the Ben Ghazi incident.  Congress says the State Department should have prevented that attack and the deaths that resulted.  Except that, Congress had previously cut appropriations for expansion of embassy guards.  Another example that occurs to me is the recent complaint from AARP about the untenable situation in regard to food, clothing and healthcare for many senior citizens. Yet, it is seniors as a group who vote the most and who tend to vote Republican even though Republicans are cutting the very programs that would be helpful to those seniors.  Then, in that same vein, there is the constant appeal to donate to a fund of one name or another that will give help to our returning “wounded warriors.”  Whatever happened to this country’s largesse in terms of supporting veterans of foreign wars?  Sounds like a pattern developing right in front of our noses.

The NSA story of collection of personal data about citizens, and heads of other states is where I intend to concentrate today.  A sad story, indeed, of how we can so easily get off the track as a nation when we end up in a war.  Attacks on the Homeland like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are so disturbing to many in this country that we immediately go off balance in an attempt to “protect ourselves.”  We end up doing things like putting Japanese-Americans into concentration camps, or getting involved in a war in a nation where other major powers have crashed and burned; or, we pass laws like the Patriot Act which raise some very knotty issues about personal liberties versus national security.  Apparently, after finding that the NSA had been collecting information on us from phone calls and online messages, the public, as well as some in Congress, and no less than the President, have decided that we have over-stepped the line on what information government should be able to acquire about individuals in the midst of a war on terrorism.

CNN News covered developments online: “The top-secret federal court that oversees government surveillance... reauthorized the National Security Agency's program that collects data on nearly every phone call in the United States.  The telephone data program, covered under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, has been authorized 36 times over the past seven years, the nation's top intelligence official said on Friday.  The three-month renewal by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is the first since two conflicting court opinions last month on the legality of the program.

A federal judge in Washington last month called the program almost "Orwellian" and said it was likely unconstitutional. Days later another federal judge in New York, in a separate challenge to the program, said it was lawful.  The Justice Department has filed an appeal of the Washington ruling. The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the New York suit, is appealing that decision.  Split decisions will likely set the stage for legal wrangling over the course of the coming year that could ultimately result in a Supreme Court case.”  (Bill Mears contributed to this report for CNN).

While critics assert that the law violates privacy rights of Americans whose data is collected, even though there isn't any suspicion that they pose a security threat, NSA and its supporters say the bulk collection authority is crucial to uncovering potential terrorists who haven't yet come to the attention of national security officials. 
As we know, President Barack Obama has indicated that he wants to make modest changes following on an independent review of the initiative.  One change he proposed is to remove the bulk electronic surveillance effort from the NSA but to require telecommunications companies, or perhaps a new quasi-government agency, to collect the data.  He also wants to make sure that any intelligence gathering of personal data is approved by the FISA Court first before becoming operational.  At this point, even the “intelligence community continues to be open to modifications to this program that would provide additional privacy and civil liberty protections while still maintaining its operational benefits," Shawn Turner, spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said.

However, as we also know, this might not have gotten to this point if it hadn’t been for Edward Snowden, a techie for a government contractor, who stole classified information regarding the personal surveillance and then leaked it to the press.  Some polls find that he is accorded heroic status should not surprise, given the conflicts about this issue in other arenas.

So now the irony.  If we are so darned concerned about the government collecting personal information, how come we are, as a people, not so upset about private companies collecting and maintaining personal information, buying habits, personal traits and preferences on their customers every day, 24 hours a day?  How come we are so lackadaisical about everything we e-mail, everything we post on our blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. being available to unknown people, corporations, organizations and hackers?

Why does it make us cringe in fear and loathing when government uses personal information to essentially protect our citizens and our nation, but when private individuals and companies use much more personal information to exploit us, control our spending habits, watch our credit scores, manipulate our beliefs about practically everything, plus take our hard-earned money in profits, we too often acquiesce and ask no questions?  (OK, before going any further, I do acknowledge that we must restrict government surveillance of personal lives because government operatives can take it upon themselves to abuse that ability and become more intrusive than we want government to be!).  Who would have thought that TARGET would all of a sudden become the catalyst for at least some concern over private use of our personal information?  We are learning that the strips on credit cards and the swiping of the same are as out-moded technologically as we can possibly imagine and that the whole credit card industry needs a thorough examination, investigation and reform.  The possibility that we are essentially giving away credit information to unknown sources ought to raise a furor of criticism and concern.  But, we demure.

Luckily, Consumer Reports has not let us off the hook.  Here is a summary of what they published 4 years ago in a very important article, entitled:  “Big Brother is watching”
“Your personal information—everything from your shopping habits to your health history—can be available to creditors, employers, landlords, insurers, law enforcement agencies, and, of course, criminals. All they need to do is tap into the public and private databases that gather, buy, and sell your vital statistics.   Demand for your personal information has exploded in recent years. Its availability has also raised privacy concerns. When users buy and compile various pieces of information about you, “they can paint a very complete picture of your activities,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
“Whether the data are accurate or not, misinterpretations can lead to higher costs for credit and insurance, or the denial of a job. They can also prevent you from renting an apartment or opening a checking account, and even from returning unwanted merchandise to stores.

