In Spies We Trust; Empire of Secrets
In 2007, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined three mobile phone operators for failing to ensure that first responders could locate their customers if those customers were to dial 911 during an emergency. The nationwide initiative to get telecommunications companies to invest in location technologies has been difficult: each company wanted the other parties—including public safety agencies—to invest before it would make its own move. As a result, everyone held off complying with the 2005 FCC mandate.
Even back then, it was odd that the telecommunications sector was so reluctant to embrace location technology. Getting public safety communications right after 9/11 was paramount, and high-tech analysts had been hyping location-based services for years. Marketing gurus extolled the virtues of the “segment of one,” a concept that allowed for individualized selling through the fine parsing of consumer data. The 2002 movie Minority Report offered a stunning, dystopian visualization of this data-drenched future. Shops would be able to customize their commerce at the simple scan of a retina. In the film, personalized greetings and troves of personalized products soon followed. For all of this to be realized, of course, an entire location-cum-personal-data–aware ecosystem needed to be set up—and the mobile phone operators were not ready to invest in their piece without the rest of the puzzle close to being completed.
Although not a perfect facsimile for Minority Report’s smart retina system, today’s devices are within striking distance of it. Mobile apps and websites can find users food, companionship, and the nearest gas station—all based on who is using them, the user’s past behaviors, and the precise location. Today, “Uber” is as much a verb as it is a company—one that can dispatch a car to its users at the tap of a screen and possibly do so faster than calling 911 could summon an ambulance just a few years ago. Thanks to advances in technology, we are locatable almost anywhere, and our personal and professional lives are connected in an ever-growing digital mesh. Houses can be seen from a distance. Organizations can monitor the activities of their employees. Family members can keep track of one another. Smart homes can monitor supplies (and even order household staples at the push of a button), measure the use of utilities, monitor people on the premises, and even have their thermostats set from anywhere in the world. These technologies are not limited to the developed world, either. In disaster zones, such as post-earthquake Nepal, several crisis-response platforms cropped up that create maps based on user inputs.
With all the data being accumulated, whether voluntarily crowdsourced or automatically collected from daily digital activity, virtually every person with access to the Internet or a communications device leaves a trail of information behind. According to IBM, the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and 90 percent of the world’s data has been created during the last two years. Once analyzed, this trove of information can help companies develop products and prices tailored to our needs and past behaviors. Governments can use the data to improve the lives of their citizens, as well, as seen in Singapore and Estonia, the latter of which has created 4,000 digitized services, ranging from libraries to licensing. Alternatively, however, data can be turned against those same citizens to control them, punish their actions, or manipulate their opinions.
As society evolves toward a real-world version of Minority Report, it must consider how data will be used. Fortunately, two timely books—Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier, asecurity technology specialist, and Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age, byTaylor Owen, anassistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia—offer informed and insightful perspectives on these issues. Both consider the future role of incumbent public and private institutions in an age of exponentially growing data—the “exhaust of the information age,” as Schneier describes it. Schneier’s book considers the effects of the technology age on state and large corporate entities, whereas Owen focuses primarily on the state. Schneier is a worrier—some readers may find him a bit paranoid. One can hardly blame him, though: his discomfort stems from his observation that “everything is turning into a computer.” Schneier continues, “Your phone is a computer that makes calls. Your car is a computer with wheels and an engine. Your oven is a computer that cooks lasagna. Your camera is a computer that takes pictures. Even our pets and livestock are now regularly chipped; my cat could be considered a computer that sleeps in the sun all day.”
When viewed through this prism, one might do little else than fret about the ubiquitous computers that accumulate permanent records of our daily existence without our knowledge of the extent of their collection. Schneier says that 76 exabytes (76 million terabytes) of data will travel across the Internet this year—data that states and corporations can use for their own purposes.
Coverage of big data and surveillance can get technical, and most discussions are prone to devolving into repetitive polemics, but Schneier’s book is a tour de force that keeps the reader engaged. Like a travel guide who has logged many miles along familiar territory, Schneier takes his readers on a journey, rarely managing to lose their interest and attention. One can virtually smell the exhaust of the information age—that is, how the trail of data is captured and the impact it has on contemporary society. Schneier makes a strong case for how data collection can lead to the erosion of social justice, and how it puts society at risk of losing core democratic values. Of course, he does not advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater; rather, he argues that society must strike a balance between security, convenience, and privacy. His writing is compelling, and his own data gathering is both meticulous and exhaustive: 121 pages of notes follow the book’s 238 pages of text.
