Two Books Look at How Modern Technology Ruins Privacy


“Even the East Germans couldn’t follow everybody all the time,” Bruce Schneier writes. “Now it’s easy.”

This may sound hyperbolic, but Schneier’s lucid and compelling Data and Goliath is free of the hysteria that often accompanies discussions about surveillance. Yes, our current location, purchases, reading history, driving speed and Internet use are being tracked and recorded. But Schneier’s book, which focuses mainly on the United States, is not a rant against the usual bad guys such as the U.S. government or Facebook. Schneier describes how our data is tracked by both corporate and government entities, often working together. And in many cases, the American people allow them to do it.

Ordinary citizens may not like giving their personal information to the government, but they will hand it over to corporations. “If the country’s spies demanded copies of all our conversations and correspondence, people would refuse,” Schneier observes. “Yet we provide copies to our e-mail service providers, our cell phone companies, our social networking platforms, and our Internet service providers.” In other words, the same people who are furious about National Security Agency spying might be perfectly willing to sign commercial terms of service without even reading them.

It was actually the corporate world that built a “massive Internet eavesdropping system,” Schneier notes, and the NSA just tapped into it. This is not to say that he lets the NSA off the hook. He is very critical of the agency for overreach and excessive secrecy. Yet even if pre-Snowden America was not aware of the extent of NSA surveillance, there was still an element of public buy-in. After 9/11, the NSA pretty much had carte blanche to do whatever it took to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks, with some people accepting mass surveillance as necessary for keeping the country safe.

It has become a lot easier for governments and corporations to keep tabs on us. In the past, surveillance was more targeted because it was expensive. Someone would be paid to follow you. Now, thanks to “computers, networks and automation,” intelligence can be gathered in large quantities, about perfectly innocent people, and stored just in case. Today, Schneier says, “it’s not ‘follow that car’; it’s ‘follow every car.'”

He argues, however, that storing countless pieces of largely useless data not only violates privacy, it doesn’t make America safer. It may even make us more insecure. Data about us is being stored and held, subject to the whims of future political figures. Schneier asks, “Is someone’s reading of Occupy, Tea Party, animal rights, or gun rights websites going to become evidence of subversion in five to ten years?”

He suggests a range of corporate and government reforms. For example, the United States should publish unclassified details about its intelligence gathering, and corporations should collect less data. Ordinary Americans can also take steps to fight surveillance, perhaps by using encryption or free software for anonymous Web browsing. Schneier avoids using Gmail and says he doesn’t have a personal account on Facebook. Yet he acknowledges that these precautions are not a guarantee of privacy. He may not use Gmail, but people he corresponds with do, which means that Google has roughly a third of his messages. This is not exactly the future that Orwell warned us about. “It’s less Big Brother,” Schneier observes, “and more hundreds of tattletale little brothers.”

Emily Parker, senior fellow at New America, is the author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground.”

Categories: Data and Goliath, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.