"We the People Have a Lot of Work to Do" Says Schneier in a Must-Read Book on Security and Privacy

  • Gil Press
  • Forbes
  • March 24, 2015

"The surveillance society snuck up on us," says Bruce Schneier in Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World. It's a thought-provoking, absorbing, and comprehensive guide to our new big data world. Most important, it's a call for a serious discussion and urgent action to stop the harms caused by the mass collection and mining of data by governments and corporations. To paraphrase Schneier's position on anonymity—we either need to develop more robust techniques for preserving our freedom, or give up on the idea entirely.

An expert on computer security, Schneier has written over a dozen books in the last 20 years on the subject, some highly technical, but this one is a call to action addressed to a mainstream audience. The impetus for writing such a book, it seems, were the 2013 revelations of the NSA mass surveillance. Schneier worked with The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, helping in the analysis of some of the more technical documents that were leaked by Edward Snowden.

Schneier divides his guide to our big data world into three parts. The first covers the surveillance society: The massive amounts of data about ourselves we generate when we use computers, what governments and corporations do with this data separately and together, and the important difference between targeted and mass surveillance. The second part of the book is about the damage caused by government and corporate surveillance, including economic damage to U.S. businesses, and how the actions that are meant to protect us actually degrade privacy and security. The last part consists of a list of principles "to guide our thinking," policy recommendations regarding government and corporate surveillance, and prescriptions for defensive behavior by individuals, ending with a general discussion of the trade-offs between big data's value to society and its misuse and abuse.

"I'm not, and this book is not, anti-technology," says Schneier. Declaring himself not even being anti-surveillance, he suggests that we need to design new ways for the NSA to perform its job while protecting our privacy. From that position, he proceeds to debunk and clarify some of the myths and misinformation spread by defenders of surveillance and to alert us to the consequences of our relaxed attitude towards what is being done with our data.

Corporate and government interests—and hunger for data—have converged in our time, Schneier argues. In exchange for free services from corporations and for protection from terrorists, we've agreed to mass surveillance. The convergence of government and corporate interests is now amplified by politicians who are lured by big data's promises of targeted messaging and effective get-out-the vote campaigns.

The problem is that mass surveillance doesn't work as advertised, in both the public and private sectors. Schneier: "There's no actual proof of any real successes against terrorism as a result of mass surveillance and significant evidence of harm" and, on targeted advertising, "what's unclear is how much more data helps." The NSA simply tapped into the "massive Internet eavesdropping system" already built by corporations, but failed to see that it's a very ineffective way to catch terrorists.

"Data mining works best when you are searching for a well-defined profile, when there are a reasonable number of events per year, and when the cost of false alarms is low," says Schneier. Alas, terrorists do not have a common profile (see U.S. Authorities Struggle to Find a Pattern Among Aspiring Islamic State Members), each attack is unique, and terrorists would do their best to avoid detection. "When you are watching everything, you are not seeing anything," concludes Schneier.

Mass surveillance by the NSA is not only ineffective, it also ensures reduced security and loss of privacy. All computer users today use basically the same hardware and software and when the NSA hacks into any of the components of the global computer network, it makes it more vulnerable. Schneier: "Because we all use the same products, technologies, protocols, and standards, we either make it easier for everyone to spy on everyone, or harder for anyone to spy on anyone."

Data and Goliath is also a comprehensive guide to what's to be done about our data. Here's a sample of recommendations: Apply the same transparency principles that traditionally have governed law enforcement in the U.S. to national security; make government officials personally responsible for illegal behavior; overturn the "antiquated" third-party doctrine, recognizing that our information is our property and not the property of the service provider; reduce the NSA's funding to pre-9/11 levels; establish an independent U.S. data protection agency; make intelligence-related whistleblowing a legal defense in the U.S.; block mass surveillance by encrypting your hard drive, chats, email, everything; and engage in the political process by noticing and talking about surveillance and by "giving copies of this book to all your friends as gifts."

That the book is a great gift to one and all has already been recognized by many readers as evident by the fact that it has made the New York Times Best Sellers list. But will it manage to make a dent in the complacency of the American public? Will it motivate all of us to do the work we need to do to stop mass surveillance?

Recent results of a Pew Research Center survey titled "Americans' Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden" are not very encouraging. Almost nine-in-ten respondents say they have heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs to monitor phone use and internet use (31% say they have heard a lot). But only 30% of all adults have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from mass surveillance and many are not aware of the commonly available tools that could make their online activities more private.

