I don’t think too many people were greatly surprised to discover that the U.S. government is spying on its citizens. A lot of us may have been upset with the revelation and remembered Big Brother of Orwell’s 1984 and other literary predictions of such a world. I always have considered it likely that our electronics were monitored. Like in 1984, it’s not too far-fetched to realize that televisions easily (from an electronics standpoint) could be converted into two-way broadcasting devices and many may already have been. That way, Big Brother could, and may be already, looking directly into our homes.
I guess the thing that surprised me most about what happened when it was disclosed the government monitors our e-mail, our phone calls and who knows what else, was the lack of outrage. Expecting it was happening and learning that in fact it is, did not spur the kind of public backlash I would have anticipated and hoped for. If the majority is willing to surrender all privacy to the government, then the country probably is already too far gone to be brought back to democratic sanity.
However, I was encouraged this week to see that at least some people are thinking about ways to confront this vast violation of our privacy. Cryptographer and security evangelist Bruce Schneier in a talk about Internet hardening at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) plenary session last week suggested there are ways of “hardening” the Internet that would make snooping increasingly cost-prohibitive. (Though I would wonder what is cost-prohibitive to a government that already has spent $17 trillion of our descendants money, growing by quite a few billion every day.)
According to Dark Reading, Schneier said: “There are a lot of technical things we can do. The goal is to make eavesdropping expensive,” Schneier said. “That’s the way to think about this, is to force the NSA to abandon wholesale collection in favor of targeted collection of information.” As things stand now, the NSA’s surveillance efforts are aided and abetted by the information economy as it stands today, he explained. With data being collected about consumers at every step of their movement online and very little of it being purged from corporate systems, it is only a matter of time that someone puts that data to use.
“This is not a question of malice in anybody’s heart (I question that statement), this is the way computers work. So what you’re ending up with is basically a public-private surveillance partnership,” he says. “NSA surveillance largely piggybacks on corporate capabilities-through cooperation, through bribery, through threats and through compulsion (now our government bribes, threatens and compels us?) “Fundamentally, surveillance is the business model of the Internet. The NSA didn’t wake up and say let’s just spy on everybody. They looked up and said, ‘Wow, corporations are spying on everybody. Let’s get ourselves a cut.’
I disagree with Schneier that the motives for Big Brother are so benign, but he does make an excellent point that private enterprise and private citizens have made it easier for the government to know everything we do, say or think. We have aided and abetted our own cradle-to-grave surveillance. Schneier goes on to make some excellent suggestions for hardening the Internet to make it more difficult for NSA to snoop, or at least much more expensive (again, that question of is anything too expensive for the government?).
Short of throwing the Internet, telephones, cell phones and land-lines out of your home, I’m not sure there is any way to get away from Big Brother. Caves are not very comfortable places to live and I’m sure the NSA knows where they all are located anyway. Welcome to the Brave New World, it isn’t likely to be much fun and it certainly won’t be private. Be careful what you say or think, Big Brother is watching. The Dark Reading story about Schneier’s talk can be found here.
(Yeah, I know I’m just inviting Big Brother to come down on me, but I’ve lived a long, full, productive life, most of it in a free country that I even fought for in my younger years. If my occasional contributions to this site suddenly disappear without explanation, you’ll know what happened.)