A Scare-Your-Socks-Off Thriller: Data and Goliath

Bruce Schneier's new book pairs nicely with a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. 

March 18, 2015

I’m slowly making my way through Bruce Schneier’s new book, Data and Goliath, and recommend it highly if you’re looking for a concentrated dose of paranoia delivered in a calm, clear, totally reasonable  voice. It’s divided into three parts – a description of the situation we’re in, an outline of what’s at stake and (the part I haven’t gotten to yet) what to do about it. Schneier, who knows a lot about cryptography and computer security (his blog is required reading for anyone interested in these issues), paints a very disturbing picture with a steady hand. He doesn’t resort to hyperbole or scare tactics. He doesn’t have to. The facts are scary enough. We’re under an extraordinary amount of surveillance, from corporations and from governments, all the time.

This week, the Pew Internet project released a report on Americans’ attitudes toward privacy. Their survey found that most Americans are aware of the government surveillance programs that were reported first two years ago as Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents to reporters. Though we knew about some of this surveillance – the vast collection of telephone metadata was reported in 2006 – the scope of the governments massive sweep of data wasn’t known until we began to see those rather hideous PowerPoint slides boasting about the size and stealth of these systems, all of them with weird codenames. People are paying attention.  A majority are “losing confidence that the public interest is being served” by these programs, and that concern is bipartisan. Close to 40 percent are concerned about government surveillance of their own web searches, emails, and cell phones.

People are split on whether the courts do an adequate job of balancing privacy and security. (Of course, the courts are often the last to be asked about it, apart from the secret FISA court. Not long ago a man in Florida was arrested for armed robbery using information from a StingRay device that mimics a cell phone tower to collect transmissions. Since local law enforcement using these devices are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, the prosecutor arranged a petty theft plea deal rather than provide information that the judge demanded. Apparently these devices work much better for surveillance than for actually prosecuting criminals in courts of law.)

According to the Pew survey, a majority of Americans think the government should not monitor their communications, though  a slight majority thought it was okay to keep an eye on foreigners. Interestingly, younger respondents were less likely to think surveillance of Americans or foreigners was acceptable. It’s often assumed that the generation that grew up with social media has little interest in privacy, but they are actually more attuned to the nuances of privacy and the potential harm caused by losing it than older Americans.

I was surprised by how many people reported that they were changing their behavior online, with a quarter having made changes in the way the use email, search engines, cell phones, or other media. It’s certainly not the case that people have grown so accustomed to making their thoughts public that they don’t care or are too apathetic to do anything in response. Surveillance is having a chilling effect on a significant percentage of the population.

Though I’ve been keeping us as best I can with news about both corporate and government surveillance, reading Schneier’s book is illuminating because he puts it all together into one big dismaying picture. The current business model for the Internet is surveillance, which suited the government just fine. The breakdown in trust of American technology companies could have enormous impact on the future of the web. The number of companies making a business of spying on us at work and at play is astonishing. The number of governments spying on their citizens and on everyone else is staggering. The cost to us is tremendous, and much higher for marginalized people than for others, and for all of the billions invested in this massive information dragnet, we aren’t safer.

I have yet to read the third section, where he tells us what we can do about it. I hope it’s advice that we act on collectively, because it’s not healthy, living in a Panopticon. 


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