September 15, 2014

Misconceptions about privacy and surveillance

Everybody is confused about privacy and surveillance. So I’m renewing my efforts to consciousness-raise within the tech community. For if we don’t figure out and explain the issues clearly enough, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hades our lawmakers will get it right without us.

How bad is the confusion? Well, even Edward Snowden is getting it wrong. A Wired interview with Snowden says:

“If somebody’s really watching me, they’ve got a team of guys whose job is just to hack me,” he says. “I don’t think they’ve geolocated me, but they almost certainly monitor who I’m talking to online. Even if they don’t know what you’re saying, because it’s encrypted, they can still get a lot from who you’re talking to and when you’re talking to them.”

That is surely correct. But the same article also says:

“We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes.” The answer, he says, is robust encryption. “By basically adopting changes like making encryption a universal standard—where all communications are encrypted by default—we can end mass surveillance not just in the United States but around the world.”

That is false, for a myriad of reasons, and indeed is contradicted by the first excerpt I cited.

What privacy/surveillance commentators evidently keep forgetting is:

So closing down a few vectors of privacy attack doesn’t solve the underlying problem at all.

Worst of all, commentators forget that the correct metric for danger is not just harmful information use, but chilling effects on the exercise of ordinary liberties. But in the interest of space, I won’t reiterate that argument in this post.

Perhaps I can refresh your memory why each of those bulleted claims is correct. Major categories of privacy-destroying information (raw or derived) include:

Of course, these categories overlap. For example, information about your movements can be derived not just from your mobile phone, but also from your transactions, from surveillance cameras, and from the health-monitoring devices that are likely to become much more pervasive in the future.

So who has reason to invade your privacy? Unfortunately, the answer boils down to “just about everybody”. In particular:

And that’s even without mentioning the most obvious suspects — law enforcement and national security of many kinds, who can be presumed to in at least certain cases be able to get any information that’s available to any other organization.

Finally, my sense is:

Related links

Comments

2 Responses to “Misconceptions about privacy and surveillance”

  1. Data as an asset | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 21st, 2014 11:49 pm

    […] always keep in mind the risks to privacy in whatever you do. Categories: Data mart outsourcing, eBay, Health care, Investment research […]

  2. Ben Weiss on September 29th, 2014 10:50 am

    Curt,

    I always enjoy your posts on privacy. I think this is truly the big technology issue of our time, and the intersection of big data and privacy is unbelievably critical.

    It’s really important to talk about the chilling effects in the way that you lay out above.

    And it’s also important to think about how we balance the benefits of big data on our personal lives against the intrusions it creates.

    Keep writing this stuff!

    Ben

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