How Big Brother Snuck Up On Us

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Show Recap

The episode in brief:

  • Bruce Schneier talks about privacy and security
  • His new book Data and Goliath
  • The hidden battles to collect your data and control your world
  • The nonsense of data vs. metadata
  • Why privacy is not a changeable social norm
  • The harm ubiquitous mass surveillance does to our society

Astute regular listeners may have observed that Dr. J is becoming more and more intrigued with the related issues of privacy and security. These apply to online and mobile phone technology. Both are thoroughly involved in communicating with your social networks. Today’s guest taught us a ton about these issues. Bruce Schneier is author of Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. He is a computer security guru, a cryptologist who has the unusual talent of being able to explain it all so “the rest of us” can understand. And he writes that way, too, having published at 13 books on various aspects of security and privacy. He is Chief Technology Officer of Resilient Systems, which out of three goals to prevent, detect, and respond to security breaches, focuses on perfecting the response to incidents and helps companies thrive in the face of today’s cyber threats. It was named by the Boston Business Journal as one of Boston’s 2015 Best Places to Work. He is a fellow of Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a board member of Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends your rights in the digital world.

Mr. Schneier explained the sometimes fuzzy distinction between privacy and security. As in his book Data and Goliath, he cited examples of how those who want us to accept the “privacy is dead, get over it” viewpoint do not live accordingly themselves. Their privacy is important to them, and they guard it. Privacy is not simply a changeable social norm. It is a basic human need. None of us will reveal the same facts about ourself to everyone we know. The desire for privacy does not mean that we are guilty of anything. Much information is simply no one else’s business.

We live in a time of ubiquitous mass surveillance. Corporations and governments are constantly gathering and storing all the information generated by everyone’s devices. Contributing factors include (1) computers inevitably produce data as they operate, (2) almost all modern equipment of any kind is essentially a computer, (3) storage capacity has mushroomed and gotten much cheaper, so (4) it is now easier to save all data than it is to decide what is important to save. The result is the age of Big Data—huge amounts of data that can be analyzed automatically by means of algorithms (sets of instructions for computers to analyze what other computers generate).

Many who make money by selling your data to data brokers, who in turn sell it to the highest bidder, like to minimize objections by saying that “all they save and analyze” is metadata (literally data about data). If the content (data) of a conversation, for example, is not saved, but the time, place, and parties to a conversation (metadata) is saved and studied, enough can be learned about the caller, emailer, messager, or Tweep, to draw conclusions that lead to actions, such as launching a drone attack to kill the person surveilled, with the aid of location information provided by their cell phone activity. You may not be a member of group considered an enemy of the state. However, the social groups you do belong to are known and surveilled.

Mr. Schneier explained why a surveilled population is not free. What if one of your social groups were misunderstood, or were criticized unjustly? Surveillance promotes conformity, which in turn stifles free exchange of novel ideas (creativity), which in turn stifles the generation of solutions to the many problems facing society today.

“Big Brother” was able to sneak up on us because we were not informed, not paying attention, or both. Informing ourselves of the actual state of affairs in our networked, connected world, is the least we can do. Those who profit by it hope we will continue in ignorance, or feel powerless and that there is nothing we can do. Get Data and Goliath: The hidden battles to collect your data and control your world, read it, and follow Bruce Schneier’s recommendations for opposing the continuation of mass surveillance.

Categories: Audio, Recorded Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.