The New Rambler
April 5, 2015
“Over the past twenty years,” complained Newsweek, the United States has become “one of the snoopiest and most data-conscious nations in the history of the world.” Part of the problem is that “the average American trails data behind him like spoor through the length of his life.” Another part of the problem is that the government and private firms “have been chasing down, storing, and putting to use every scrap of information they can find.” These “vast reservoirs of personal information” are “poured into huge computers” and “swapped with mountains of other data from other sources” with “miraculous speed and capacity.” As a result of these forces, “Americans have begun to surrender both the sense and the reality of their own right to privacy – and their reaction to their loss has been slow and piecemeal.”
The Newsweek article – published in 1970, and entitled The Assault on Privacy– nicely captures the thesis of Bruce Schneier’s new book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. That doesn’t mean that Schneier’s book isn’t valuable – it is. It just means that there is something to be learned about Schneier’s argument from the fact that it was made 45 years ago. (Disclosure: I gave Schneier comments on a draft of his book and he and I are teaching a class together on Internet power and governance.)
Data and Goliath is an informed, well-written, accessible, and opinionated critique of “ubiquitous mass surveillance” by governments and corporations – how it happens, its costs, and what to do about it. Mass surveillance is made possible because “everything is turning into a computer.” The average individual interacts with hundreds (and soon thousands) of computers everyday – smartphones, laptops, web pages, social media, automobiles, cameras and recorders and others sensors, payment mechanisms, and so on. Soon pets, food containers, and appliances will all have chips and sensors – this is the Internet of things, where everything is computerized. These computers collect, record, store, generate, and emit an astounding amount and variety of data about us: what we say and write and like and want and do (including our vices and secrets); where we are, who we are with, and who we communicate with; the state of our health and finances and personal lives; and much more.