It’s worth to watch the interview with Edward Snowden to understand his intentions and the irony that he needs questionable governments to protect him against “democracies” who are all allies of the government that persecutes him. Spin doctors manage well to move the debate towards Snowden himself (“Is he a traitor?”) instead of discussing the scope of the surveillance programs of the USA and the United Kingdom.

Technology and Society. Where we failed.

It’s too complicated to use encrypted communication when Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook are so convenient (and insecure and centralized) to use. The tech avantgarde failed to push for default encryption integration into standard mail clients via GPG/PGP. Do you know of non-geeks who use Tor or CryptoCat? I don’t. Pushing for free services and decentralized services is hard because there is no big marketing department behind them, and we all know that the most advanced technology often does not win for many reasons.

Users do not like making decisions when a question pops up in their web browsers. You want to get rid of that dialog instead. So most browsers have weak default settings in order to not confront us with confusing questions (some browsers recently push for enabling browser settings like “Do not track” or disabling third-party cookies by default soon, at least).
Hence cookies and third-party cookies are enabled for all pages, and though we log out (if there is still a “Logout” button, mobile versions seem to drop this unnecessary widget) of Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Foursquare, etc (services that are for free), all those embedded “Share!” buttons on other websites still tell the companies track which pages we visit, until we set up ad blockers and configure them properly. And HTTP referers expose which other website we visited before. And Flash cookies are a completely separate issue not covered by our browser’s cookie settings. We could do a few things, but it requires efforts and I don’t want to understand the interwebs if I just want to do my email!!!! Even if we care, the information exposed by our browser (size of screen, operating system, prefered languages, installed browser plugins, timezone, installed fonts) might still make us completely unique and recognizable.
So we use the same internet search engine every day as it’s convenient and provides the best results, soon even to be personalized instead of objective! We signed up for services without reading their terms of services. We happily automatically tag our images with GPS coordinates and upload them to central places (Facebook, Google Picasa, Yahoo Flickr) because it’s so convenient to share them with friends and to automatically show where the photo was taken. Social networks might hand out our user data to the police if we take drugs on photos, but who would ever take drugs (automatic face recognition for the win), or be on a photo of a protest demonstration against a government.
Applications on our phones access our address books and take all the contact data of all of our friends without letting us know, as we conveniently sync all our contact data between our devices. Thanks to central application stores, our phone provider knows exactly which applications we have installed and are interested in. Thanks to online music stores, companies like Amazon or Apple know exactly which music we like and can recommend other artists to us – convenient as we don’t need to find them ourselves anymore. Getting kicked out of our social network, or having our Amazon account disabled, losing all the books that we thought we had “bought” for our reading device without any compensation is so much easier with centralized services.
We all have microphones in our phones that can be activated by software, our phones log into a cell site which covers only a small area in bigger city, so it is pretty clear where exactly we are located, always. Who we communicate the most with is clear anyway.
We use digital non-anonymous discount cards to save a few lousy pennies in the supermarket so companies know what we buy, but it’s convenient to only get offers we are interested in! And companies selling ratings of our credit worthiness do not need to guess our income anymore by the area we live in – we tell them our buying power and habits for free.
We have public and private CCTV cameras in our cities, on pavements, on streets, in public transportation which make us feel safe (though they do not prevent any crime, just like the threat of death penalty). The police has a map of all (legal) cameras to quickly access them to solve crime, to make our world a safer place, though this did not help with the burglary at my neighbor’s as nothing was taped – looks like the thief just did not take the main entrance to our house, probably we just need more cameras in more spots. But never film the police – never jeopardize their safety, they are here to protect us!
Our passports, our plastic cards to enter the office building or to pay food or borrow books at university have personalized RFID chips, often strong enough to be read even from a few meters distance without letting us know that we have just identified ourselves. Combining all these separate cards in one is more convenient and as a side effect my university knows that as an aircraft construction student I do not eat any meat and read religious books. And that hidden RFID reader in the door frame can detect if we really attended that mandatory lecture at university or if we are just lazy students who should get exmatriculated.
The anonymous (and transferable) yearly paper ticket for local public transportation costs more than the personalized chipcard one, and booking a ticket on the internet with our personalized account and our credit card data is more convenient than going to a selling point and paying in cash. Why hide the fact that we travel very often from A to B (if it’s work, friends, partner, or lover might be guessed from the time of the day and if you return on the same day), if we could miss special offers for travelling from A to B?. Our computers have integrated webcams that can also be activated by software.

I could probably continue for hours.

No matter which government is elected next, it is going to do the same, because we do not care. (This implies that governments actually know what their secret services are doing and that secret services they would never do things in their own interest.)

Today’s technology has made life convenient. It’s easy to accept answers like “This is just a temporary measurement” and “This just happens for your own safety” and to not question why the shop attendant asks us for our postal code or nationality.
Elders, stop sending paper letters in envelopes, send postcards instead! Because we have nothing to hide in our times.

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6 Responses to Surveillance.

  1. MrEricSir says:

    A lot of these proposed technical solutions like using SSL and PGP don’t really solve the problem of the so-called “metadata” collection. The internet was never designed to hide who’s talking to who, which is a glaring oversight in retrospect.

  2. Steve says:

    The sad thing is that everyone is doing it.

    What is unexpected, is that the US and UK are both hypocritical in their defense of “free speech” and “democracy”, and yet they have a tight grip on the goings on of their “subjects”.

    As a UK citizen, I think the biggest problem was that citizens assumed that they can achieve privacy by default. That’s what people really want and expect, but with Facebook and Skype, they accepted a tradeoff for usability. I feel that perhaps now that the trust has been broken, things may change, but it’s not so much of an important subject that people will remember unfortunately.

  3. Benjamin Otte says:

    We’re all doing the same thing. We give away our privacy without caring about it much but then complain when others make use of it. I believe that is a grave misunderstanding of what things should be private and what things shouldn’t. And that goes for us personally (the ones talking about DoNotTrack on Facebook) as well as governments (who give random contractors like Snowden access to PRISM).

    Also, I do believe the world to be a far better place if privacy defaults to off everywhere.

  4. shobha says:

    Indeed it is a very serious matter, what we do or not, our likes or dislikes?
    which our close friends and relatives used to know earlier is on web any time.
    there is no privacy any more, we are jailed on internet.
    and the funniest thing is that we are enjoying imprisonment.

  5. Stuart says:

    Perhaps we should all make the effort to use GPG/PGP for all our messages, because there is nowhere for the truly vulnerable to hide – the NSA have stated that using encryption is grounds for retention and scrutiny. They seem to believe that any encrypted mail is apriori evidence of guilt. Without a cloud of uninteresting messages (and citizens) to hide amongst, people who have genuine need of privacy will have none.

  6. aklapper says:

    Note to myself: When it comes to browser add-ons helping with privacy, seems to list very useful recommendations.

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