While 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens,  majorities support monitoring those particular individuals who use words like "explosives" and "automatic weapons" in their search engine queries (65% say that) and those who visit anti-American websites (67% say that). 46% describe themselves as "not very concerned" or "not at all concerned" about the surveillance. The lack of concern about mass surveillance is even more pronounced when people are asked about "electronic surveillance in various parts of their digital lives."

I'm a good example of the general apathy about what is being done with our data. I've never bothered to look at the notices I often receive from banks and credit cards regarding their privacy policies. It so happened that I received one while reading Data and Goliath, a notice that I'm sure is a typical example of the privacy policies of many financial institutions as it simply follows what is allowed by U.S. federal law. The "privacy policy" (a more apt title would be "we do basically whatever we want to do with your personal information") is outrageous in its entirety but this statement takes the cake: "When you are no longer our customer, we continue to share your information as described in this notice."

In addition to demonstrating how many U.S. businesses couldn't care less about their customers, these types of privacy policy notices—coming from staid, pre-Internet financial institutions—also show that while the scale of mass surveillance has reached unprecedented levels today, our indifference to what's being done with our data has remained stable—and widespread—for ages. U.S. corporations have been legally collecting and sharing our data long before Google appeared on the scene and our data has been a fountain of enthusiasm for government officials and business executives for a long time. Here's what Arthur R. Miller wrote in his 1971 The Assault on Privacy:

The new information technologies seem to have given birth to a new social virus—"data mania." Its symptoms are shortness of breath and heart palpitations when contemplating a new computer application, a feeling of possessiveness about information and a deep resentment toward those who won't yield it, a delusion that all information handlers can walk on water, and a highly advanced case of antistigmatism that prevents the affected victim from perceiving anything but the intrinsic value of data.

Today's "data mania" is called big data. Schneier's book helped convince me that the first step, the first line of defense against the data deluge drowning our freedoms is to expose, explain and eradicate from public discourse the false tenets of big data religion. These include the incredible effectiveness of lots and lots of data, machines are better than humans in making data-driven decisions, let the data ask the questions, sampling is so 19th century, and privacy is dead, get over it. After 9/11, the NSA converted to the big data religion and went after "the whole haystack" because it provided a comforting set of rituals, I mean, action plans (see here and here for some of my previous discussions of big data religion).

Schneier devotes the last pages of his book to "the big data trade-off" which he calls "the fundamental issue of the information age": How do make use of our data to benefit society as a whole while at the same time protecting our privacy. "Our data has enormous value when we put it all together," says Schneier. But that flies in the face of his well-argued contentions that more data does not lead to better outcomes either with targeted advertising or protecting us from terrorists.

What he is talking about is the promise of big data, our hopes that more data, lots more data, will improve our lives. But why trade our security and privacy—and our present freedoms—for an unproven promise of some vague future benefit?

"I don't think anyone can comprehend how much humanity will benefit from putting all our health data in a single database and letting researchers access it," says Schneier. Indeed, it sounds plausible, at least intuitively, that big data could serve as a remedy to what ails us. I remember that growing up with a father who was a physician in private practice, I often thought about the wasted valuable data about his patients he meticulously recorded in his index card file, data that was never shared and analyzed with other physicians' data. (Which goes to show that I started the big data conversation, at least with myself, very early on).

Data has facilitated progress in medicine, science, and other areas of inquiry and practice. But the collection and analysis of data has evolved in tandem with the development of tools that help ensure that only non-biased data is collected and that our questions drive this data collection (as opposed to the data driving our questions). The hype surrounding the availability of data generated by our wearables and its presumed big promise for healthcare, for example, almost ensures that medical enquiry will forgo some of its critical and proven foundations such as carefully designed samples and control groups.

I used to be a data optimist. Here's what I wrote in Big Data is Neither an Atomic Bomb Nor a Holy Grail: "Decisions based on non-biased data are almost always better than decisions that are not based on data. That's the promise of big data or data analysis. No need to exaggerate its potential…. Better focus on small steps where the collection and analysis of data measurably and demonstrably lead to better allocation of resources and improved quality of life."

Bruce Schneier has made me a data radical. I don't believe in trade-offs anymore, I'm firmly convinced that the risks associated with mass surveillance far outweigh any potential big data benefits. Instead of believing that decisions based on data are almost always better than decisions that are not based on data, I must admit now that decisions based on data are frequently dangerous, disruptive, ineffective or just plain stupid.

Let's not fall for the "promise" of big data. Let's focus on the present and on getting our freedoms back, starting with finally making our data our property. Occupy Data, anyone?

Categories: Book Reviews, Data and Goliath, Text

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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