Tin foil hats need to come back in style if we're to save our privacy

Tin foil hats need to come back in style if we're to save our privacy

Summary: We laughed at the tin foil nutters, called them crazy, but now that it's been found that the US is spying on everyone, of course they're nowhere in sight now that we need them.


Every time another one of Edward Snowden's leaked documents comes out, I'm met with a barrage of "How is this even new? Privacy died ages ago", or "How can they even do this?! Those jerks are taking this too far!". Editorially, I've been just as conflicted. On one hand, my peers (which are typically no stranger to privacy issues) have questioned the validity of covering such news about diplomatic facilities being used to spy on foreign nations given it should be a no-brainer. On the other hand, in news coverage, we've sometimes taken the view of informing readers that the "latest and greatest" controversial leak simply reaffirms what we already knew, but is important to know.

The problem is, none of the people who have the most impact in doing anything about it seem to have any understanding of how rampant the issue is. They either don't want anything to happen because it's to their advantage, or they are unaware. Who am I talking about? Try Australian Ambassador to Indonesia Greg Moriarty, Australian and Indonesian foreign ministers Julie Bishop and Marty Natalegawa, and US and Australian country leaders Barack Obama and Tony Abbott.

In the past week, Australia has been accused of having installed surveillance devices at its embassy in Jakarta with the purpose of spying on Indonesians and possibly sending this information to Australia's allies, including the US.

But consider what each of these key political leaders have said on the issue:

Natalegawa is aware of the ability for nation states to spy on each other. Earlier this week he told journalists that "countries may have capacities, technical capacities, to intercept and to carry out the activity that's been reported, and information may have been gathered." Despite being armed with this knowledge, why has Indonesia allowed the activity to continue unchecked? Trust? That's a naive excuse. I would better reckon that it resigned itself to knowing a certain level of privacy died long ago.

Naturally, on the Australian side, Moriarty and Bishop are keeping their mouths sealed. The Australian embassy in Jakarta has a simple statement saying that Moriarty has taken "careful note of the issues raised", while Bishop took the line that since no one else has ever commented on such issues neither will she.

Obama's office, at least in the Merkel incident, pleads ignorance, stating that the President was not aware of phone tapping allegations.

Perhaps that's a little better than the naivety that Abbott shows when he states "every Australian governmental agency, every Australian official, at home and abroad, operates in accordance with the law."

But whose law?

What this country, and many other countries need, is a healthier supply of tin foil hats, and perhaps an injection of outrage — anything to get us past the apathy. Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been quoted as saying "If my phone was intercepted while I was PM, all they would have heard was praise for Obama." That's the approach of laying down and handing over your rights.

The tin foil hat nutters had it right all along, but now they're nowhere in sight. I'm sure it feels great to bask in the I-told-you-so afterglow while they continue on their merry way, but society needs them now more than ever. It's their prime time to gently educate, yet most of our world leaders seem so terribly misinformed, or completely naive.

The level of naivety has gotten to the point where we could do with a little crazy, a little tin foil. If it makes society a little more paranoid, so be it. It's better to be paranoid and maintain privacy than to be completely naive.

Topics: Security, Government, Government Asia, Government AU, Government US, Privacy

Michael Lee

About Michael Lee

A Sydney, Australia-based journalist, Michael Lee covers a gamut of news in the technology space including information security, state Government initiatives, and local startups.

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  • We still need to be careful about misinformation, though.

    (NOTE: What I am saying is USA specific - although from what I know, no nation has "broken the math" of encryption either)

    We still need to be careful about misinformation, though. The math behind encryption is, as far as we know, still solid. It hasn't been broken. Imaginary hyper-super-computers that people claim the NSA has aren't enough to break the strongest encryption we have.

    On the other hand, they don't need to break the math. They just need to find the weak links that are unencrypted or don't use strong encryption - and they're ultra-good at that. Endpoints are an obvious choice. Some security researchers believe that they may be tapping ISPs. We recently learned via the Google incident that private leased lines are very likely being spliced. Emails are generally unencrypted. Many organizations may be coerced to comply with legal demands.

    So I think we should be clear about what we know; the last thing we really need is a big red herring leading us down the wrong path, which wouldn't do us any good.

    But yes, we do need to earnestly do something about this.
    • symantics perhaps but a small bone to pick in general

      Security types and pseudo security types love to rail against obfuscation yet isn't encryption itself just obfuscation. We lock the front door but leave the windows open and the garage door unlocked and the front door key under the mat. Its it all really just obfuscation in various forms hoping to present just a bit harder target than the neighbors so they pass by you and hit them.

      Security, there is no security only vigilance.
  • It's the hive mind.

    You will be assimilated is all I hear the blogs saying. Resistance is futile is the tone of every cloud article I read.

    The world dropped 10 IQ points ever since everyone and their grandmother got a smartphone. This is abuse of technology. We are becoming the Borg, and nobody cares. Everybody echoes "you're paranoid" or "it's the future" or some similar drivel when I confront them about the all-consuming swarm of tiny, underpowered devices everywhere in their lives.

    Computing was in a good place when you got an immersive experience, and then, get this, you could LOOK AWAY. You could completely leave the presence of this device. We had power to get stuff done, and then we could reclaim our lives. Now we have billions of invasive little underpowered devices constantly badgering us for attention.
  • Advocating one sort of lunacy to displace another?

    Tinfoil hattery is just as bad and dangerous as unchecked government privacy invasion. To advocate that one sort of insanity should displace another is irresponsible. Instead what should happen is that the government, which has very obviously decided that the moral treatment of it's own citizens is passe', needs to be reined in and made more transparent. Secrecy is perhaps an unavoidable necessity when we are at war, but that secrecy has to end when we are not. And yes, at this point I can hear our somewhat morally bankrupt leaders saying that we ARE at war. Well, I haven't heard of any declarations. And in any case, when the government decides it's own citizens are the enemy, then maybe it's time for that government to be removed. Right now all the Patriot act and the associated laws and surveillance programs are good for is to keep citizens on the leash, and it should be abolished. I doubt Bush had this in mind when it went through. But certain politicians (I'm looking at you, Ms Feinstein) seem to think everything is just dandy, while they sit in their privileged seats, watching the show.

    If you don't like it, so something about it. Right now the US government is still answerable to the citizens of the US. That's not going to last a lot longer. So rather than putting on tinfoil hats, remember we still have the vote and we still have a right to talk to our representatives. Get on it, people.