Snooping is a public health issue

This morning’s Observer column.

One of the things that baffles me is why more people are not alarmed by what Edward Snowden has been telling us about the scale and intrusiveness of internet surveillance. My hunch is that this is partly because – strangely – people can’t relate the revelations to things they personally understand.

In the past two weeks, two perceptive commentators have been trying to break through this barrier. One is Cory Doctorow, the science-fiction novelist, who had a terrific essay in the Guardian arguing that instead of increasing our security, government agencies such as the NSA, GCHQ and others are actually undermining it. The essay is worth reading in full, but one part of it stood out for me. It’s about the thriving, underworld online market in malicious software. Nowadays, if some hacker discovers a previously unknown vulnerability in widely used software, that discovery can be very valuable – and people will pay large sums for such “zero-day” exploits. But here’s the creepy bit: sometimes, the purchasers are government agencies that buy these pieces of malware to use as weapons against their enemies.

To most people, this will seem pretty abstruse. But with the imaginative skill of a good writer, Doctorow nails it: “If you discovered,” he writes, “that your government was more interested in weaponising typhus than they were in curing it, you would demand that your government treat your water supply with the gravitas and seriousness that it is due.”

Read on

LATER: Right on cue, another great blog post by Bruce Schneier, putting this stuff in an everyday context:

Imagine that you hired a private detective to eavesdrop on a subject. That detective would plant a bug in that subject’s home, office, and car. He would eavesdrop on his computer. He would listen in on that subject’s conversations, both face to face and remotely, and you would get a report on what was said in those conversations. (This is what President Obama repeatedly reassures us isn’t happening with our phone calls. But am I the only one who finds it suspicious that he always uses very specific words? “The NSA is not listening in on your phone calls.” This leaves open the possibility that the NSA is recording, transcribing, and analyzing your phone calls — and very occasionally reading them. This is far more likely to be true, and something a pedantically minded president could claim he wasn’t lying about.)

Now imagine that you asked that same private detective to put a subject under constant surveillance. You would get a different report, one that included things like where he went, what he did, who he spoke to — and for how long — who he wrote to, what he read, and what he purchased. This is all metadata, data we know the NSA is collecting. So when the president says that it’s only metadata, what you should really hear is that we’re all under constant and ubiquitous surveillance.

What’s missing from much of the discussion about the NSA’s activities is what they’re doing with all of this surveillance data. The newspapers focus on what’s being collected, not on how it’s being analyzed — with the singular exception of the Washington Post story on cell phone location collection. By their nature, cell phones are tracking devices. For a network to connect calls, it needs to know which cell the phone is located in. In an urban area, this narrows a phone’s location to a few blocks. GPS data, transmitted across the network by far too many apps, locates a phone even more precisely. Collecting this data in bulk, which is what the NSA does, effectively puts everyone under physical surveillance.

This is new. Police could always tail a suspect, but now they can tail everyone — suspect or not. And once they’re able to do that, they can perform analyses that weren’t otherwise possible. The Washington Post reported two examples. One, you can look for pairs of phones that move toward each other, turn off for an hour or so, and then turn themselves back on while moving away from each other. In other words, you can look for secret meetings. Two, you can locate specific phones of interest and then look for other phones that move geographically in synch with those phones. In other words, you can look for someone physically tailing someone else. I’m sure there are dozens of other clever analyses you can perform with a database like this. We need more researchers thinking about the possibilities. I can assure you that the world’s intelligence agencies are conducting this research.

Schneier is one of the very best commentators on this stuff. Everything he writes about it is worth reading.

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