Bob Kustra, Reader’s Corner: ‘Dragnets’ are redefining privacy in the digital age

It’s a scenario familiar to many of us: We go online and search for a product we’re interested in purchasing. Moments later, we click on our favorite news site, only to be bombarded with ads, including some for the product we were just viewing.

So how did this happen? And what else about ourselves might we unwittingly be sharing?

A whole lot, says investigative reporter Julia Angwin. Her latest book, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance,” explores the seemingly endless ways that data brokers are tracking our every move. Those brokers could include government agencies, cellphone providers, retailers and, yes, criminals.

Angwin is an investigative journalist at the independent news organization ProPublica and spent 13 years as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize. In her latest book, she explains how “dragnets” indiscriminately track us and store volumes of personal information. Much of the time we are unaware this is even happening. Presumably private interactions can quickly become quite public. And this ever-growing amount of stored information, some of which may be potentially damaging, is just waiting to be exploited.

“In today’s world, every choice we make associates us with a person, a place or an idea,” she writes in her book. “Visit a political website; you are associated with its views. Sit in a restaurant near somebody who is being watched; your cellphone is now part of the ‘community of interest’ that may be monitored by authorities. Those associations are scooped up and entered into databases where people use them to make predictions about your future behavior.”

Our own government operates the biggest dragnets, Angwin notes. Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013, made us aware that phone records for countless Americans were being snagged and stored.

Other seemingly mundane daily activities also are being tracked, stored and even sold by data brokers and various organizations, Angwin notes. For example, retail stores are increasingly using rewards cards, sensor systems and facial recognition cameras to get a sense for our shopping habits, and nothing prevents them from sharing that information with others. Our phones and many of our cars have GPS systems that monitor our locations.

“Dragnet Nation” offers a litmus test of sorts for determining just how far these dragnets should be allowed to reach and poses some challenging questions about what privacy means in our digital age.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Angwin, are online and available for podcast at Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook; search for “Reader’s Corner.”