As society evolves toward a real-world version of Minority Report, it must consider how data will be used.Schneier is firm in his conviction that state surveillance has not really protected society. This point needs more debate. It is often argued that when it comes to data collection, making the haystack larger only makes it harder to find the needle. But it is impossible to stop searching for needles, and it is hard to set sensible boundaries on the size of the haystack. Reality is dynamic: those who plant needles realize these boundaries and put them just outside of reach. Schneier’s book is also alarmist about corporations. But consumers make an implicit deal with companies to give up control of their data, and some privacy, in exchange for both convenience and free services. Some of the most innovative startups are accumulating venture capital based off of these very deals. Once the consumer is addicted to convenience of taps, swipes, and the appeal of free software, there is often no going back.
Schneier has his readers nervously (and perhaps needlessly) looking over their shoulders, and his book’s conclusion does little to allay the many anxieties. Most of his recommendations for reining in government overreach tread familiar ground: proportionality, court-ordered targeting, greater transparency, more and better oversight, the elimination of bulk surveillance techniques, and a host of other limits on government powers. Those recommendations that are novel are less than practical: breaking up the National Security Agency, protecting whistleblowers even if they put national security at risk. (Schneier collaborated with the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, helping to analyze documents released by the former government contractor Edward Snowden.)
Schneier has a long list of ideas for reining in corporations as well, including establishing information fiduciaries, tightening regulations, and bolstering consumers’ rights to their own data. He urges individuals to take action against the surveillance state through a four-part mantra: avoid it, distort it, block it, and break it. Although this prescription may be feasible for one of the world’s foremost security experts, it seems like too much for the common person whose computer capabilities are challenged enough in deciding whether to accept the surge price on Uber or whether the next profile deserves a left or a right swipe.
Whether Schneier’s prescriptions for pushback are put into practice, the incumbent overlords of data collection ought not to rest easy. As Snowden, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning, and a host of others have amply demonstrated, the mass surveillance machine could create a backlash that would come back to haunt it. Despite the book’s title, Schneier’s exposition on the Goliath is missing a David. The monolithic surveillance machine is not paired with a true test of its strength from an underpowered—but more determined—underdog.
Taylor Owen’s Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age provides that narrative. Owen borrows disruption theory from innovation literature and the works of Harvard University Professor Clay Christensen. He hails the power of new actors to disrupt old hegemons. Although governments and commercial actors have the advantages of experience and scalability, non-state actors can work as the disruptors of the status quo. These groups are decentralized, collaborative, and motivated, and are therefore resilient. Owen cites the “hacktivity” of an international network, such as Anonymous, as an example of an underdog fighting successfully against the state.
Anonymous, however, is far from the sole David in Owen’s documented fight against binary Goliaths. In fact, his book provides many. Telecomix, a group of net activists seeking to promote freedom of expression, and bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that provides users with anonymous online transactions, are examples. He cites Ushahidi, a website used to document crises as they unfold, to show how harnessing the wisdom of crowds can spread awareness of an issue around the world. Although each of these examples in Owen’s book is inspiring, one is left wondering whether these collective pin pricks of disruption will be enough to dislodge a powerful status quo, even if they were enabled by clever innovators and the amplifying effect of further technological advances. After all, the digital uprising that gave birth to the Arab Spring now seems like a distant memory. The international financial order has not been shaken by bitcoin, a currency once compared to Kim Kardashian because it’s famous for being famous. Crisis-mappers and crowdsourcing in general, although cost-effective and creative, have not yet posed a serious threat to the work of traditional institutions. Incumbents can adapt. This dynamic could play out in the political sphere as well.
Although much of Owen’s attention is focused on the challenge that disruptors present to the state, he also digs into how the state is fighting back. The end of the book features a discussion on how the state can extend military technologies and tactics beyond the battlefield, using advances in automated warfare and new technologies to fight back through surveillance and other measures. Owen writes, “The big question is whether these actions are meaningful; are these really challenging institutional powers?” Disruptive Power raises more questions than answers, but the questions are good ones.
Society is well past the point in 2007 when the FCC had to chide telecommunications companies for failing to track their customers. Now, not only are customers tracked but the data that results is growing exponentially. Governments and corporations are realizing the value of this data; so, too, are the ordinary men and women responsible for its generation. As consumers and citizens, we benefit from data being collected, analyzed, and harnessed by digital Goliaths from both the public and the private sectors. At the same time, it is important for us to create Davids that make sure these Goliaths are held in check, and act within the best interests of a free and open society. A careful reading of these two essential books offers key insights into this struggle, which promises to be of biblical proportions.