Privacy & Security

Surprise! Surveillance Capitalism Leads to … Surveillance

On June 9, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified a report it originally prepared in 2022. It confirmed what we’ve long known: that Uncle Sam uses the vast array of data captured as we go about our everyday lives to spy on us.

The ODNI report acknowledges a business model that’s been dubbed “surveillance capitalism” which makes it almost impossible to exist without constant surveillance, whether at home, online, or on the street. But acknowledging it and doing something to thwart it are very different things.

The term “surveillance capitalism” came into existence only a few years ago, courtesy of  Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School. But it’s been with us for decades. In the first edition of my book, How to Achieve Personal and Financial Privacy in a Public Age, published in 1989, I wrote:

As computers became an integral part of American society, entrepreneurs quickly discovered profits could be made in compiling personal information in electronic form and making it available for a fee. The free market, combined with the availability of new technologies, made this development practically inevitable.

Computers excel at analyzing information that individuals willingly share in order to obtain credit, go to work, or purchase insurance coverage. At one time, most of this information was considered private, as were the conclusions banks, insurance companies, etc. reached after analyzing it.

This information is private no longer. It can be cross-referenced with other data residing in computers in the next room, the next county or on the other side of the world to create an amazingly detailed portrait of your purchases, your beliefs, and your lifestyle.

Such analysis came to be known as “bloc modeling;” determining how an individual fits into an organization or group. Bloc modeling was used by private companies, employers, and government agencies to classify individuals, groups, or entire organizations into categories useful for marketing or other analysis.

The book concluded that if present trends continued, privacy would soon be an “endangered species.” While the warning was prescient, it seems almost quaint today.

Decades later, the sale by data brokers and resellers of what the ODNI report refers to as “commercially available information” (CAI) has metastasized. By 2013, a report prepared by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that data brokers and information resellers:

…maintain large, sophisticated databases with consumer information that can include credit histories, insurance claims, criminal records, employment histories, incomes, ethnicities, purchase histories, and interests. Resellers largely obtain their information from public records, publicly available information (such as directories and newspapers), and nonpublic information (such as from retail loyalty cards, warranty registrations, contests, and web browsing).

A year later, a report from the Federal Trade Commission warned that “consumers are largely unaware that data brokers are collecting and using this information” and that:

While each data broker source may provide only a few data elements about a consumer’s activities, data brokers can put all of these data elements together to form a more detailed composite of the consumer’s life.

These efforts have become far more sophisticated in recent years. In 2020, technological research and consulting firm Gardner introduced a new buzzworthy phrase: the “internet of behaviors” (IoB). According to a press release the company issued:

The loB combines existing technologies that focus on the individual directly – facial recognition, location tracking and big data for example and connects the resulting data to associated behavioral events, such as cash purchases or device usage … by year-end 2025, over half of the world’s population will be subject to at least one IoB program, whether it be commercial or governmental.

Meanwhile, thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act, US intelligence agencies were given new authority to gather vast quantities of data to unveil future terrorist plots. In 2002, news emerged of a secret government program called “Total Information Awareness” that took advantage of the new rules.

The idea was simple: compile as much data as possible on as many people as possible from as many sources as possible, organize it so that it’s searchable, then sift through it with super-computers to investigate patterns that might indicate terrorist plots. All transactions of everyday life – travel and telephone records, bank account transactions, e-mail messages, etc. – would become part of what former Admiral (and convicted felon) John Poindexter, who headed up the TIA initiative, called a “virtual, centralized, grand database.”

Public outrage led to the shutdown of the TIA program, yet this type of “data mining” hardly died. In 2010, the Obama administration ordered American intelligence agencies to intensify efforts at “knowledge discovery” to better identify terrorist plots. The effort was intended to help these agencies to apply better tools to analyze the data they already had. But the administration stressed it would only be analyzing government records – not private data.

That turned out to be a lie. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency’s ultra-secret PRISM initiative allowed the agency tapping to tap directly into the server hubs of leading internet companies to extract audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs. Companies mentioned in the documents include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. The NSA essentially placed a drift net across the electronic spectrum to capture everything transmitted over it.

But even Snowden’s revelations seem antiquated today, as the alliance between Big Tech and Big Brother has become all-consuming. In 2021, we warned readers that “Uncle Sam Outsources Surveillance to Launder Your Data.” Declassified data released to the office of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) confirmed that American intelligence agencies routinely bypass laws regulating surveillance by purchasing location data about cellphone users from private companies. They include the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and the IRS.

Whether it’s images of our faces secretly compiled in giant databanks or records of our movements assembled and analyzed, Big Brother has an insatiable appetite for our data. And Big Tech,  which has staked a successful ownership claim to that data, is happy to sell it to the highest bidder, with almost no limits on how you’re tracked.

Keeping this background in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the ONDI concludes that CAI is “extremely and increasingly valuable and important for the conduct of modern intelligence activity.” But its report acknowledges there are downsides, including:

  • Counter-intelligence risks, since anyone, including foreign intelligence agencies, have access to the same data.

  • Revealing “sensitive and intimate information” that can be used to “pry into private lives, ruin reputations, and cause emotional distress and threaten the safety of individuals.”

  • “Sensitive insights gained through CAI could facilitate blackmail, stalking,  harassment, and public shaming.”

As such, among other recommendations, the ODNI suggests that the intelligence community should “develop more precise guidance to identify and protect sensitive CAI that implicates privacy and civil liberties concerns.” It’s a nice soundbite, but unless Congress revokes the license for surveillance capitalists to claim an ownership right to our personal data and sell it to the highest bidder, privacy won’t just be an endangered species. It won’t exist at all.

While new laws might slow down the surveillance capitalists, there’s only one way to limit their unfettered use of our personal information. And that’s to adopt a recommendation we first made in 2003: to establish an ownership right to our own data, including our facial features, and to forbid use of it without our permission.

Most people would probably opt into certain forms of data sharing, especially if they received a benefit or were paid for its use. Individuals who worry about the implications of uncontrolled data sharing could opt out. That’s the only way we can think of to stop what will otherwise be an inevitable slide into a global panopticon.

On another note, many clients first get to know us by accessing some of our well-researched courses and reports on important topics that affect you.

Like How to Go Offshore in 2023, for example. It tells the story of John and Kathy, a couple we helped from the heartland of America. You’ll learn how we helped them go offshore and protect their nestegg from ambulance chasers, government fiat and the decline of the US Dollar… and access a whole new world of opportunities not available in the US. Simply click the button below to register for this free program.

About The Author

Free Course

This new report shows you how to go offshore this year and protect your money from ambulance chasers, government fiat and the decline of the US Dollar.

Get our latest strategies delivered straight to your inbox for free.

Get Our Best Plan B Strategies Right to Your Inbox.

The Nestmann Group does not sell, rent or otherwise share your private details with third parties. Learn more about our privacy policy here.

The Basics of Offshore Freedom

Read these if you’re mostly or very new to the idea of going offshore

What it Really Takes to Get a Second Passport

A second passport is about freedom. But how do you get one? Which one is best? And is it right for you? This article will answer those questions and more…

How to Go Offshore
in 2023

[CASE STUDY] How we helped two close-to-retirement clients protect their nest egg.

Nestmann’s Notes

Our weekly free letter that shows you how to take back control.