You and your metadata

"I'm shocked - shocked - to find that gambling is going on in here," says French police chief Renault in Casablanca, before pocketing his winnings and closing Rick's down.

“I’m shocked – shocked – to find that gambling is going on in here,” says French police chief Renault in Casablanca, before pocketing his winnings and closing Rick’s down.

There were similar expressions of amazement when it was recently revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency, apparently along with its close U.K., Canadian and Australian allies, was monitoring billions of cell phone calls and indiscriminately vacuuming up Internet traffic from all your favourite web companies.

Perhaps the extent and details of the NSA revelations were surprising, but what did we think they were doing with their $10-billion-a-year budget? (We don’t really know the budget; that’s an estimate by watchdogs at the Federation of American Scientists.)

Ever since the spectacular success the U.K. and U.S. had against German and Japanese ciphers in the Second World War, the tightly-knit intelligence community in those two countries plus Canada and Australia have been investing heavily in “signals intelligence.” The NSA and its sister agencies scored impressive successes during the Cold War and various lesser conflicts.

For Canadians who think it is just American spooks up to all this, I suggest they visit the Canadian “weather station” at Alert on Ellesmere Island and ask what all the antennas are for.

The sudden arrival of Internet communications technologies threw the agencies for a loop, since it disrupted their traditional business model of tapping submarine cables and intercepting phone company microwave links. But they seem now to have tapped into the power of the Internet with remarkable success. They are credited with tapping the communications of a large number of drug cartels and terrorist cells, whether the targets used Gmail, text messages or Skype.

While the details are classified, the existence of these massive agencies has been known for years. President Barack Obama said that “every member” of Congress had been briefed on the programs. The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s equivalent of the NSA, advertises openly for foreign language intelligence analysts who speak “Middle Eastern, Asian, North African, West African and European languages.”

In case you’re interested, the job pays $63,000 to $82,000 per year. However, you may need to clean up your act, since the CSE says “ongoing substance abuse is a factor to be assessed as part of your screening process.”

That’s a relief. You wouldn’t want stoned CSE analysts making fun of the cat photos your friend sends to your Gmail account.

The agencies are supposed to be using these powers to track bad guys. But in order to track bad guys, they have to vacuum up a lot of other Internet traffic. And there are strong suspicions that there are not many limits on what they actually do.

Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor whose leaks sparked the controversy, made some very big claims when he went public: “Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere … I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president.” We can’t confirm this, of course, but it sure grabs your attention.

Equally alarming, but in a slightly different way, is the private sector. Not only is Big Brother watching, but apparently dozens of little brothers. The cellphone company knows where you are and who you call. Facebook tells people what newspaper articles you read. Google somehow knows to put Yukon Energy ads on realclearpolitics.com when you are reading about the NSA. Schools in Texas are making kids wear radio-tags so their attendance can be tracked. Stores may be tracking your habits by monitoring the Wi-Fi emissions of your smart phone.

Have a thought for our poor senators. They thought they were safely milking the system like many before them, living in one place and claiming living expenses in another. Now even the most incompetent Inspector Clouseau in Ottawa just has to match their cellphone records with their expense claims.

Or consider British Conservative MP Gavin Barwell. When he clicked on a link to a Labour Party press release, it showed up on his screen with a saucy advert inviting him to “date Arab girls.” When he publicized this to embarrass the opposition, journalists who visited the same site to confirm the details only got ads for Samsung phones and so on. Eyebrows were raised when it turned out the website used Google Adsense, which serves up ads based on each user’s previous web-viewing history. Mrs. Barwell’s reaction to the controversy is not known.

They used to say that you shouldn’t say anything in an email you didn’t want splashed on the front page of the Yukon News. Now you shouldn’t do anything with a phone, computer or iPad unless you would feel comfortable doing it with your grandmother, corporate marketing executives and substance-free CSE analysts looking over your shoulder.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Twitter @hallidaykeith