Lowdown: A review of the current, ominous, state of commercial and governmental data surveillance.
As testified by this blog, Cory Doctorow is one of my favourite authors. However, as much as I like Doctorow as a writer, I like him even more for his stand on matters relating to cultural sharing. To point at one example, all of his books are available as free downloads at his own website. Do you think this openness harms his income? Perhaps; but in Doctorow’s opinion, his income is harmed orders of magnitude more by the fact most of this world’s population has never heard of him and his books. The benefits of sharing his books, as per Doctorow, far outweigh the income loss that comes with giving them away for free. In other words, the biggest problem of an author trying to make a living out of their writing is obscurity.
That’s an interesting point that, in my opinion, applies to many more topics. I have been arguing against corporate surveillance and the need to take measures against them for years now; since mid 2013, I have been arguing the same against government surveillance (I haven’t been a fan of UK style CCTV coverage for practically decades before, though). However much I have been advocating for people to take a stand against such surveillance, the reactions I receive tend to narrow down to apathy or dismissal; rarely do I manage to gain a sympathetic ear, and even then rarely do I manage to get a person to actually do something. People are unaware of the problem and seem to prefer to stay that way and pretend there is no problem, thank you very much. In my opinion, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people they need to use Facebook.
Enter Bruce Schneier, a modern day security expert. I have been following Schneier’s blog for years now, and place him very high on my list of people I’d like to have dinner with. That list is currently topped by a guy called Edward Snowden, you might have heard about him. Just like yours truly, Schneier was moved by Snowden; so much so that he wrote a book called Data and Goliath, a book aiming to take the data surveillance problem out of obscurity and into the centre of a well informed public debate. Clearly, Schneier and I operate along similar wavelengths, only that he is much more of an expert than I am, he has direct involvement in these matters, and yeah, he has produced a book dissecting the state of things. A pretty bleak book at that, if I might add.
Data and Goliath is quite thorough in its review. It starts off by explaining the reasons why we got to where we are now. It explains in very layman terms how data is a byproduct of computers doing what it is that they do, and how this byproduct was harnessed to help finance the generally free-with-ads business model that dominates the Internet. In turn, this model caused the rise of data gathering behemoths like Google and Facebook. Further on, when the government noticed all this treasure trove of data gathered by private enterprise from the seemingly willing public, it decided to join in to the party – usually, by tapping into the information already gathered for commercial purposes. And all the while this was taking place right in front of our eyes, most of us were left completely unaware.
Chapter after chapter, Schneier reviews the state of surveillance and thoroughly points out to its harmful effects (very thoroughly: some 55% of this book is made of references to support his claims). His view is very American centric – he is an American, after all – but in general we get the gist of the international scene, too. It is in this part that Schneier proves, using an evidence based approach, how NSA style bulk data gathering is not only ineffective but actually harmful to the cause of looking after the security of the general public. As Schneier clearly points out, privacy and security are not a zero sum affair; taking good privacy measures is actually a guarantee for better security.
Data and Goliath ends with advice and suggestions as to what us, the public, can do in order to improve this bleak mess that we’re in. How to make the best of what big data can offer us, such as improved health care through the analysis of billions of data sets, while maintaining our privacy to levels that even yours truly would approve of. Schneier refers to David Brin’s book The Transparent Society as some sort of an inspiration to his vision, but I beg to differ; I have found Brin’s book, written ages ago by Internet terms, to be far too optimistic in its supposition that society will live with surveillance because that surveillance would allow it to survey the surveyors. Clearly, that has not been the case; if it wasn’t for one person willing to sacrifice his personal future on the altar of a healthy society, we would have had no idea how far the powers that be are getting under our skin.
That said, I cannot say I find the path ahead, as paved by Schneier, to be manageable. On one hand, I cannot see the Obamas of this world giving up on the power they took for themselves, let alone the Putins of this world. I actually see the opposite: two years past Snowden’s revelations, I see Australia sinking into the sea of data retention, Internet censorship and copyright blackmail letters – all either part of the surveillance monster of monsters feeding off it.
On the other hand we have the general public that, as comedian John Oliver has identified in his recent interview with Edward Snowden (watch it here, but you’ll need to use American VPN to bypass the geoblocking). Oliver rightly points out how the general public cannot be bothered with stuff it otherwise associates with IT geekery; it seems content with its state of ignorance regarding what’s really going on behind the scenes. On the other hand, people can definitely relate to private pictures of their dicks doing the rounds at the NSA. For better or worse, Data and Goliath – being the serious book that it is – falls under the umbrella of the former. We are still in dire need for that dick pic of a book to urge the public to demand change with. The intellectual reader out there, however, will do very well with Data and Goliath.
Overall: Data and Goliath is not the nicest book ever to read, but it is probably one of the most important book one can read in our era. Importance earns it half a notch with 4.5 out of 5 watchful crabs.