Here’s what Big Brother has on you, how they use it, and why you should know.”
1.    Credit reports are compiled by the big three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. Each has some 200 million files, which help form the credit scores used to measure your creditworthiness.  Almost everything about your use of credit, including amounts borrowed, credit lines, opened and closed accounts, application inquiries, and how well you’ve honored your obligations on mortgages, credit cards, car loans, and other types of credit. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, liens, and collections are also here. Public record information like court judgments might also appear. Other basics include your Social Security number, date of birth, and past addresses.
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows companies to buy your credit information if they are considering transactions with you related to credit, employment, insurance, investing, government licensing, or other “legitimate business need.” The purpose, in general, is to assess your past financial responsibility, but insurance companies have stretched that to include predicting the likelihood that you will file an insurance claim, based on confidential credit-based scoring models.  Federal regulations limit the time that negative information can stay on your report (seven to 10 years) and let you opt out of receiving preapproved credit offers.
2.    Your insurance claims. Reports offered by ChoicePoint, a data broker in Georgia, are based on claims information reported by insurers to the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange. A-PLUS reports, are based on information reported by over 1,400 insurers to the Automobile- Property Loss Underwriting Service. Both companies’ reports reveal information about you and your automobile and homeowners insurance loss claims filed with reporting carriers over the past three to seven years.  Insurance companies use your claims history to assess how much of a risk you are, which can affect premiums or coverage eligibility. They can also use the claims history of a given property to determine how much of a risk that home presents.  Since ChoicePoint and ISO are “consumer reporting agencies,” as defined by FCRA, you’re entitled to one free report a year. In some reports, negative information will remain for up to seven years.

3.    Your health history.  The MIB consumer file database is maintained by the MIB Group, a consortium of 470 U.S. and Canadian companies that sell life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term-care insurance. Two other companies, Milliman and Ingenix, compile your prescription drug history from databases maintained by pharmacy chains and prescription benefit managers, and sell IntelliScript and MedPoint reports to insurers. Information significant to your health or longevity is reported to the MIB database in coded form. It includes medical conditions that you reported on insurance applications for individual (not group) coverage, and test results from medical underwriting exams. Potentially hazardous hobbies and driving records may also be there. Your actual medical records are not reported. The IntelliScript and Med Point reports contain information about the prescription drugs you’ve used over the last five years, including dosages, refills, and doctors. When you apply for individual life, health, and similar coverage, you may sign a waiver that lets a prospective insurer check these reports to see if you’ve omitted significant information. Insurers use the information to determine your risk class, set premiums, and decide whether or not to insure you.

4.    Your checking accounts. Chex Systems and TeleCheck collect information on mishandled checking accounts, such as overdrawn accounts closed by you or your bank. The reports can include your driver’s license number, unpaid amounts, and who was stiffed. The reporting company is not required to remove information unless it’s incorrect, but it does have to report any payback. Negative information can stay on your report for five years at Chex Systems and seven years at TeleCheck. Banks can check mishandling data to decide whether to open a new account for you. Retailers can use TeleCheck to assess the risk of accepting your checks.

5.    Your background.  ChoicePoint’s reports include a smorgasbord of dirt: auto and homeowner CLUE reports; pre-employment background checks; an “Esteem” report if you ever admitted to or were convicted of shoplifting; results of a national criminal records search; evictions; and public-records search results. Person Reports include nonpublic and publicly available information.  Employers, landlords, insurers, governments, and volunteer organizations use background checks to measure the reputation and character of applicants.

6.    Purchase returns.  The Retail Equation maintains information on merchandise returns made to an undisclosed number of national retailers. Before customers are allowed to return goods, participating stores ask to run their driver’s licenses through a reader to check their return history. It can include a record of your past returns at participating stores, the purchase prices, and whether or not you had receipts. Retailers are on the lookout for certain fraudulent and abusive practices, which include returning shoplifted merchandise, “renting” (buying, say, a video camera to use temporarily for a wedding before returning it), and “wardrobing” (buying a dress, then returning it after wearing it). If your pattern of returns at a particular store raises red flags, you might not be able to get your money back the next time you try.

7.    Your rental history.  First Advantage SafeRent maintains a landlord-tenant database of 34 million records and a subprime payment history database of 40 million records to screen prospective renters. A smaller company, RentBureau, includes nearly 6 million records nationwide. They keep Rent-payment history, references, credit ratings, criminal records, and scores designed to predict an applicant’s risk of defaulting on a lease. Landlords who operate multifamily apartment complexes use the information to screen tenants and reduce losses that result when tenants skip out without paying, write bad checks, require an eviction, or cause significant property damage.

8.    Mailing lists. This is the Wild West of databases. Two major players are USADATA, which has delivered more than a billion names to over 100,000 companies, and InfoUSA, whose databases contain 210 million consumers. The primary information sold is your name and address. But the real value for buyers comes from prescreening the names by certain characteristics—for example, people known to be affluent, homeowners, mail-order buyers, investors, people who have specific diseases or are disabled, new parents, older people, donors/contributors, and so on. Some companies develop lists of people who have fallen for get-rich-quick scams or investment frauds. The lists allow salespeople to focus on consumers who are more likely to buy their products.  

So, you thought it was the NSA that was the “Big Problem.”  Think again.  Are we being bamboozled once again by the “distortionists” – those politicians who love to divert our attention from the problems caused us by their real constituents, those corporate “power-brokers?”  These private sector vendors are already following your every move, and they probably have more data on you than the government ever thought of having.  So, not only do we need data collection restrictions on government spy agencies, we desperately need restrictions on what private companies are allowed to gather, to sell, or to distribute about each one of us.

To put it another way, we ought not to become too comfortable with private companies maintaining phone call data and email data about our private lives, in place of the federal government.  They are no more trustworthy than government and they have very few restrictions on how that data is managed.  Instead of wasting precious time playing a game of political chicken, and failing to represent their at-home constituents while cow-towing to their big donors, perhaps Congress should take a serious look at how our individual liberties are being abused every day by private entities intent on knowing about and defining our lives.