The Essential Guide To Digital Life: Bruce Schneier’s Data And Goliath

If you’d asked me a year ago, ‘do you worry about government surveillance?’, I would have said no. But today, my answer would be an empathic YES.

The scary part is that, like most Canadians, I hadn’t worried about that kind of surveillance until the current debate around C-51. (If you don’t know what that is, check it out here.) This terrifying bill would, among many other things, make it illegal to talk positively of terrorism on the internet. Just look at the news in Canada on any day lately, and you’ll see a report or an opinion on it. I personally like iPolitics and Rabble.

Reading Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your Worldin this very sensitive time reinforced and confirmed my vehement disagreement with the bill, and with ubiquitous, mass digital surveillance in general.

Ubiquitous surveillance means that anyone could be convicted of lawbreaking, once the police set their minds to it. It is incredibly dangerous to live in a world where everything you do can be stored and brought forward as evidence against you at a later date.

In a sense, this book is the social and political companion to Dragnet Nation. It also lays out the theoretical, real-world basis for understanding the concerns brought up in The Circle. So if you were going to read these three books, I suggest you start with this one.

Schneier’s writing is crystal clear and compelling. The arguments he presents are strong and supported by about 100 pages of notes and sources—almost half the length of the book itself.

But what is his argument, really?

Data is the pollution problem of the information age, and protecting privacy is the environmental challenge. Almost all computers produce personal information. It stays around, festering. How we deal with it—how we contain it and how we dispose of it—is central to the health of our information society.

Schneier argues that privacy can be protected alongside security. As he shows, through numerous examples of how mass electronic surveillance has not done much to protect us against terrorist attacks (but how traditional investigation techniques actually have), there is no need to choose one over the other. In fact, more privacy reinforces security:

It’s a false trade-off. First, some security measures require people to give up privacy, but others don’t impinge on privacy at all: door locks, tall fences, guards, reinforced cockpit doors on airplanes. And second, privacy and security are fundamentally aligned. When we have no privacy, we feel exposed and vulnerable; we feel less secure. Similarly, if our personal spaces and records are not secure, we have less privacy. … Privacy is fundamental to the security of the individual.

Schneier does a particularly good job of two things: exposing the harms to individuals, society and democracy that mass surveillance causes, and delineating a framework for protecting privacy on an global scale.

The work of putting privacy back into the forefront of the discussion requires more than just a few articles and books, though. It demands a questioning of the fear culture we have been building up since 9/11. You can see it every day expressed in so many different ways: parents being arrested for letting their children go to the park and walking home alone; the pervasive Islamophobia in civil society and some media outlets; I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

I was a child in the 80s, and at 7 I went to the park with my friends, no parents around. I walked to school every day—again, no parents around. At 11, I was babysitting for the neighbours.  Today, these things would be unthinkable—and I don’t understand why. Is the world fundamentally more dangerous than it was 30 years ago? According to crime data, in fact, the world is safer. Crime rates, at least in Canada, are at their lowest level since the 60s.

We’re only scared because we let ourselves be scared… and we give up our privacy to offset that fear. But Schneier argues, and convincingly so, that giving in to irrational fear will only give the government more power to impose a true reign of terror—like East Germany after WWII—on all its citizens.

The Snowden revelations, which underpin most of the book, were the first real crack in the wall of NSA-sponsored mass surveillance. If Orwell could walk our streets and visit our internet, read our laws and see the secret machinations of data around the world, he would find our world has gone way, way beyond the wildest spurs of his dark imagination.

I’ve added a bunch of extensions on my browser to block tracking and ads. I’m considering getting TOR. I’m looking into getting encryption for my email. My location tracking has been off my phone for months because it killed my battery life, but if it hadn’t, I would turn it off now. I don’t want to be tracked, not because I have something to hide, but because I have a right to the government and corporations not knowing everything about me.

If you want to introduce your friends and family to the issues and harms around mass electronic surveillance, get them this book. (I suggest the library—support free access to information!) It’s an alarm bell that rationally counters every single pro-surveillance, anti-privacy argument that any lobby or PR campaign could make.

Disclaimer: The Cryptosphere received this book for free from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Categories: Book Reviews, Data and Goliath, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.