Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World (Review)

In Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, author Bruce Schneier could have justifiably written an angry diatribe full of vitriol against President Obama, his administration, and the NSA for their wholesale spying on innocent Americans and violations of myriad laws and the Constitution. Instead, he has written a thoroughly convincing and brilliant book about big data, mass surveillance and the ensuing privacy dangers facing everyone.

A comment like what’s the big deal? often indicates a naiveté about a serious significant underlying issue. The idea that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear is a dangerously narrow concept on the value of privacy. For many people the notion that the NSA was performing spying on Americans was perceived as not being a big deal, since if a person is innocent, then what they have to worry about. In the book, Schneier debunks that myth and many others, and defends the important of privacy.

Schneier writes that privacy is an essential human need and central to our ability to control how we relate to people around us and the world at large. Being stripped of privacy is fundamentally dehumanizing and it makes no difference whether the surveillance is conducted by an undercover police officer following us around or by a computer algorithm tracking our every move online.

The book notes that much of the data sharing is done voluntarily from individuals via social media and other voluntary sharing platforms. The real danger is that the NSA has been illegally conducting mass surveillance on Americans, in violation of the Constitution and other Federal laws. And with all of that, the book notes that after spending tens of billions of dollars doing it, the NSA has little to nothing to show for its efforts.

While the NSA has often said they were just collecting metadata; Schneier writes that metadata can often be more revealing than the data itself, especially when it’s collected in the aggregate. And even more so when you have an entire population under surveillance. How big of a deal is metadata? Schneier quotes former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden that “we kill people based on metadata”.

The book spends chapters detailing the dangers of mass data collection and surveillance. It notes that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that we are now generating so much data and storing it indefinitely. People can now search 20 years back and find details that were long thought to have been forgotten. Today’s adults were able to move beyond their youthful indiscretions; while today’s young people will not have that freedom. Their entire life histories will be on the permanent record.

Another danger of mass government surveillance is the way it leads to people being categorized and discriminated against. Since much of the data is gathered in secret, citizens don’t have the right to see or refute it. Schneier notes that this will intensify as systems start using surveillance data to make decisions automatically.

Schneier makes numerous references to Edward Snowden and views him as a hero. He views Snowden’s act as being courageous since it resulted in the global conversation about surveillance being made available. Had it not been for Snowden, this book would never have been written.

Schneier does a good job of showing how many of the methods used by the NSA were highly questionable, and based on extremely broad readings of the PATRIOT ACT, Presidential directives and other laws.

The book notes that not only has mass surveillance on US citizens provided extremely little return on the tens of billions of dollars spent; the very strategy of basing security on irrational fears is dangerous. The book notes that many US agencies were faulted after 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing for not connecting the dots. But connecting the dots against terrorist plots is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. Given the rarity of these events, the book notes that they current systems produce so many false positives as to render them useless.

Schneier straight-out says that ubiquitous surveillance and data minding are not suited for finding dedicated criminals or terrorists. The US is wasting billions on these programs and not getting the security they have been promised. Schneier suggests using the money on investigations, intelligence and emergency response; programs whose tactics have been proven to work.

Schneier makes many suggestions on how to stop the mass surveillance by the NSA. His biggest suggestion is to separate espionage agencies from the surveillance agencies. He suggests that government surveillance of private citizens should only be done as part of a criminal investigation. These surveillance activities should move outside of the NSA and the military and should instead come under the auspices of the FBI and Justice Department, which will apply rules of probable cause, due process and oversight to surveillance activities in regular open courtrooms. As opposed to the secret United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance courts.

Schneier notes that breaking up the NSA is a long-range plan, but it’s the right one. He also suggests reducing the NSA’s budget to pre-9/11 levels, which would do an enormous amount of good.

While Schenier comes down hard on mass surveillance, he is also rational enough to know that there are legitimate needs for government surveillance, both law enforcement and intelligence needs to do this and we must recognize that. He writes that we must support legitimate surveillance and work on ways for these groups to do what they need without violating privacy, subverting security and infringing on citizens’ rights to be free of unreasonable suspicion and observation.

The book concludes with a number of things that can be done moving forward. At the personal level there is a lot people can legitimately do to stop sharing so much personal information. But for most people, they would rather reap the short-term benefits of sharing information on social media, with retailers and more; than the long-term privacy benefits.

The book also notes that much of the problem stems with federal agencies since keeping the fear stoked is big business for them. For those in the intelligence agencies, that is the basis of their influence and power. Schneier also lays some of the blame on popular media and news who stoke the irrational fears in the daily news. By fixating on rare and spectacular events, the media conditions us to behave as if terrorism were much more common than it is and to fear it far out of proportion to its actual incidence.

This is an incredibly important book. Schenier is passionate about the subject, but provides an extremely reasonably set of arguments. Superbly researched, Schneier lays out the facts in a clear, concise and extremely readable manner. The book is at times disturbing, given the scope and breadth of the NSA surveillance program.

This is the perfect book to take with you on a long flight. It’s a compelling and engrossing read, and important book and a major wake-up call. The NSA knows all about you via its many total information awareness programs. In Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, Bruce Schneier provides the total information awareness about what the NSA is doing, how your personal data is being mined, and what you can do about it.

While the NSA was never able to connect the dots of terrorists, Schneier has managed to connect the dots of the NSA. This is a book that must be read, for your freedom.

Categories: Book Reviews, Data and Goliath, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.