The Winter ColumnAs I write, there is still a lot of ruckus being raised about NSA's supposed listening in to our phones, our computers, and (perhaps) our household plumbing. Mainly the liberals and the conservatives are incensed, and maybe some of those in between. Ignoring the widespread assumption that whatever I look for on-line, the government will know about it, I decided to risk everything and look for a certain kind of Vietnamese sesame rice cracker that I like. The things are rare, here in the USA and I looked a long time during each of two different days. I could find them for sale in the UK, and probably from sources in Vietnam, though I'm not sure about the latter, since what came up was written in Vietnamese, which I, unfortunately, haven't ever studied. But at last I found what is probably a very similar product to what I was looking for, and ordered it, just to see if it is. (I'm not rich enough to do that with every search item that merely "looks similar," but these are cheap enough that shipping and handling run to more than the cost of the item. Hmmm, that's grist for another column, perhaps.)
Now, in the entire history of my receiving unwanted advertising on my computer, never up to now has any source suggested I might "click here" in order to acquire Vietnamese rice paper – you know: the kind you wrap around Vietnamese spring rolls. But, in Vietnamese, the name is similar to that of the cracker I searched for. Yesterday, a very unlikely website (Politifact, if you must know) was accompanied by an advertisement for Vietnamese rice paper.
I contend that the "sweeping" the NSA is doing would not have identied me as a seeker for Vietnamese groceries, whether rice crackers or rice paper or shrimp paste. Somebody else's much more detailed sweeping than the NSA's was quite capable of picking me out and sending me the ad. People with extreme but misplaced faith in NSA's capabilities are going to tell me that NSA could do that. Well, if NSA were concerned with consumers of food products from Vietnam, crackers, rice paper, or what-not, perhaps their computer could have noticed, during their "sweep," that a search for banh trang me den had occurred, and then they might or might not have the capability to find out who it was that looked. On the other hand, banh trang me den isn't exactly a problem for national security, so their computers are not really likely to notice my search. They might have recorded it, and then if a national anti-rice cracker movement got going, NSA could jump in and notify the appropriate court that they needed to inquire about my eating habits, and if their request was approved they might go so far as to list me as pro-rice cracker. On the other hand, despite the considerable number of people employed by NSA, they might not have the number of personnel needed to look into my tastes in crackers at all. Unless, of course, I somehow became a "person of interest" by the anti-rice cracker movement. Then they might have people working day and night to find out what else I might be eating. Sure. Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge? Perhaps they could even have bothered to note that I turned down banh trang in general and insisted that I only wanted banh trang me. Sure.
Or perhaps not. A bit of realism about what NSA is capable of would be appropriate here. And no, I don't think it was NSA that sent me the ads for rice paper. I think it was somebody, or rather a computer program owned by some corporation which paid for the privilege, and looks at a great many searches, automatically comparing the search with a list of things they sell. Even corporations don't have enough staff for a person to sit and check my searches against their list, and a person couldn't do it anyway: too big a job. (Let's not get into the ridiculous and shallow supreme court ruling that a corporation whether running a computer or not, is a person. I have things to say about that, too, and they're not very nice.)
Well, so some computer programmed to compare websearches with stock came up with my identity. They had to, also, know what search engine I use, and perhaps even what websites I visit frequently, and no individual associated with that computer knew diddly-squat, but still "they" knew more than even NSA is accused of knowing. The difference, I suspect, that has sent the executives of the big electronics sites scurrying to stop (or retard) NSA's sweeping them is that the corporations pay to find out what we eat, sleep, fiddle with, and so forth, while I'll bet you NSA does not. If the government wants to continue their so-called spying, all they have to do is pay for the privelege, like the corporations do. Then all the fuss will quiet down, because we all know, thanks to the Supreme Court, that corporations never do anythinig wrong. Only little people do that!