2013: The year trust died

2013: The year trust died

Summary: As we move forward into a new year, fully aware of all the data gathering, surveillance, and big data out there, I have only one simple piece of advice: Watch where you step.


We first-worlders have a selective way of looking at reality. We carry our expensive iPhones or slick Android devices, we trade up to the new, lighter iPad, we argue over whether the little plastic Keurig cups are bad for the planet, we argue over Windows, Mac, Chrome, Linux, and even whether those pre-post-PC "religions" are relevant anymore.

We also have brand affinities. Apple is innovative. Google isn't evil. Microsoft is. AOL is so 90s. BlackBerry is so dead.

And we also knowingly disclose far more than ever before. We check in on Foursquare. We tweet our thoughts on Twitter. We share everything (especially food, pet, and baby pictures) on Facebook. We tell the world (or at least our "friends") where we're vacationing, and even where we're having dinner.

We no longer (mostly, anyway) host our own email servers. Instead, we've flocked to free email provided by Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook. We've done so, knowing fully that -- at least in Google's case -- all our messages will be monitored, so as to better tailor ads to our interests that might first catch our attention and then capture our cash.

And we trust. We have webcams in our laptops and on both sides of our phones. We carry location-aware devices with us in our pockets or pocketbooks. As we move about the world, we ping WiFi hotspots, cell towers, and GPS networks.

We are collectively generating the big data that companies and agencies crave. We are big data. For we are the data.

And yet, until this year, we felt reasonably safe trusting that the giant Internet companies had our best interests at heart -- or at least were motivated by a level of financial interest we could understand and tolerate in return for the services provided.

The attention economy

Then came Edward Snowden and his so-called "revelations" about the NSA. It wasn't just that the NSA was alleged to have been watching us all that created outrage, it was the claim that our favorite Internet companies were secretly complicit in the surveillance.

Mainstream media and the blogosphere erupted. Our own ZDNet contributors blasted the government, dismissing the potential need to protect against criminals and terrorist and nation-state attackers.

The Guardian, and to a lesser extent, the Washington Post, have treated us to weekly outrages, timed perfectly to drive the attention economy and page views.

We've been living through this slow-torture drip of NSA news for six months now. Even so, the Guardian claims that the paper has only released one percent of the Snowden files.

One percent in six months. Does that mean we can expect NSA drips from the Guardian for the next fifty years? Has that become their new sustainable business model?

Are they serving the public good by withholding the remaining 99 percent? Or are they merely holding it back so they have juicy material to drive traffic for as long as they can keep it up?

I'm not accusing The Guardian of less-than-honorable intentions. Disclosing news is what the press is supposed to do. But I am curious. If they were really holding back to protect the secrets of the NSA and citizens throughout the world, you'd think they certainly wouldn't have wanted to create the disruption they already foisted upon the intelligence community.

Selective memory

Courtesy of Snowden, we (citizens, press, and even governments) have apparently been made re-aware of the underworld of spies, espionage, and surveillance.

We cry out when we discover the police are using surveillance techniques to track our phones and chase criminals, or the FBI is using variants on malware to track down terrorist threats.

It's as if we never knew this sort of thing was going on. It's as if Law & Order hasn't been running on TV for 23 straight years. It's as if we never read a single Tom Clancy novel or saw one of the crappy, if surprisingly successful Mission:Impossible movies.

It's as if we never read a newspaper in the last 50 years, never watched a newscast in the last 30 years, never read a post on a Web site in the last 10 years.

And it's not just the rank-and-file citizens who seem to have selective memory. Members of the press, who should (and I believe secretly do) know better, seem to be taking all these basic spycraft and investigative technique revelations and blowing them up as if they're something completely unheard of.

Even worse, so-called "friendly" nation-states are using this little PR nightmare as an excuse to turn on their allies. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, in "Why do allies spy on each other?" Countries who have been engaged in spying and other intelligence activities for decades are suddenly proclaiming their innocence and pointing figures at the US intelligence community.

Feigned outrage

One of the objections I hear most about government surveillance vs. the constantly intrusive surveillance of our favorite tech companies is that we agreed to be watched by the tech companies, but not by our government.

I disagree. Oh, sure. I signed up for Facebook and I have a Gmail account, and I'm perfectly aware that both companies are going to make good use of the analytics my actions provide.

