Informational Self-Determination and my article on One Web Day

I’ve just published an article on One Web Day on GothamGazette.com.

One thing I learned in reporting the article was that there is a growing movement for informational self-determination in Germany:

Probably the largest 2007 One Web Day event was in Berlin, where a reported 15,000 people marched to protest proposed government data retention policies. The new measures would shift Germany from being country with a constitutional right to “informational self-determination” to one with extremely aggressive surveillance measures, giving the government access to all communication and travel records, people’s biometric data and personal computers, even in the absence of a crime.

The policies are very broad, endangering doctors and journalists specifically, as well as the average German citizen. According to one of the few English language reports on the event, protesters chanted, “We are all 129a,” referring to the expansive “Anti-Terror Paragraph” of the German Criminal Code. People held banners saying “Freiheit statt Angst” (“liberty instead of fear”) and wore t-shirts with the face of Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister pushing the measures, over the phrase “Stasi 2.0,” a reference to the old East German secret police.

One American observer described the German reaction to this kind of government overreaching as visceral. The protests against the measures, organized by the Working Group on Data Retention, have grown from just a couple of hundred at the first rallies a year and a half ago.

The proposed German laws, while atrocious, would only approach the measures the FBI and phone companies have taken in the US in contravention of the law.

As reported on the Wired “Threat Level” Blog and the New York Times, the phone companies receive funding from the federal government to collect, store, and analyze data on their customers, even sorting them into “communities of interest” profiles. It would be illegal for the government to collect this information in the absence of a subpoena, but the FBI argues that it is fine for private companies to do it in anticipation of a subpoena.

Think about that slippery slope for a second.

The companies can then feed data on who the government wants information on back into the system, pro-actively mapping the social networks of anyone the government has put under suspicion.

Worse, those companies have been providing all of this data not just in response to legitimate subpoenas, but even to letters falsely claiming that subpoenas are on the way. So the FBI tags people as guilty – or even guilty by association – in the phone companies’ government-funded databases without any oversight, with minimal discretion, and no process for appeal.

The article on One Web Day concludes:

So, can we expect to see a 15,000-person protest march in New York City next year like the one in Berlin? [One Web Day founder Susan] Crawford says maybe: “We’ll see things like that in the U.S. when we wake up.”

More on the EU data retention regulations from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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