There is Actually One Thing You Can Do to Fight the Surveillance Machine

Stop feeling guilty about skimming the Terms of Service. Get mad instead.

Reading this right now?

Congratulations. You’re winning.

Yes, all of the usual corporate and government entities know you’re here. Google remembers everything you’ve ever searched, BuzzFeed knows how you’ve scored on all their quizzes, and your cell phone provider knows who you talk to and who you sleep with. Terms of Service agreements are an exercise in futility, encrypted email often takes more trouble than it’s worth, and yeah, sure, go ahead and give Facebook a fake name, but don’t think you’re fooling anyone. Companies are collecting your data from just about everywhere, storing it through time unknown, and using it however they want. Oh, and that’s where the FBI-and-friends find it.

But Bruce Schneier, security technologist, cryptographer, and author of a new book called “Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World,” says the fact that you’ve taken the time to read this far means you’ve got the one reliable protection available to us in year 2015: awareness.

“A lot of this happens because we’re not paying attention,” Schneier says on New Tech City. “If we understand what’s happening, we’ll see it and we’ll learn to object, to fight, to talk about it. Just the act of seeing the surveillance and pointing it out to others can help.”

Schneier named his book after David and Goliath. He sees the size of the problem.

“It’s time to think about these things. Whether it’s OK. Whether it should be allowed. What are the limits of persuasion and manipulation?”

Without further ado, that’s what we’re here for. Here are things to think about every time you are in front of a piece of technology:

It’s not just your digital life that’s being tracked.

Signed up for health insurance over the phone? Your data is out there, and people are using it. Gave a store clerk your address at the check-out counter? That’s in your data dossier too. Boarded a subway?

“[That’s] probably tied to your credit card,” Schneier says. “So there’s a record of when you enter the subways, what day, what time, what station. If you want to use a metro card, this is what you have to do. Now, you could put cash into a machine and buy an anonymous card. But that’s going to be harder and more annoying. For some systems, you can’t even do that.”

And your digital life? Um, yes, and all of it.

You know the flashlight app on your phone?

“Even something [that] innocuous… would collect location data and sell that to advertisers.”

Mind the metadata.

We interact with hundreds of computers every day, and all of them produce metadata. Even if the meat of your text messages isn’t being broadcast somewhere, interested parties can absolutely tell where, when, and to whom they were sent.

Everything you do online gets tracked, not just what you actually post or buy.

Facebook saves the posts you write, delete and don’t post. Amazon notes where you stopped reading a book.

Innovations in surveillance come from really good marketing departments (a.k.a. “follow the money”).

Companies make money off advertising online… which makes surveillance the business model of the Internet. And the marketing industry is eager to capitalize on the very, very effective model of “personalized ads.”

“Experiments have been done where researchers took a picture of your face and morphed it with another face, and turned it into a new face that you don’t recognize. It looks like you but you don’t realize it…. Your face is out there. Facebook has a picture of you they could morph it with another face to be a third face, and you’re more susceptible to that advertising [because it looks like you]. It’s manipulative, but is that OK? There’s no law against it.”

Government tracking piggybacks off of corporate tracking.

Most of the data collected on us can be requested by the government.

“You’ll remember the fact that we’re collecting cell phone metadata on every American. That was not the NSA? that was an FBI order to Verizon to turn data over to the NSA.”

Most of the data collected on you isn’t used by the government. The issue is that it could be.

“We’re not at the point where there’s wholesale surveillance against speech and organization, like there is in a country like China… But it will be used for people on the fringes of society. It is used against Muslim-Americans. It is used against black Americans. It is used in the drug war. It is used in other areas of crime… I worry about crises. If the data exists, it begs to be used.”

No one wants you to read the fine print.

Your iPhone comes with a 45-or-so page Terms of Service agreement in part because they don’t actually want you to read them.

“They’re designed to be long, they’re designed to be impenetrable? they can change at any moment without our knowledge or consent. The odds are really stacked against us here. This isn’t really an area where we can be an informed consumer.”

Opting out can’t be the answer.

The social problems at stake here can’t be fixed by deleting your Facebook account, because, well, not enough people want to do that. And Schneier says there has to be a place for Facebook (or whatever the teenagers are using these days) in our lives.

“Yes, you can choose to opt out. You could not use Facebook, you could not use Google, you could live in a tree and eat nuts and make your own power. But it’s really not the way we live. It’s hard for me to recommend that we unplug that way. It is so drastic. It is an answer. It can’t be the answer. If that’s the best answer we’ve got we’re not doing that.”

The NSA’s address is 9800 Savage Rd., Columbia Maryland.

Just in case you need a fake to give to a store clerk.

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Categories: Audio, Recorded Interviews, Text, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.