But when I bought my iPhone, I didn't sign up to have my every movement tracked in Apple stores via iBeacon. Oh, sure, somewhere in their user agreement it might say that I'm going to give Apple my first born child and bake a pie for them every April 1, but if it's there, I sure didn't have time to read all of it -- and I bet most of you didn't either.

As the argument goes, the NSA, the FBI, and all the other law enforcement agencies didn't get our express permission to watch us and make sure we don't hurt each other, so they're bad. On the other hand, because we gave Google and all the rest permission, that's okay.

Well, let me tell you something. I didn't give Google permission to rummage into my past, all the way back to 1982, and publish discussions that I had online as a 21-year old. Back in 1982, there wasn't even the hint of a global database of personal information, and so what we wrote had some expectation of privacy.

But what Google did was buy the entire USENET database and publish it online. Among all that Google published were the 1982 conversations of a 21-year old: me. Sadly, the conversation they posted wasn't something prurient. It wasn't filled with sex, booze, or drugs. Apparently back then, I didn't believe in rock-and-roll or think music would save my mortal soul. Sadly enough, I was discussing an object-oriented processor from Intel called the iAPX 432.

Yes, I was an incredible geek even 30 years ago. Stipulated. But I didn't give Google permission to make that information public.

I also never gave Yahoo or Google or Yandex, or any of the other spiders permission to troll through my Web sites. They do it, and -- of course -- without Google juice, none of us would ever be read. But the point is, they're just there, and they're doing their thing. Permission was not involved.

Next: Don't be evil...

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government US, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • exactly: the USA = the fascists, just facts here:

    sources, facts here:

    “The US government murdered not just 4487 US soldiers and 179 UK soldiers through the lies about mass destruction weapons existence in Iraq.

    The US government conducts a surveillance of all the US citizens, EU officials (Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff etc.) and all the people in the world to keep power. The reason can not be terrorism. Or are the chancellor of Germany or the brazilian President terrorists?

    CIA documents acknowledge its role in Iran’s 1953 coup (all just for oil), documents also admits changing US public opinions.

    The US government knows that these murders, surveillances, lies are not sustainable so has prepared concentrations camps for the US citizens when a bigger crisis comes.

    You can be KILLED or you can LOSE all your rights (indefinite detention) when the USA says you are just an abettor of terrorism (just striking? who knows?), Washingtonpost: “10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free”.

    The USA = murders for power, General Wesley Clark, retired 4-star U.S. Army general: “We’re going to take out 7 countries in 5 years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan & Iran..” (about ten days after 9/11: “We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq.” This was on or about the 20th of September. I said, “We’re going to war with Iraq? Why?” He said, “I don’t know.” He said, “I guess they don’t know what else to do.” So I said, “Well, did they find some information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?” He said, “No, no.” He says, “There’s nothing new that way. They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq.” He said, “I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments.” And he said, “I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”)
    • Conspiracy theories are always correct.

      1. Dump heaps of questionable facts into the pot
      2. Stir thoroughly.
      3. Serve up the ones revealed to be true.
      4. Begin a new batch.

      Thanks, but none for me today. The truth is bad enough. Bad men are not exclusive to one country.
      • We knew, but we didn't know

        People had heard of the Echelon project in the 1990s, which tapped thousands of phone lines around the world.

        But the mainstream press never made a big deal of it. It was something we'd heard of, but couldn't verify. If you mentioned it, people thought you were a conspiracy theorist looney.

        Snowden has brought it all out into the mainstream. He shone a light onto the extent of surveillance.

        Even now, it is hard for many people to comprehend. If you received a letter in the post which had been torn open and read before you received it, you'd be angry. There is some material evidence.

        But when the NSA and governments read all your private emails, there is no tangible evidence. You don't get to see a dirty mark where they've been.

        So our reaction is not pretending to be shocked. It's still hard for most people to comprehend what's going on. People need to see more material evidence before they believe it.
        • NSA State

          Most people assumed governments would follow the same rules with e-communication as they do with paper-communication. Snowden showed this was largely false, governments are applying different rules and it is almost impossible for anyone to know it happened. A few experts might spot an occasional weird log listing but putting these scraps together is very difficult.
          • when you have enough processor power it is not much difficult

            when you have enough processor power it is not much difficult...... it is very easy! (ocr, correlation, fuzzy logic, database comparison (data mining) etc etc etc)
            very easy
      • you lie

        you lie
        the facts have been published everywhere in every newspaper all around the world..... so you mean they all are wrong?

        you should read more to understand the world more ;)

        can you read the sources in the link? There are written so many lies eg. Bush said
      • And...

