First, I want to remind you that this blog contains my own thoughts and ideas and that those do not necessarily represent those of the IBM corporation. Second, I want to state that I do not intend this to be a political entry, though it will probably generate some emotion for you depending on your own perspective. Please don't respond with statements bashing political parties or politicians. Go do that in the ballot box.
This is the interview with Edward Snowden, the NSA Whistleblower at the NSA. By now you have certainly heard that the National Security Agency (what was once referred to in some circles as No Such Agency) has allegedly engaged in wide-scale surveillance of all kinds of digital interaction—essentially anything that has gone through a telephone network. This would include email, Internet searches, phone calls and other services. Allegedly, it was and is a routine activity.
Here is a portion of that interview:
I can appreciate several of the statements that he made. I have worked in a variety of support capacities in my career and I did have access to information that might have alarmed people if they'd thought about it. However, I always had a mindset that prevented me from digging into that information and doing anything negative with it. I simply had no desire to do it. I did have occasions where I had to use my authority to help detect and prevent violations. In those situations I did enjoy using my mind to come up with solutions to put the pieces together. I never had a sense of vengeance toward the people being investigated.
So, I can relate a little to what Snowden is describing here. Had I seen repeated signs of abuse in a resource that I managed I hope that I would have had his courage to not just keep my head down. Fortunately, I never had to make that choice.
The description here is of an overwhelming power, mostly brought about by how our technology has evolved, layering different tools onto existing transports. This has been a great boon to helping us to make technology available and affordable to people, but it has, apparently, also created one-stop shopping for anyone who wants to keep an eye on things. Even if we make the assumption that all of the analysts who access this information are above reproach, are they immune from hacking? Is it possible for an outside entity to infiltrate this system and use it for more nefarious purposes?
I honestly have no idea what all of this really means to me. It makes me uncomfortable to feel that I'm being watched and that someone could hold keys to my life and that they simply choose not to harm me. I don't like to think of myself as that vulnerable. So, I have to ask: Is there anything that I can do?
I suppose I could try to take myself off the grid... stop using technology. That would probably make me pretty useless to IBM and would be rather career limiting. There are a lot of genuine benefits to that technology as well, things that have measurably improved the quality of life not only for myself but for millions who have more choice, more education and more interaction than was ever possible. I've heard wonderful stories, such as this one, about how mobile phone technology has improved the life of people in parts of Africa. Going backwards probably isn't a reasonable option. I might have the luxury of changing my lifestyle like that, but it would cause great harm to others... and this is bigger than me.
Of importance is the fact that the same technology that has made this alleged surveillance possible has also helped to spread knowledge about it. It's not a secret anymore. Snowden said that he wanted the public to be able to choose what they wanted to do about this. That's where we are now. Personally, I think this is the time to become serious about personal encryption and other techniques for securing your own channels of information and communication. Much of this technology takes advantage that so much takes place in the open. The minor amount of information that is protected can receive the full resource for decryption. Of course, if more traffic was protected it would become more difficult to select which "envelopes" to open.
The open-source world has explored some of these problems for some time. Projects such as Rivendell (an automated radio station that runs on Linux), Martus (an encrypted bulletin system aimed at human rights activists) and others have tried to create tools that would allow people to communicate in incredibly dangerous environments. If you want to make some attempts to lock things down looking at some of the mature privacy sites may help you understand how to improve your situation without having to drastically altar your lifestyle. At the very least you can see some of the most paranoid perspectives and make some choices about what is important to you.
However, becoming closed-in and paranoid will not do anything. Snowden also said that the worst possible outcome was for nothing to happen through his revelations. The Social Technology revolution gives powerful voice to everyone. It is very difficult to do evil things without the cloak of secrecy, because the overwhelming majority of humans are good. We have seen again and again how a united body of good people have resulted in the downfall of violators. We should discuss this and we should discuss it openly. We should help guide people who could do more to protect themselves. We should show that there are more of us than there are of them.
The sword of technology has two edges. If this new has you depressed or afraid then I encourage you to explore what is available to you. There is something we can do, but it only works if we do it together. I can't tell you what needs to be done. We all need to find it as a community, a massive community of caring humans who want a world of opportunity and prosperity for everyone. Of course, any actions that you take will also help protect you from common thieves and other bad guys as well.
Here area few privacy sites that might interest you. Please recommend more if you know some. I'll add to the list from comments.
- Privacy news on Slashdot
- Encrypt Everything
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
- Gnu Privacy Guard
- Security Site at Source Forge