Home > data journalism, data science, modeling > Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation

Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation

March 14, 2014

I recently devoured Julia Angwin‘s new book Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. I actually met Julia a few months ago and talked to her briefly about her upcoming book when I visited the ProPublica office downtown, so it was an extra treat to finally get my hands on the book.

First off, let me just say this is an important book, and a provides a crucial and well-described view into the private data behind the models that I get so worried about. After reading this book you have a good idea of the data landscape as well as many of the things that can currently go wrong for you personally with the associated loss of privacy. So for that reason alone I think this book should be widely read. It’s informational.

Julia takes us along her journey of trying to stay off the grid, and for me the most fascinating parts are her “data audit” (Chapter 6), where she tries to figure out what data about her is out there and who has it, and the attempts she makes to clean the web of her data and generally speaking “opt out”, which starts in Chapter 7 but extends beyond that when she makes the decision to get off of gmail and LinkedIn. Spoiler alert: her attempts do not succeed.

From the get go Julia is not a perfectionist, which is a relief. She’s a working mother with a web presence, and she doesn’t want to live in paranoid fear of being tracked. Rather, she wants to make the trackers work harder. She doesn’t want to hand herself over to them on a silver platter. That is already very very hard.

In fact, she goes pretty far, and pays for quite a few different esoteric privacy services; along the way she explores questions like how you decide to trust the weird people who offer those services. At some point she finds herself with two phones – including a “burner”, which made me think she was a character in House of Cards – and one of them was wrapped up in tin foil to avoid the GPS tracking. That was a bit far for me.

Early on in the book she compares the tracking of a U.S. citizen with what happened under Nazi Germany, and she makes the point that the Stasi would have been amazed by all this technology.

Very true, but here’s the thing. The culture of fear was very different then, and although there’s all this data out there, important distinctions need to be made: both what the data is used for and the extent to which people feel threatened by that usage are very different now.

Julia brought these up as well, and quoted sci-fi writer David Brin: The key question is, who has access? and what do they do with it?

Probably the most interesting moment in the book was when she described the so-called “Wiretapper’s Ball”, a private conference of private companies selling surveillance hardware and software to governments to track their citizens. Like maybe the Ukrainian government used such stuff when they texted warning messages to to protesters.

She quoted the Wiretapper’s Ball organizer Jerry Lucas as saying “We don’t really get into asking, ‘Is in the public’s interest?'”.

That’s the closest the book got to what I consider the critical question: to what extent is the public’s interest being pursued, if at all, by all of these data trackers and data miners?

And if the answer is “to no extent, by anyone,” what does that mean in the longer term? Julia doesn’t go much into this from an aggregate viewpoint, since her perspective is both individual and current.

At the end of the book, she makes a few interesting remarks. First, it’s just too much work to stay off the grid, and moreover it’s become entirely commoditized. In other words, you have to either be incredibly sophisticated or incredibly rich to get this done, at least right now. My guess is that, in the future, it will be more about the latter category: privacy will be enjoyed only by those people who can afford it.

Julia also mentions near the end that, even though she didn’t want to get super paranoid, she found herself increasingly inside a world based on fear and well on her way to becoming a “data survivalist,” which didn’t sound pleasant. It is not a lot of fun to be the only person caring about the tracking in a world of blithe acceptance.

Julia had some ways of measuring a tracking system, which she refers to as a “dragnet”, which seems to me a good place to start:

julia_angwinIt’s a good start.

  1. Guest2
    March 14, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Stasi (1950-1990) came after Nazis. I’m just saying …..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stasi

  2. David18
    March 14, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for the review. I learn so much from your blog.

  3. March 14, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    This is so interesting. I love the burner phone – it made me think of Carrie in Homeland instead of House of Cards. I’m going to download the book – thanks for the review!

  4. March 14, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    But who doesn’t have a burner phone?

  5. Klassy
    March 16, 2014 at 7:05 am

    I happened to see her last week on C-Span (book tv or whatever it is called). I was a little frustrated because she seemed to only discuss ways individuals could manage privacy– someone even sent in an email saying “sounds like full time work!” and the host and Ms. Angwin just kind of agreed and laughed it off. I thought this point deserved more consideration. Also, a caller mentioned she felt young people weren’t concerned enough about the lack of privacy, and she contested that point citing the popularity of apps such as snapchat. What is your take from the book? Is the answer simply to learn to encrypt?
    Thanks.

    • Klassy
      March 16, 2014 at 7:55 am

      Oh heck, now I see you answered my question in your review. I think I got a little overexcited about this book discussion because I happened on the interview last week. My immediate reaction was “great!” and as the discussion continued, I became increasingly disappointed. I haven’t read the book, so I was wondering if it was mostly about making managing your data a full time job.

  6. a
    March 16, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Aunt Pythia seems to have gone off the grid :(

  7. BobW
    March 17, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    DBAN early & often ( http://www.dban.org/ )

  1. March 14, 2014 at 6:34 pm
  2. March 16, 2014 at 6:56 am
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