A spike in government surveillance, and wine sales on Amazon

Amazon is mulling over online wine sales.

According a new report, in 2010 and 2011, the U.S. Justice Department allowed law enforcement agencies to examine more private data than in the entire previous decade. The kind of surveillance allowance isn't new -- but the kinds of data the government is being allowed to pull has changed.

And though information on domestic surveillance using these kinds of data -- called "pen register" and "trap and trace" -- is supposed to be presented to Congress regularly, the latest report from the Department of Justice was only provided to the public after the American Civil Liberties Union filed an FOI request and then sued to have the information released.

A privacy expert and technologist from the ACLU, Chris Soghoian, points out that changes in technology are also changing the information our government is looking at. 

"Law enforcement is increasingly using it now to spy on communications tools that didn’t really exist when the surveillance powers were first given to the government," he says. "Who you’re emailing, who you’re friending on Facebook. Which servers you’re using as you browse on the web."

But the majority of data is still plain old-fashioned phone call tracking. While not monitoring the content of calls or emails, law enforcement can get permission to record who is calling whom and when. The argument from the government for this kind of surveillance is that it helps catch terrorists, drug dealers, and other bad guys. And thanks to the way a lot of companies now do business online, there are big pools of information just waiting to be looked at. 

"Consumers are increasingly using services provided for free," says Soghoian. "These companies -- the Googles and Facebooks of the world -- because they’re not charging for their service, they monetize their data by collecting as much as they can and saving it for as long as they can."

And what does it mean?

"We are increasingly living in a surveillance state," he says.

 We contacted the Department of Justice to give them a chance to weigh in, but we didn't receive a comment on the story by our deadline.


Digital technology disrupts the old way of doing business -- music, books -- but it's taking a while with one near-essential, wine.  Twice, online retailer Amazon tried to sell vino, but efforts were thwarted in part by a patchwork of rules across the country. Currently about a dozen states ban sales of wine that bypass local distributors.  Now there's a report Amazon is about to try again, this time letting the wineries do the heavy lifting in the states where it's legal. While Amazon said it couldn't comment on this today, Lewis Perdue publisher of "Wine Industry Insight" broke the story.

"What Amazon is doing, it's saying OK we're just going to be the marketplace," says Perdue. "We're not gonna hold the license, we're not going to hold the wine. We're not going to ship the wine. We're going to give you, Mr. Vintner, a marketplace."

Perdue says Amazon could drum up the customers for smaller wineries and help them get cheaper rates for shipping.  And since it's Amazon, you might see links labeled "customers who bought this wine also bought these bottles." 

"It's almost what we're missing in the wine industry," says Ollie Tomasello, who runs a small winery in New Jersey called Plagido's and chairs the state's wine growers’ association. "I mean we have magazines and things, but if you are not an educated wine person, a person seeking that information out, it's not there at your disposal. But if they had something like Amazon that did have reviews than, boom, there's product reviews from different people giving you their opinion on those wines."

But even beyond Amazon, there's reportedly more sophisticated technology in the pipeline to help people chose. Perdue the wine journalist can't divulge details, but here's a taste:

"Maybe you like Nero D'Avola as much as let's say this online tribe of people like it," he says. "So you're matched digitally with those people and they have other wines that they like."

Which is better than judging the wine by its pretty label or goofy name or relying on the single score of a wine critic.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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