Bruce Schneier: Technology Magnifies Power in Surveillance Era

BOSTON—History is not entirely kind to those responsible for the Industrial Age in the 19th century. How, for example, were the consequences of industrial innovation such as pollution largely ignored?

Flash forward to today's digital age and ask the same question: How are those responsible for building our infrastructure callously disregarding privacy and security in favor of rapid online innovation?

"I think this is the issue by which we will be judged when our grandchildren read the history of the early days of the Internet," said Bruce Schneier today during his Source Boston keynote.

Schneier, who has been involved in reviewing the Snowden documents and advising journalists on how to best disseminate them, has been lecturing not only at security conferences, but to public policy makers on the risks of ubiquitous data. As an observer, he's busy noting disturbing trends as governments flex their muscle online where previously it was the domain of the less-endowed.

"In general, technology magnifies power, but adoption rates are indifferent," Schneier said. "The nimble and relatively powerless make use of new technology faster. They're not hindered by bureaucracy or laws or ethics. There was an enormous change when they discovered the Net. Now a decade later when the government figures out how to use the Net, it had more raw power to magnify. That's how you get weird situations where Syrian dissidents use Facebook to organize, and the government uses Facebook to arrest its citizens."

With regard to NSA surveillance, the government has used several different methods to access data on targets, whether through court orders to obtain phone call metadata from carriers, or the subversion of Internet protocols to intercept network traffic.

While corporations use it for marketing, the NSA uses it for surveillance.

"This stuff is being used by governments for good and bad. The NSA woke up and said ‘Corporations are spying on the Internet, let's get ourselves a copy,'" Schneier said. "We see a lot of collection by governments overt and covert. Most NSA surveillance piggybacks corporate capabilities."

Further exacerbating the mass collection of data by corporations and governments alike is the push to move data and services to the cloud, and the ubiquity of mobile devices, which provide location data to corporations and governments both. More piggybacking.

"Surveillance is the business model of the Internet," Schneier said. "We build systems that spy on people in exchange for services."

Data is currency, he said, and consumers especially will trade their privacy for convenience.

"Those things push us to give our data to corporate entities," Schneier said. "Why do corporations want it? Persuasion. Facebook wants my data to sell me stuff. I like to think of this as a feudal model. At a most fundamental model, we are tenant farming for companies like Google. We are on their land producing data."

The result is an assumed trust that Google, Facebook or any number of data brokers will do the right thing with personal data now that it's stored on a third party server by a third party owner who can access the data and change the rules of engagement at any time. Governments, meanwhile, can sit back and let corporations do their collecting for them. Rather than force citizens they wish to monitor carry a tracking device, they can obtain location data from a telecommunications carrier. Rather than requiring citizens to report new personal relationships, governments know you'll tell Facebook soon enough.

And as for metadata, which the government brushes off as bits of innocuous detail, Schneier said that metadata has far more value to an intelligence agency than data, that it's far more intimate than a conversation.

"Metadata is us," he said. "And it is easier to store, search and analyze. If you're tracking a terror network, do you want conversations, or who is talking to who? You want the network. Fundamentally, we have reached the golden age of surveillance because we are all being surveiled ubiquitously."

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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.