        ...any conflicting facts are guaranteed to be fabricated and anyone who might disagree with your interpretation of the available evidence is guaranteed to be in on the plot.
        John L. Ries
    • where is this free oil then?

      ok, so the US invaded iraq to get free oil.. where is it?

      They started a coup in iran apparently for free oil... where is that free oil?

      I don't see anyone getting any free oil from anywhere.. and the irony is that the US invaded Iraq, history says they could have felt free to take all the oil they wanted for free.. but they didn't.. the people of iraq are getting the revenue for the oil in iraq, the US isn't getting any of the revenue.. so despite it being a very popular thing to suggest, it was never about oil.
      • But...

        ...I think there was some desire to try to make Iraq over into a Conservative showcase, and the Bush Administration didn't appear to be shy about awarding contracts to its friends and supporters.

        But no, we didn't try to steal Iraq's oil.
        John L. Ries
  • You are equating iBeacon with NSA tactics?

    With iBeacon use, a person is granting the corporation an implied right to target the individual with optional information.

    Pertaining to NSA actions, the user did not explicitedly grant any outside agency the tight to access any and all electronic personal information.

    Interesting comparison, David.
    • And

      the reports I read say that the users have to enable / accept the tracking? Or just turn off Bluetooth. It is opt in. With the NSA surveillance, there isn't even an opt out!

      I have nothing against "spy" agencies monitoring terrorists, bad guys and spies from other countries, that is what they have always done. My problem is that when did you and I become the bad guys?
      • But there are "you & I s" that ARE the bad guys.....

        The only way to differentiate is to look at it all. There is no magical little flag that pops up to say that "you" are good/bad. And, furthermore, the fact that "you" have, heretofore, been good; does not mean that you didn't go "bad" (radicalize) overnight. Unfortunately, as long as there are "bad guys", every single person is a viable candidate. Get over it!
        • But

          that doesn't mean you need to infringe the rights of every innocent person on the planet, "just in case". If you do that, then the terrorists have won.
  • You also incorporate some interesting arguments

    For example, you make the argument that if the vast majority of individuals know about illegal activities and/or grant permissions to an outside agency to continue with said illegal activities, than those activities become defacto legal actions.

    Interesting chain of logic.
  • Old tricks - new responses

    Are they serving the public good by withholding the remaining 99 percent? Or are they merely holding it back so they have juicy material to drive traffic for as long as they can keep it up?

    David the public can only absorb so much at once. If it had all been released at once it would have been blown off in a week and replaced by some form of prefabricated distraction. This has been going for so long everyone knows the game now and refuses to fall for it any more.

    I’ll go back and read the rest of the article now…
  • Unconstitutional law breaking is not OK

    Governments always claim they have our best interests at heart, and if you are not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear.

    But these arguments fail under any sober scrutiny of reality. If you collect the data, there will be rogue elements who abuse it. The line between what is OK or politically embarrassing can shift at any time. Without a guarantee of privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and thus no true democracy.

    Massive unconstitutional data collection is anti-democratic and just plain dumb. If we were serious about protecting America, we would stop antagonizing the rest of the world with our lawless unethical behavior.

    Finally, the Snowden document trove is so enormous (200,000 classified documents) that it will take years to analyze and understand. Responsible journalism dictates that reporters take the time to understand these programs and check their facts before reporting.

    The revelations won't stop, get used to it.
    • Of course it's OK.

      A case of surveillance abuse just came up to the Supreme Court. Chief justice John "lapdog" Roberts decided not to hear the case.

      There is literally no hope for US citizens.
      • Roberts didn't decline the case all by himself

        It only takes four Justices to grant review, and the Chief doesn't have to be one of them.
        John L. Ries
  • Just in case the rumors about the NSA remotely turning on webcams are true,

    when you get a PC with built in webcam, use some adhesive tape to make a flap out of a small piece of cardboard to cover its lens, but allow you to flip it out of the way when you want to use it. No software disable command works as well as having opaque material over the lens.

    And yes, there was a verified report a few years ago of a local school board issuing laptops to middle and high school students, with a remote enabling command for the web cams above the screen, intended to be used to track STOLEN laptops. An administrator (may have been a principal or AP) was caught turning on cameras to watch students in their bedrooms, parents sued, and all he** broke loose politically.
    • Thank you 3M

      I just put a folded Post-It over the lens. Have done since the mid 90s.