March against NSA mass surveillance in Washington DC — flickr / Elvert Barnes — Creative Commons
Bruce Schneier is a man worth listening to. In 1993, just as the internet was gaining speed, he wrote one of the earliest books on applying cryptography to network communications, and has since become a well-known security specialist and author of about a dozen books on internet security and related matters.
So when someone like Schneier says we’re in big trouble and we need to do something fast to keep it from getting worse, we should at least pay attention.
The trouble is mass surveillance. In his latest book, Data and Goliath, he explains that mass surveillance is the practice of indiscriminately collecting giant data banks of information on people first, and then deciding what you can do with it. One of the best-known and most controversial examples of this is the practice of the US National Security Agency (NSA) of grabbing telecommunications metadata (basically, who called whom when) covering the entire US, which was revealed when Edward Snowden made his stolen NSA files public in 2013.
Advocates of the NSA defend the call database by saying the content of the calls is not monitored, only the fact that they were made. But Schneier makes short work of that argument in a few well-chosen examples showing that such metadata can easily reveal extremely private facts about a person: medical conditions or sexual orientation, for example.
It’s not only government overreaching that Schneier is concerned about. Businesses come in for criticism too. With data storage getting cheaper all the time, many internet firms and network giants such as Google and Yahoo find that it’s easier simply to collect all the data they can on their customers, and then pick through it to see what useful information they can extract—or sell to others. This happens all the time.
Maybe the most visible evidence of it happens when you go online and look for, say, a barbecue grill at a hardware-store website. Then, maybe several days later, you will be on a completely different site. Say a vegetarian friend is coming over and you’re looking up how to make vegan stew. Lo and behold, right next to the vegan recipe, there’s an ad for that barbecue grill you were looking at a few days ago. How did they know? With “cookies” (bits of data retained by your browser) and behind-the-scenes trading of information about you and your browsing habits.
But Schneier reserves his greatest concern for something that is perhaps hardest to define: the loss of privacy. The right to privacy is a vital if poorly defined right whose absence makes normal life almost impossible.
Schneier says, “Privacy is an inherent human right. . . . It is about choice, and having the power to control how you present yourself to the world.” Mass surveillance tramples over the right to privacy and trains millions subtly to alter their ways of living to avoid the pain of secrets revealed. This way of living was familiar to those whose lives were monitored by totalitarian regimes such as the old East Germany or the Soviet Union.
True, Google isn’t going to send a jackbooted corporal to your door if you say something nasty about Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder. Brin himself was born behind the Iron Curtain, though his family emigrated when he was six, and he probably remembers little or nothing about the USSR. Nevertheless, Google and other firms that collect massive amounts of private data from their customers have set up a situation in which the privacy rights of millions, even billions, depend solely on the good intentions of a few powerful decision-makers in private companies.
So what do we do about this?
Schneier has lots of suggestions, and points to Europe as a place where privacy is more respected in law and custom. Changing laws is a necessary first step. Whenever anyone moves to restrict the mass-surveillance habits of government entities such as the NSA or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, their defenders threaten us with a terrorist apocalypse, saying if we don’t give up this or that privacy right, we’ll tie the government’s hands and be helpless before terrorist assaults.
Schneier spends a lot of time taking apart this argument, to my mind pretty convincingly. For one thing, mass-surveillance data has not proved that useful in uncovering terrorist plots, compared to old-fashioned detective work focused intensely on a few known troublemakers. In general, government should abandon most mass-surveillance practices in favor of concentrating on specific investigations, with permission granted by courts whose workings are made public to the extent possible.
As for massive snooping by private enterprises, Schneier thinks regulations are the best option. These regulations would impose a kind of “opt-in” system. Currently, if you have a privacy-related choice at all in dealing with internet firms, you have to go to a lot of trouble to make them respect your privacy, if they will allow such a thing at all.
Under Schneier’s proposed policy, companies could not take away your rights to your data without your explicit permission, and the choice would be explained clearly enough so that you wouldn’t need to have your techno-lawyer read the fine print to understand what’s going on.
Neither Schneier nor I are political scientists, so it’s hard to say how we would get from the current parlous situation to one in which online privacy is respected, and nobody can snoop on you unless they go to a lot of trouble and get special permission to do it. But he’s told us what the problem is, and now it’s up to us to do something about it.
Sources: Bruce Schneier’s book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World was published by W. W. Norton in 2015. The quotation from it above is from p. 126. I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Edward Snowden, MAINWAY (the NSA call database), and Sergey Brin.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.