Tracking watch: NSA chief, from Russia with love, shopping snoops

Here’s an umpteenth roundup in our ongoing effort to watch those who watch us:

• It just keeps streaming in, so let’s start with the follow-up news about the NSA’s massive surveillance program.

“He certainly believes you need to collect everything you can under the law, and that includes pushing for pretty aggressive interpretations of the law,” Timothy Edgar, a former privacy officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and at the White House, told the Washington Post, referring to National Security Agency Chief Keith Alexander. The Post writes that Alexander, who took the helm in 2005, has instituted a sweeping, controversial approach to fighting terrorism — what the newspaper calls “a revolution in the government’s ability to scoop up information in the name of national security.” It was first applied to help break up Iraqi insurgent networks.

Meanwhile, if you’ve thought about the irony of whistleblower Edward Snowden seeking asylum in Russia, join the club. The New York Times reports that Russia is using the Prism revelations based on Snowden’s leaks to push for greater control over the Internet. The country, which has a long and storied history of spying, will now push for access to the user information of big tech companies.

“We need to quickly put these huge transnational companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook under national controls,” Ruslan Gattarov, a member of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, told the Times. “This is the lesson Snowden taught us.”

It’s a small world after all, but it looks like tech companies will continue to have big problems as they try to find a balance between retaining the trust of their users and governments’ demand for those users’ information. From the United States to Russia to China to France, companies such as Google (which has replaced its top executive in Greater China), Twitter (which has turned over user information related to anti-Semitic tweets in France) and more are grappling with government requests related to efforts to censor, control and track Internet users in the name of fighting crime and terrorism.

• And lest you haven’t gotten enough of all this warm and fuzzy news, here are a couple of reminders about how else you can be tracked — as you shop, and as you use your smartphone.

Retailers are using a combination of video cameras, WiFi signals from smartphones and apps to track shoppers in their stores. The New York Times reported over the weekend about Nordstrom’s experimentation with this technology, drawing some reactions that what it’s doing is “creepy.” The retailer says it is tracking shoppers who physically browse at its stores just as online retailers track those who click and buy.

Along the same lines, SiliconBeat’s Heather Somerville wrote a couple months ago about how tiny cameras hidden in signs can collect information about who’s looking at ads and how long they’re doing so as they shop.


Photo of General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency,  last month in Washington, D.C. (MCT)


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