In Hacking the Future, I outlined some responses to people who invoke their innocence in an argument against privacy.
Here are three that certainly apply this week.
1. The Misinterpretation Problem
Let’s say you download Tor. The next day you buy some fertilizer. The day after that, you post a rant about the Federal Reserve inflating the money supply. Separately, these things don’t mean much, but when pieced together, a bit of liberal inference can paint an alarming picture. These are the sorts of things that a surveilling agency could be looking for if given the ability to glean information from your Facebook status updates, among other channels. Even if we assume that authority figures mean well, mistakes are made. Death row inmates are proven innocent decades into their sentences. Information is misinterpreted. The more data the government has at its disposal, the more likely they are to arrive at terrible conclusions.
When I spoke with him on the phone, Philip Zimmermann, the creator of PGP, seemed to look back at the times when he was only speaking out against government privacy intrusions as if they were the good old days. Now we have “Little Brother” in addition to Big Brother. He argues that 9/11 created a massive policy drive, a sort of “Manhattan Project” for surveillance technology, bringing my attention to powerful cameras that can zoom in on someone’s face in a crowd from the top of a building hundreds of yards away. Facebook could provide the government with a global database of faces that can be linked to security camera footage.
Having such detailed information at our fingertips sounds like it would enable us to better discern truth from fantasy, but human error is all around us, and more data can often just mean more room for mistakes—mistakes that can ruin lives.
2. The Data Theft Problem
The number of data security breaches in the private sector has increased by 58 percent year-on-year according to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. When Microsoft talks about developing a driver’s license for the Internet, I think of South Korea, which had a similar system in place until recently, after the most damaging online security breach the country has ever seen. The real-name registration system was introduced in 2007 and required users to authenticate their posts on certain popular Web sites with their birth name and address. Hackers compromised 35 million user accounts in July 2011.
And you don’t have to be a superhacker to gather enough info to make someone’s life miserable. Just ask the innumerable women who are stalked and harassed by ex- and would-be lovers in real life through information the stalkers have gleaned from the Web.
3. The Tyranny Creep Problem
Some privacy advocates are optimistic about our future, given that citizens now have increased powers of surveillance through mobile phones, for instance, and increasingly robust communication channels, like Twitter. This vision of the future was laid down by science fiction author David Brin. In his 1998 book The Transparent Society, he suggests that within high-tech societies with less privacy, authority figures lose the powers of secrecy they use to abuse citizens. In this view, groups like WikiLeaks and Anonymous will rise up to combat tyranny.
The idea is enticing, and it certainly seems like we are living in an era of great power redistribution and decentralization. But as we’ve witnessed during Occupy Wall Street and its related protests, citizens may have cameras, but the cops still have the billy clubs. The ability to countersurveil will only go so far as the rest of the fabric of democracy allows it. It’s only part of the tapestry of freedoms. I submit that we must ensure that citizen surveillance is shored up by the freedom to expose authority figures with anonymity.
Every oppressive regime, all the way back to the Holy Roman Empire’s census, has used data harvesting as a tool to accumulate greater control. You can’t control a populace you can’t see. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did its need to keep tabs on the far-flung peoples they had conquered. We see this continuing in the modern world, in East Berlin, Russia, and China. Information gathering is always the first step. Not all state-sponsored data analysis is malicious, of course. But it is problematic when a populace doesn’t know how its data is being used. According to a recent study by Stanford University’s Computer Security Laboratory, consumers are far less anonymous while browsing than they realize. The study found that registering an account with NBC shared a user’s e-mail with seven other companies, and Home Depot shared user data with thirteen other companies.
If you’ve read this far, I hope I’ve convinced you that privacy is not the same thing as secrecy. Just because you don’t want to leave your front door wide open while you sleep does not mean you have something to hide. Anonymity and freedom of speech are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. The latter is meaningless without the safeguard of the former. Free speech isn’t very free when it can get you thrown in prison or worse.