Interview: We Have Made Surveillance Too Cheap

There needs to be wider debate on the value of privacy on the internet—and in society as a whole, a leading computer security and privacy specialist said at the Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi. Cryptographer Bruce Schneier says classified documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden could ultimately make all internet users more secure.

The documents leaked by the American whistleblower show how easy it is for parties to indiscriminately capture the personal data on a global scale, said Schneier, who is participating in the summit as a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet. The future of surveillance has been identified as an urgent emerging issue by Global Agenda Council Members in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Outlook report.

“The Snowden documents give us a huge open window into this,” Schneier told reporters in a group interview on the sidelines of the summit.

“To me, it’s extraordinarily valuable for security. Technology democratises, today’s secret NSA programmes become tomorrow’s PhD theses and the next day’s hacker tools. In addition to this being a window into how large nation states engage in surveillance, this is a three-year head start on how criminals are going to do the same thing.”

The US is not alone in spying on internet users, Schneier said, adding similar techniques are likely being used by authorities in China, Russia, Israel, Syria and other countries on people who not necessary have done anything to warrant being under state surveillance.

“The problem is we have made surveillance too cheap,” he said. “If the Snowden documents said the NSA was spying on North Korea and the Taliban, nobody would care. It’s that they’re spying on everybody. The reason they’re spying on everybody is because it’s easier than to target.”

Privacy not about something to hide

To protect their privacy, internet users should consider using free software such as Tor, which conceals a user’s location or usage from anyone conducting network surveillance, Schneier said, speaking after a session about who owns personal data.

“We can leverage the economics,” he said. Widespread use of such anonymity tools would force authorities to prioritise and target those deemed as serious threats, he said. Washington outspends the rest of the world on defense and intelligence and has a privileged position because of the volume of internet traffic that goes through the US.

“But even with those things, the NSA is not made of magic,” Schneier said. “They are constrained by the laws of economics and physics and mathematics and we can use those laws to influence the trade-offs they make.”

A wider debate is needed about the value of privacy and the costs to society when individuals have no privacy, he said.

“Privacy is not about something to hide. Privacy is about a sense of self about being who you are as a person. There is a lot of great psychological research about what it is like to live in a society where you are constantly observed—both field work in East Germany and in other countries and studies such as in Malaya,” Schneier said.

“If you are observed in all things, you are always in public you are never acting as your true self, you are never allowed to think potentially radical thoughts,” he added.

Faulty data, high costs 

The consequence of being wrongly targeted due to data surveillance can be as minor as being forced to look at ads that don’t interest you. “But if I’m the government and I sued that data to arrest you, the cost is very high,” Schneier said, adding it is becoming more difficult for individuals to know what data is held on them and for them to correct mistakes.

“In Europe you have concepts of ‘see your data, correct your data,’ we don’t have that in the United States. Fundamentally, the data is not owned by you. It’s owned by the person who collects it,” he said.

It’s not only governments that are collecting data on an unprecedented scale, he says.

“I used to say Google knew more about what I thought than my wife,” Schneier said. “But that’s actually wrong. Google knows more about what I think than what I do. Google knows exactly what I think about, what I’m studying, what I’m exploring, exactly when I started, exactly when I stopped, exactly how interested I was, exactly who I shared it with. There has existed nothing in the history of our species that has recorded that level of detail about who we are.”

Categories: Text, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.