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Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Data and Goliath: Confronting the Surveillance Society
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Data and Goliath: Confronting the Surveillance Society
Posted on Mar.11, 2015 in Books ,
privacy by Steven Aftergood
Within a remarkably short period of time– less than two decades– all of
us have become immersed in a sea of electronic data collection. Our
purchases, communications, Internet searches, and even our movements all
generate collectible traces that can be recorded, packaged, and sold or
Before we have had a chance to collectively think about what this
phenomenal growth in data production and collection means, and to decide
what to do about it, it threatens to become an irreversible feature of
In his new book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your
Data and Control Your World
(Norton, 2015), author and security technologist Bruce Schneier
aims to forestall that outcome,
and to help recover the possibility of personal privacy before it is
lost or forgotten.
“Privacy is not a luxury that we can only afford in times of safety,” he
writes. “Instead, it’s a value to be preserved. It’s essential for
liberty, autonomy, and human dignity.”
Schneier describes the explosion of personal data and the ways that such
data are harvested by governments and corporations. Somewhat
provocatively, he refers to all types of personal data collection as
“surveillance,” whether the information is gathered for law enforcement
or intelligence purposes, acquired for commercial use, or recorded for
no particular reason at all. Under this sweeping definition, the
National Security Agency and the FBI perform surveillance, but so do
Google, Sears, and the local liquor store.
“Being stripped of privacy is fundamentally dehumanizing, and it makes
no difference whether the surveillance is conducted by an undercover
policeman following us around or by a computer algorithm tracking our
every move,” he writes (p.7). Others would argue that it makes all the
difference in the world, and that while one never wants to be followed
by an undercover policeman, a computer algorithm that helps us drive a
car to our destination might be quite welcome. Schneier, of course,
knows about the benefits of such applications and acknowledges them
later in the book.
Having gained access to classified NSA documents that were leaked by
Edward Snowden and having aided reporters in interpreting them, the
author is particularly exercised by the practice of bulk collection or,
the term he prefers, mass surveillance.
“More than just being ineffective, the NSA’s surveillance efforts have
actually made us less secure,” he says. Indeed, the Privacy and Civil
Liberties Oversight Board found
the “Section 215? program for bulk collection of telephone metadata to
be nearly useless, as well as likely illegal and problematic in other
ways. But by contrast, it also reported
that the “Section 702?
collection program had made a valuable contribution to security.
Schneier does not engage on this point.
Aside from the inherent violations of privacy, Schneier condemns the NSA
practice of stockpiling — instead of repairing — computer software
vulnerabilities and government strong-arming of Internet firms to compel
them to surrender customer data.
His arguments are fleshed out in sufficient detail that readers will
naturally find points to question or to disagree with. “For example,” he
writes, “the NSA targets people who search for information on popular
Internet privacy and anonymity tools” (p. 38). It’s not clear what “NSA
targeting” means in this context. Many people conduct such information
searches with no discernible consequences. In any case, Schneier
positively encourages readers to seek out and adopt privacy enhancing
“Surveillance is a tactic of intimidation,” Schneier writes, and “in the
US, we already see the beginnings of [a] chilling effect” (pp. 95-96).
But this seems overwrought. One may curse the NSA, file a lawsuit
against it, advocate reductions in the Agency’s budget, or publish its
Top Secret records online all without fear of reprisal. Lots of people
have done so without being intimidated. (Agency employees who defy their
management are in a more difficult position.) If there is a chilling
effect associated with NSA surveillance, it doesn’t appear to originate
in the NSA.
What is true is that surveillance shapes our awareness and that it can
alter our conduct in obvious or profound ways. Many people will slow
down when driving past a police car or a traffic surveillance camera.
Almost all will modify their speech or their behavior depending on who
is listening or watching. The book is particularly good at exploring the
ramifications of such surveillance-induced changes in the way we behave
and interact, and the risks they pose to an open society.
In the latter portions of the book
, Schneier presents
an action agenda for curbing inappropriate surveillance including steps
that can be taken by government, by corporations, and by concerned
members of the public. The proposals are principled and thoughtful,
though he admits not all are readily achievable.
Schneier’s core objective is to preserve, or to restore, a domain of
personal privacy that is impervious to unwanted intrusion or monitoring.
He acknowledges the necessity of surveillance for valid law enforcement
and intelligence purposes. Among other things, he calls for the
development of privacy-respectful innovations in these areas of security
“If we can provide law enforcement people with new ways to investigate
crime, they’ll stop demanding that security be subverted for their
benefit.” Similarly, “If we can give governments new ways to collect
data on hostile nations, terrorist groups, and global criminal elements,
they’ll have less need to go to the extreme measures I’ve detailed in
this book…. If we want organizations like the NSA to protect our
privacy, we’re going to have to give them new ways to perform their
Along these lines, a 2009 study
performed for the Office of
the Director of National Intelligence that was released last month
raised the somewhat fanciful possibility of “crowdsourcing intelligence”:
“The intelligence community has a unique opportunity to engage the
public to help filter and solve a multitude of difficult tasks…. For
example, consider a citizen-driven Presidential Daily Brief and its
potential to enable truly democratic communication to the highest levels
in the United States.” See Mixed Reality
: Geolocation & Portable
Hand-Held Communication Devices, ODNI Summer Hard Problem (SHARP)
Anyway, for many people the erosion of personal privacy has arrived
abruptly and overwhelmingly. They might reasonably conclude that the
changes they’ve experienced are beyond their ability to control or
influence. Schneier insists that that is not necessarily the case– but
that the future of privacy depends on how much the public cares about
it. This challenging book explains why privacy matters, how it is
threatened, and what one can do to defend it.
“In the end, we’ll get the privacy we as a society demand and not a bit
more,” he concludes.