In Dragnet Nation, Julia Angwin wages a doomed fight against online surveillance

By James Robinson , written on March 14, 2014

From The News Desk

For four years of her 13-year stint at the Wall Street Journal, Julia Angwin - now with ProPublica - covered the intersection of privacy and new technology. Horrified by how scary these stories were, she set about writing Dragnet Nation, detailing her elaborate but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to evade the massive and unseen systems of surveillance on the Internet.

In the book - which was published at the end of February - Angwin ditches Google, wraps her phone in metal and goes to ludicrous lengths to opt out of everything, ultimately concluding that the state of modern technology is rigged toward powerful corporate and government interests.

In the book you stop using Google. What disturbed you the most about how the company had impacted you?

It was clear that they knew more about me than anyone. When I looked at my search history dating back to 2006, it was so incredible to me that there was no thought in my head that I didn’t immediately Google. It is not their fault the Government comes knocking to get that data. It is irresistible.

I started using DuckDuckGo and found that I had to do a little more work. I had to enter more terms. If I looked up the natural history museum, it might suggest one in London [Angwin lives in New York]. It was a good reminder that Google had been reading my mind. It knew what I wanted and even though it was very convenient I wanted to be in control of what I think I want.

How do you see that convenience as making us lazy and abetting these major tech companies?

We are all complicit in this. We want everything for free and we want Google to read our mind and most people are perfectly happy with this situation. But what are the safeguards? I know cars are the biggest killers, but I know that car makers are held to standards and I know I can sue and we have no assurances about our data and the tech we use.

You audited the files that some data brokers had collected on you. How did you that scare you?

I could see only a very small slice of it. I identified more than 200 data brokers that had data on me by name. I was only able to get my files from a dozen. They had every address I’d ever lived at. There had been a month between jobs once and I’d gone to my parents and they knew which month. They knew my dorm room number. Things I’d completely forgotten. They knew my relatives, my husband’s relatives. There was some weird assumptions. Some of the reports were off base.

How strange was it that people thought they knew you well enough to assert incorrect things?

The mistakes worried me. One company had me as a single mom with no education and low income, none of which were true. It was an alternative credit score company that said it gave data to charity hospitals.

How does this inherent state of surveillance on the Internet have the ability to influence our behaviors?

It has been shown that if you’re being watched you accommodate your behavior to what the surveiller wants. But these days, you don’t know who is watching in this unseen technical sweep, so you adjust yourself to the lowest common denominator. What is palatable to all audiences? Basically nothing. The more I know, the less willing I am to say anything. My Twitter stream is sanitized and I am off Facebook.

You talk in the book about not wanting to be defined by your purchases online. A lot of people view the advertising part of this as benign.

Advertising in the past was not about surveillance. You made a cool commercial or a billboard and make a best guess according to the context around it. Honestly, I used to think it was the most benign. But what is upsetting is that surveillance and advertising are colliding. I was shocked in the Snowden revelations to hear that the government had tried to piggyback on some of these advertising efforts. I realized I’d been under paranoid.

In a perfect world, what power to opt out should we have?

Companies who use your wifi signal to track you, they say they have opt outs. I identified 20 of these companies but I had to enter my Mac address and then when I got a new phone I had to opt out again. And then seven other companies come into the space and it starts again. My fundamental feeling after trying to opt out of everything was that it was unfair and basically impossible. I tried to opt out from 95 different data brokers and then one company asked me for my credit card and it started to feel like extortion.

How many new dimensions does the smartphone give these issues?

The phone is the perfect tracking device. Every spy in the world should be excited about it. We’re inseparable from them. We keep them by our bed. I tried everything to cut against this. I ended up getting a prepaid burner in another name.

Is there any public expectation of privacy any more?

The problem is we do give up our rights in public. The courts have made that clear. There’s always been this obscurity and anonymity of the idea of public. You’re walking down the street, they don’t know your name, but we’re getting to a world where facial recognition technology is getting pretty good. That changes our idea of what it is like to be in public. That’s going to force people to have more conversations in private. I don’t want to be in that world.

How would you tell someone who might be law-abiding and hasn’t paid attention to this stuff, why they should be concerned about it?

The thing I argue is that without laws, without limits, all of us could be living in a world we don’t want to live in. The people on the other side of the transaction now all have more information than you. Information is power. With Government, you give them all the information about you, you give them all the power. As a journalist, I see people having a very difficult time with confidential sources. You can’t promise anyone confidentiality. We are the people trying to keep companies and government overstepping their bounds. When the watchdogs are emasculated, that’s not good.