Guest blog: Surveillance and a snoop-free future
New Internationalist's IT manager Charlie Harvey reflects on a year of surveillance revelations and creating a snoop-free future.
It's over a year since we learned that what many in the security and activist communities had suspected all along was true. It was not just a fantasy based on paranoia, too much coffee and too many Hollywood adventure movies. The NSA and GCHQ were routinely storing all the details of who we phoned, when we called them and from where. Whether or not we were suspected of any crime was immaterial, we would be monitored nonetheless.
Over the following months a stream of revelations about the borderline legal (and often arguably illegal) programmes that the spooks had been running emerged. Data from social networks were mined, undersea cables were tapped, information about us was being collected on an epic scale.
This was mostly not useful information about criminals or terrorists or enemy states. But it was cheap to collect and store and maybe something would be found in the “big data” that was being generated. There's no good evidence that this is the case, but advocates of pervasive monitoring seldom feel the need to justify it.
At this point in the discussion somebody usually objects that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear. Funnily enough those people often seem reticent to publicly disclose their PIN number or how much they earned that year, or to live a life without curtains in the bathroom. We all need a bit of privacy sometimes.
Trust a thief to keep you safe?
The problem here is even worse, because data about those who ostensibly have nothing to hide is being collected routinely regardless. If Snowden was able to leak operational details of data collection programmes, it is safe to assume that others will leak that data. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.
The prospect of having one's data leaked would be alarming enough – I'm not sure I want the Russian or the Iranian secret service knowing who I am friends with on Facebook – but the worry doesn't stop with unscrupulous spooks. The NSA can share data about activists taking action on human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine with the Israeli state. Or data about terror 'suspects' with the Pakistani security services (at least when that data is not being used for drone-powered extra-judicial executions).
Even if we were to accept that GCHQ and NSA were entirely responsible stewards of our information today – not sharing it with others, using it for dodgy purposes or losing control of it by accident – we can't be confident about tomorrow.
One explanation that has been advanced for the Netherlands having a larger percentage of its Jewish population killed than anywhere else in Nazi-occupied Europe outside Germany itself, is because of the excellent Dutch state record keeping systems. Once records exist, they can be used. The geopolitical landscape changes fast and things you disclose today in a 'safe' environment (friendship networks, political opinions and more) may blow up in your face under a future authoritarian state.
Share and share alike
Of course you should be careful about what data you disclose to social networks and which social networks you trust with that data. Rather than sharing your data directly with spooks, Facebook, for example, encourages its billion plus users to work for free to build a resource that is tolerably functional for people with accounts, but heavily optimised for delivering targeted adverts.
It is in the business of selling advertising space and the more it can learn about us the more effective it will be at delivering ads that we can't ignore. The cost of services like Facebook being free is unfettered access to our data, our friendship networks, our location, our purchasing history, in short the history of our lives.
It isn't clear how closely Facebook, Google, Twitter and the rest have been co-operating with the NSA. What is clear is that if the data was not there in the first place there would be no danger of it getting into the wrong hands – irritating advertisers or authoritarian governments.
So, can this ubiquitous surveillance be opposed or avoided? The current issue of Ethical Consumer helps to answer that question. I'd like to add a few thoughts of my own for those of you who would rather that the I (or GCHQ or the NSA) not know your PIN number, or who your friends are, or what you really think of your boss.
We can be fairly certain that free speech tools like Tor and encryption tools like GPG still work. The more people that use those tools, the better will be the cover for political dissidents and others whose lives depend on their communications remaining secure.
A group of us from the HacktionLab gatherings began work on Tech Tools for Activism before the Snowden revelations. You can get pointers towards the privacy tools there. Or ask a techie friend.
Free and open source software are critical if you want security. You can't know if your software is working against you, unless you can find out how it works and exactly what it does.
We also need political resistance to the idea of ubiquitous surveillance. Along with direct action like strong encryption, using privacy aware services we can also campaign on a political and legal level. Organisations working on privacy issues include the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Open Rights Group.
In the future we can expect governments and corporations to introduce more and more pervasive monitoring technologies to our everyday lives. As surveillance technology gets cheaper, we can expect calls for persistent monitoring to get louder. We may be the last generation not to record our entire lives in high definition video, at least in rich countries. Taking practical steps now to protect our online privacy as well as applying political pressure is the best way to avoid a dystopian future.
Charlie Harvey is New Internationalist's IT manager
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