By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Bruce Schneier
Narrated by: Dan John Miller
Bruce Schneier’s book is about battles with government and private industry for personal privacy and freedom in the information age. The seriousness of the subject is diminished by millions of us who revel in the knowledge, accessibility, and convenience of the internet. However, Schneier explains how our appreciation and use of the internet threatens privacy and freedom.
Perfect as an adjective for human is an oxymoron. All human beings are emotionally and intellectually imperfect. Human beings conduct their lives within normative social boundaries. They are generally not criminal, sexually perverted, or psychologically impaired. However, all human beings transgress some social boundaries. Most individuals feel appropriately guilty for their transgression; suffer the personal and societal consequence, and then get on with their lives. This loose definition of humanity seems a fair description of all human beings. However, Schneier argues that use of the internet categorizes, spindles, and mutilates human lives. Like a forest being attacked by borer beetles, the internet infects the public; not with malicious intent, but with a hunger for money, power, and prestige.
The borer beetles of the internet are well-known; e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Amazon, the Federal Government, and a host of smaller species. Some borer beetles can kill a forest, while others benefit nature’s ecology by getting rid of weakened trees to regenerate healthy trees. Schneier suggests America is at a crossroad where captured data from the general public will either grow into a society’ killer or a humanized friend.
Schneier suggests or implies government, eleemosynary, and private entities continually gather personal information and mine it for public and private purposes. The government’s objective is to protect American citizens from crime and terrorism. Churches and charities’ objective (though not specifically addressed by Schneier) is to evangelize and increase donations for “good works”. Private industry’s objective is to increase profitability.
On some level, Schneier suggests there is no harm; no foul. On another level he argues, surveillance, big data collection, and unregulated invasion of privacy attacks the foundation of democracy. Though the right to privacy is not explicitly protected by America’s founding documents, Schneier suggests the internet encroaches on the 4th 5th and 9th articles of the Constitution.
Schneier acknowledges the benefits of the internet; e.g. educational opportunity, communication timeliness, shopping convenience, banking access, and interconnection. Every article written in this blog is benefited by information available on the internet.
Convenient purchase of consumer goods requires no trips to a local vendor. The bank writes checks with a few taps at a computer terminal. A personal Ipad, Iphone, and laptop communicate with each other via Bluetooth with input required only once; on one device. A wonderful life with no harm, no foul—right? Schneier notes there is a price paid for these benefits. Unquestionably, the internet is a great source of valuable information and convenience. However, it is also a vehicle for illicit activity. The internet reveals personal information about users that embarrass, bully, and sometimes ruin lives. It disseminates bigotry that recruits like-minded miscreants. It provides access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other financial instruments for fraudulent use.
Every purchase made on the internet becomes a factoid in the history of a purchaser. All of these factoids are accumulated and used by privately owned search-engine companies (like Google, AOL, and Amazon) to profile personal habits and preferences. That information is sold to retailers for a fee. Private retailers use that information to customize their sales pitches to consumers. The retailer adjusts prices according to the buyer’s purchasing and income profile.
To increase income, the search engine owner sells the retailer a first position on internet searches. That first position increases probability that the profiled consumer will purchase from that retailer who has enough information to estimate how much you are willing to pay. The public is being manipulated by retailers that know where you are, what you buy, and what you are willing to pay, or are capable of paying. Retailers who purchase data from search engine owners can estimate (if not know) your net worth, sexual orientation, educational achievement, and personal preferences.
The internet is a money machine for search-engine owners. First, the search-engine owner raises revenue by selling personal information and then increases income by selling positions on search-engine web pages. The retailer benefits by having personal consumer information and a primary position on web-page searches. It increases the retailer’s odds of being seen on a search and the consumer’s likelihood of purchase. Schneier implies the consumer is being controlled by Goliath’s data collection. Goliath is a two-headed dog guarding the entrance to Sartre’s “No Exit” hell. The David in this battle is the consumer with only hope and a sling shot to defend himself. The sling shot has no ammunition and no target because no remuneration goes to the consumer and the information has been stolen anonymously.
The internet is a supersonic communications vehicle. There is no waiting for the mail. Instant messaging and the twitterverse are part of the spindling and mutilating process of the age. Thinking before one speaks is yesterday’s reality. Today, even in the race for President of the United States, speaking-without-thought is commonplace.
The internet is a worldwide recruiting vehicle for the extremes of society; some of which fly airplanes into skyscrapers in New York, bomb government buildings in Oklahoma, and murder innocents in Manchester. Internet access provides a forum to convince people of the iniquity (either false or true) of an enemy or government.
With the click of a mouse, and a newscaster’s ego fiction competes with truth to lead and mislead the public. Publicly shared television news programs created by professionals are now created by anyone with access to the internet. There is no incentive or structure to fact-check reports posted on the internet.
Schneier suggests government intrusion into private lives has gone too far as a result of 9/11 and other terrorist events around the world. Schneier implies that Edward Snowden is a hero; not a traitor. Snowden exposed the covert surveillance of the NSA (National Security Agency) in gathering information about private citizens without their knowledge; and without probable cause, or judicial consent. Schneier argues that big data surveillance, by private enterprise and the government, have colluded to compromise freedom and control the individual.
Schneier suggests that promulgation of fear, exacerbated by public access to the internet, causes the government to overreact. He notes how the Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, stated that he did not want to be accused of not protecting British citizens because of lax surveillance of private citizens. This climate of fear pervades the politics of our time. It is not the first time America abandoned the principles of privacy and freedom. Schneier notes the “Alien and Sedition Act” passed by Congress and signed by President John Adams, the incarceration of American Japanese during President Roosevelt’s administration, and the McCarthy witch-hunt for communists in the 1950 s. He suggests those were mistakes made then; with the same mistakes being made now.
Schneier offers solutions. He acknowledges the necessity of surveillance but believes public oversight should be strengthened. Government regulation should require judicial warrants for spying on an individual. He argues that mass data collection is an unwarranted invasion of privacy that has little value in defeating terrorism. Only after the fact did mass surveillance reveal the perpetrators of the Boston marathon bombing. He suggests the same is true for the shoe bomber and the terrorist attack of the disability hospital in California. Mass data collection does not protect the public.
Schneier suggests consumers should know who, in the private sector, is accumulating their personal information. Private citizens should have a right to opt out of private sector data collection by any internet user. He believes a set of rules should be established for government to follow when seeking individual surveillance. Schneier suggests those rules should be designed for transparency; legislatively adopted, and justified by legislators to their constituency.
Schneier infers there is tremendous value to be drawn from the internet. There is the value of education, and quick reference to the news and history of the day. There is the informational value of a world of different cultures that have common needs and aspirations. There is the potential benefit of mass data collection on medical history of individuals and their treatments for fatal injuries or illnesses. Medical successes will be more quickly codified for improved patient treatment of common maladies. There would also be the added benefit for a patient changing physicians with a comprehensive history available for review.
Schneier cautions that an individual’s data should be encrypted in ways that limit access to only those authorized by the individual. In general, Schneier is a proponent of encryption to secure the privacy of individuals.
Schneier’s book aptly describes the threats and benefits of big data. Terrorism is real but its threat cannot become an excuse for denying the privacy and freedom of the individual. Terrorism is just one of many risks in life.