Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World (Review)

  • Elizabeth Kelley
  • The Federal Lawyer
  • January/February 2016

Data and Goliath—the very title invites you to read and have fun. But make no mistake—this is not a whimsical book. Rather,

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier, is sobering and frightening. When Schneier, whom Wired magazine called “one of the world’s foremost security experts,” writes, “[w]e are living in the golden age of surveillance,” he does not mean it approvingly.

Schneier points out that this golden age of surveillance did not happen by accident. Indeed, we Americans have chosen convenience and safety over privacy. For the convenience of cell phones, the Internet, the Cloud, and other technologies, we have given corporations the right to know virtually everything about us at every moment of every day. And, for safety from all things dangerous, such as child abductors, drug dealers, and certainly terrorists, we have relinquished our privacy, along with our civil liberties.

A fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a program fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Schneier has written several books on security and cryptography. Given that background, you might expect Data and Goliath to be rather technical and dense. Again, the book surprises you. Sophisticated technology is explained in ordinary terms. For example:

Last year, when my refrigerator broke, the serviceman replaced the computer that controls it. I realized that I had been thinking about the refrigerator backwards: it’s not a refrigerator with a computer, it’s a computer that keeps food cold. Just like that, everything is turning int a computer. Your phone is a computer that makes calls. Your car is a computer with wheels and an engine. Your oven is a computer that bakes lasagnas. Your camera is a computer that takes pictures. Even our pets and livestock are now regularly chipped; my cat is practically a computer that sleeps in the sun all day.

One of the organizing themes of Data and Goliath is that there are two major engines for data collection, government and corporations, and their relationship is symbiotic. Data collection is nothing new. Schneier quotes Cardinal Richelieu, who said, “Show me six lines written by the most honest man in the world, and I will find enough therein to hang him.” Mass surveillance can be traced to Jeremy Bentham, who designed a prison called a “panopticon” that allowed a single watchman to continuously watch its inmates. The Founding Fathers sought to protect us with the Fourth Amendment, which Schneier points out contains the all-important but often-overlooked concept of the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Over the years, with the rise of threats to our national security and with advances in technology, we began to relinquish more and more of our autonomy to the government. September 11, 2001 marked a turning point. But, as Schneier shows, the need for targeted surveillance does not justify mass surveillance.

The mountains of data that have been collected may or may not have made us safer. Schneier quotes Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, who described mass surveillance as “scooping up the entire ocean to guarantee you catch a fish.” The media’s focus on the spectacular frightens us and lulls us into sacrificing whatever we are led to believe is necessary in order to remain safe. In the meantime, Schneier is mindful that, relative to other countries, such as China and Russia, we Americans enjoy tremendous freedoms.

Schneier warns that “we’re growing accustomed to the panopticon,” and he devotes approximately 70 pages to “overcom[ing] our fears, learn[ing] how to value our privacy, and put[ting] rules in place to reap the benefits of big data while securing ourselves from some of the risks.” He believes “that in half a century people will look at the data practices of today the same way we now view archaic business practices like tenant farming, child labor, and company stores.”

On the book jacket, the author Malcolm Gladwell writes: “The public conversation about surveillance in the digital age would be a good deal more intelligent if we all read Bruce Schneier first.” Gladwell is the author of the bestselling David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, whose title inspired Schneier’s. In the battle between David and Goliath, David won. Our challenge is not to let Data win. As Schneier concludes, “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. … [O]ur grandchildren will look back at us during these early decades of the information age and judge us on how we addressed the challenge of data collection and misuse.” •

Categories: Data and Goliath, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.