Category Archives: Privacy

Life and Fiction

The Outer Circle, the last part of The Counterpoint Trilogy, is set in 2024. Some of the events described there seem to be taking place much sooner. In the book a populist third party politician is rising by blaming other countries – we have Donald Trump (at the moment he is running as a Republican but he already indicated he’ll consider an independent run). In the book, a mainstream political candidate thinks he is above the law – we have Hillary “what e-mails?” Clinton. In the book, China is experiencing internal problems and a conflict is brewing in the South China Sea – we see problems in China and increasing China vs. US tensions in the South China Sea. In the book, corporate and government surveillance is pervasive – we have the latest most popular computer operating system monitoring everything you do and the issue of government surveillance was a hot button in the Republican debate. In the book, blockchain technology powers thriving underground economy – we see hundreds of millions flowing into blockchain-related startups. In the book, continental Eurasia coalesced into an economic superpower driven by the China–Russia rapprochement and non-Western financial structures – we have beginnings of the new “Silk Road” and the Asian development bank.

I am not claiming any particular insights. The trends are in the open if we want to look beyond the immediate surface. When only 20% of people trust our government to do the right thing, populists will rise. When a privileged political class emerges and special interests rule – as more and more people notice – politicians start considering themselves above the law. When government and corporate leaders think that only criminals desire privacy, they don’t worry about taking yours away – and people react by trying to protect what’s left of their privacy. When we act in an imperial fashion, other countries will form blocks to oppose us.

The spectacle of Donald Trump is all over the media. Could you have imagined him being a front-runner ten years ago? He is likely a precursor of a coming storm. Study after study shows that if there is one thing that Americans hate, it’s unfairness. When millions suffered through the Great Recession but those that caused it walked away with hundreds of millions, it’s not fair. When the inequality keeps rising and the middle class steadily erodes, that’s not fair. Vast majority of the Americans now believe that we are on a wrong track. Our ruling elite seems to be missing the point that popular discontent is building. Like many others before them, they must think that the populace will be sated with bread and circuses (and we do have the endless entertainment “circuses” galore). Like those others, they will be wrong. Major dislocations rarely go smoothly and dangerous people often come to power during times of discontent.

Surveillance vs. The Right to Privacy

Some of you may have seen The Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181689/. In the year 2054, criminals are apprehended before they have a chance to commit a crime and people’s movements are continually tracked in order to advertise to them and keep them under surveillance. While pre-crime does not look feasible anytime soon, potential for the constant surveillance – and accompanying loss of privacy – has almost arrived. Not only that, privacy is no longer viewed by some as an important right. To quote then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Rather astounding lack of comprehension that desire for privacy is not the same as desire to break the law and that privacy is an essential component of liberty.

As described in The Outer Circle, surveillance has both business (“to sell you things”) and security (“to make sure you don’t do bad things”) components. But these components are not entirely separate as businesses routinely share the information they collect with the government:

“Thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence…” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-06-14/u-s-agencies-said-to-swap-data-with-thousands-of-firms

Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company’s own encryption…” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/11/microsoft-nsa-collaboration-user-data

And many more.

Anything you do with Google-provided services (search, e-mail, maps, etc.) will be combined into targeted advertising. This is not to single out Google – all companies are trying to collect as much information about you as they can. Google just happens to be, by and large, better at it.

The government snoops on phone, email and text records of virtually every US citizen – with the forced cooperation of US telecommunications companies. PBS program United States of Secrets http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/united-states-of-secrets/ describes how the government spies on its citizens and how technology companies feed into the dragnet. According to some of the NSA technologists interviewed by PBS, it was possible to protect the privacy of the citizens by anonymizing the data – however, the NSA chose not to do this.

In The Great Game, the heroes were tracked down by their cell phone. A few years ago that was a fairly novel suggestion, a province of conspiracy theorists. Now, it’s an established fact. If a cell phone is turned on, it constantly registers its location with cell phone networks. All cell phone carriers implemented location-based services (LBS) that rely on this capability. Anybody who gains computer access to cell phone networks infrastructure technically can track active phones in real time. It is widely known that the government (FBI, police departments) track cell phones, possibly without a warrant: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/08/warrantless-gps-phone-tracking. Some people assert that a phone can be tracked even when it’s turned off, e.g., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-bodine/big-brother-is-definitely_b_1799521.html, http://news.softpedia.com/news/The-NSA-Can-Track-Cell-Phones-Even-when-Turned-Off-370225.shtml. Only removing the battery and/or placing the phone into an environment where electromagnetic waves can’t penetrate would assure that your phone can’t be followed.

In 2007, there were estimated 30 million surveillance cameras in the US. The number is certainly much higher now. The size of the smart surveillance and video analytics global market is estimated at $13.5 billion in 2012; it’s expected to reach $39 billion by 2020 (source: http://fortune.com/2013/04/26/the-great-surveillance-boom/). But now, we are coming to the Age of the “Internet of Things,” where internet-connected devices will monitor every aspect of the environment. By 2024, the setting of The Outer Circle, there will be billions of internet-devices that people wear or have in their homes. Iris scanners, portrayed in The Minority Report, are being built into inexpensive devices including smartphones. “See-through-clothing” terahertz imaging, which is already familiar from airport security checkpoints, is coming to police scanners near you.

These things will make our lives more convenient and possibly safer. They will also destroy whatever little remains of our privacy as the data they collect will add to the giant pool of information that will be collected and analyzed in order to sell you things, to protect you and – if needed – to bring you to justice. But what would be so bad about increased convenience and protection? Well, if you are an average American you commit three felonies per day [source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704471504574438900830760842]. Unwittingly, of course. Life is complex, technologies changing fast, the laws don’t always keep up. There is no place to hide – under constant surveillance, everyone is a criminal.

This does not mean that the government is an evil, ill-intentioned force, ready to strike at you. That’s not the point. Every government always asked its citizens to trust it without question because it has the country’s goodwill at heart. But even best intentions do not guarantee good results. If there is one maxim that held through the ages, it’s that power corrupts. And giving someone ability to completely track our lives is to hand them an enormous power. Privacy is precious because it’s integral to liberty. Is free speech even possible in the absence of privacy? We would be well advised to remember what Benjamin Franklin said 260 years ago: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” And would likely lose both.