Leaders of China and the U.S. are meeting at an immaculately toasty California site this weekend for summit talks. One of the items will involve suspected Chinese theft of U.S. companies’ trade and other secrets through cyberspying.
What if the Chinese got their wits in high gear and simply bought these secrets instead? Perhaps it’s the best clandestine information — government or not — that money can buy.
The idea comes in the wake of stories detailing two secret U.S. government programs to tap into customer phone company records and Internet records in the name of national security.
Few of us are surprised by any of this today. We simply assume that if companies find it profitable to trade our private information, they’ll find a way. In the case of national security two presidents have been interested in using the high-tech industry to go after what they say are foreign threats.
The law is the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which makes it illegal to discuss its activities. That could put employees at domestic high-tech firms at risk of spilling “national security” secrets.
We assume the government will be unhappy about the latest leaks of its use of high-tech data mining. We also shrug at revelations of whom they’re proposing as partners. If you’ve used Facebook, Google, YouTube, Microsoft, Skype, Apple, Yahoo, Intel or AOL, you’re already there. Cell phones are a fact of life. The only question remaining is how many phones are smart (as opposed to idiotic?)
The government claims the little-known FISA law, enabled by Congress and authorizing the U.S. to order up all sorts of phone and Internet records, is aimed at foreigners. That gets murky. What if there’s less distinction between those who are legally U.S. citizens and those who aren’t? We’ve already found that “born in the USA” no longer carries with it the allegiance or loyalty we thought it once did.
The best way to navigate the maze is to assume that all your secrets are up for grabs. But when the free market puts a price on those secrets, will you be getting a cut of the profits?
The younger you are, the easier you are. Anyone on a social network knows that the wrong key will send a message to unimaginable readers. We can understand why Harvard faculty got up in arms upon discovering school administrators were monitoring their email accounts.
Credit records are so frequently traded that the market has depressed the cost of such secrets. Want someone’s social security number? Experts say you can buy it for under $1. Chicago-area banks over a decade ago got into trouble for selling private depositor information for $4 a pop. They thought this was perfectly acceptable free trade.
The credit industry today is a mammoth moneymaking bonanza based on fear and secrecy. If the industry can scare people into believing their credit scores are perpetually on the edge, how much can the “secrets” of your credit score — and how best to protect it — be worth? To find the price list, just sign up to check your own.
Want to find out how much a bank cares about your privacy? Read the small “disclosure” print, and you’ll find that anyone the bank designates as a marketing partner has a right to your data.
The Internal Revenue Service wanted to know how to track misuse of nonprofit designation by political organizations, so the agency decided to test it on a few well-known political labels. “Liberal” and “progressive” didn’t work as well as “tea party” and “patriot” when pulling file batches for testing. You know where that went. But under FISA, the government could test to see if your political-action group had any contact with an overseas area code, and you wouldn’t even know about it.
With disclosure of the programs coming only last week, we’re at the very start of the discussion. Private high-tech companies are now grappling with government agencies over just how to technically share information, whether it requires separate servers, and the possible cost.
The New York Times cites only 1,856 FISA requests (approved by a special court) last year. The number will likely climb in the future.
The market is sure to enter this equation. We’ll find that we wouldn’t pay a dime for some state secrets that a FISA request might uncover, or that the Chinese might already find under their alleged cyberspying.
But the market will eventually find a price for many such company, state or individual secrets. Where there is demand, supply is sure to follow — with prices next. Authors today publish books that others complain spill all sorts of secrets. The line between spying and marketing is getting very thin.
Advice to the government: If you do find fertile fields of state secrets under FISA, make sure to get your cut of sure-to-follow profits. Taxpayers have inquiring minds and they’ll want to know.
And to the Chinese and their U.S. victims — perhaps the time has come to catalogue the secrets, and put a time limit on them, as patent law does. For the rest, where there’s a price, there may be disclosure. The free market for secrets may quickly doom them as yesterday’s news.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.