Monday, January 6, 2014

The end of privacy?

In his televised address Edward Snowden said: ‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. It will never know what it means to have a private moment to itself, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought

Now Snowden is a controversial figure. Some consider him to be a patriot, others a traitor. However what he said is true.
Thanks to the global expansion of computers, internet and mobile phones we are all generating a torrent of communications data that are easy for a third party to intercept and exploit.

It wasn’t always like this. In the good old days (prior to the late 1990’s) homes usually had one landline and that was it. There were no mobile phones available or if they were only a handful of people used them.
Same thing with computers. Some had them at home but the word internet had no meaning.

Government agencies could still spy on people but that was expensive in terms of manpower and resources. Technicians would need to physically ‘tap’ the landline and a person would have to monitor the conversations.

With computers the problem was similar. Since there was no internet someone had to actually go to the computer and copy the data. Very inefficient and time consuming!

These simple facts limited the extent of government spying. Scarce resources had to be assigned to important targets, which meant people known to be working for foreign intelligence agencies or terrorist groups.
All this changed in the 1990’s since we had two important events taking place.

On the one hand the Cold war ended when the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies collapsed. Overnight Western intelligence agencies lost their no1 target and the justification for all their power and resources.

In the field of technology computers, mobile phones and the internet became available to a growing part of the population of developed countries. These systems made life easier for everyone but they were insecure and easy to intercept and exploit in mass.

Moving on to the 2000’s we see that thanks to globalization more and more people around the world were able to use mobile phones and the internet. Obviously large organizations like the NSA have taken advantage of the global use of these products by intercepting most of this traffic, analyzing it and decoding it.

The advantage is that this can be done automatically by the push of a button. Records of a person’s telephone calls, financial transactions, tax statements, health records etc etc can be found online. In theory they are encrypted with systems that guarantee security. In practice the NSA (and similar organizations) can take advantage of poor implementation and/or various ‘backdoors’.
The result is that we no longer have any privacy left. Yet is the NSA the only problem? Let’s say that the US government decides to go back to the days when ‘Gentlemen do not read each other's mail’.

What would change in the world? Probably nothing.
First of all the NSA and its ally GCHQ are not the only players in town. The Russians, Chinese and Israelis have first rate signal intelligence organizations. Other countries also have similar organizations and they would continue their operations as before.

If they consider you a target is there something they can’t find out about you? We all have mobile phones. From these they can learn not only who you talk to but also track your daily movements. If they compromise your bank account data and your tax reports they will learn how much money you have. From medical records they can find out if you’re healthy or not. From your computer they can get your email messages and your internet viewing habits etc  etc
So with the click of a button they can find out everything about you.

They don’t even have to try hard since you all upload your files and pictures online. Just from Facebook they can get your personal details and your social circle.
How can you protect yourself? There are technological solutions like TOR and Bitcoin but they have their limitations and if the NSA wants to it can compromise them in various ways.

Maybe you decide to throw away your cellphone and your computer and never use them again. Good luck with that. I’m sure your employer will give you his blessing.
Could there be a solution at the state level? An international agreement to respect people’s privacy rights? This is a nice idea but it’s too tempting for one country to break the rules and continue spying/cyberwarfare activities.

So things will probably continue to get worse in the privacy front.
In the end perhaps the solution would be to embrace the global panopticon in exchange for the benefits of total surveillance.

What would those be? In theory if government agencies can track everyone’s movements and communications they can probably solve most crimes.
I know it’s an extreme idea but at least we’ll get some benefits from government spying.


  1. Hi Christos.

    To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin - "People willing to trade their freedom for a little security deserve neither and will lose both."

    Anyone betting which will be the first regime to 'chip' all its new-borns at birth? And when?

    1. That’s a good point but I don’t think intelligence agencies would see it that way. As for implanting chips, why go through all the trouble when today people are glued to their mobile phones? The outcome is the same.

  2. bin Laden & his senior henchmen were smart enough to not to use them.

    1. Not quite. Bin Laden used a satellite phone.

    2. Rather, it was one of his couriers phone which was traced to the ObL compound.

      ObL knew they were traceable/trackable, so did not have one.

      "...Bin Laden's voice was never heard on cell phone conversations intercepted by the NSA during surveillance prior to Sunday's raid, the official said."

    3. Well yes and no. From Bamford’s ‘Shadow factory’:

      ‘While the rugged Afghan landscape provided bin Laden with security, it was too isolated and remote to manage the day-to-day logistics for his growing worldwide terrorist organization. His sole tool of communication was a gray, battery-powered $7,500 Compact-M satellite phone. About the size of a laptop computer, it could transmit and receive both voice phone calls and fax messages from virtually anywhere in the world over the Inmarsat satellite network. His phone number was 00-873-682505331; the 00 meant it was a satellite call, 873 indicated the phone was in the Indian Ocean area, and 682505331 was his personal number………………………Between 1996 and 1998, bin Laden and his top aides made a total of 221 calls to the ops center’s phone number, 011-967-1-200-578, using the house to coordinate the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa and to plan the attack of the USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000.’

      However during the US invasion of Afghanistan his aide took the phone with him in order to lure US Special forces away from bin Laden.

  3. Oh the irony of intelligence agencies complaining because their private snooping has been publicised by Snowden.

  4. Thanks for that additional info, Christos.