A Few More Thoughts on Data Security and Data Privacy in the ‘Golden Age of Surveillance’

Posted on : 30-03-2016 | By : Maria Motyka | In : Cyber Security, Data, General News, Innovation

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In the era of unparalleled tech innovation and global terrorism threats, 1) more and more of our sensitive data is being collected and 2) sophisticated surveillance measures are put into practice. We are being gradually deprived of (or perhaps willingly giving away) our privacy. Security guru Bruce Schneier goes as far as referring to current times as the ‘Golden Age of Surveillance’.

We previously discussed the issue of data security and privacy in the context of top 2015 hacks as well as innovations such as A.I. toys and healthcare wearables in our December blog post: Data Privacy/Security You Can Run But You Can’t Hide.

Here’s some more food for thought on the topic.

Governments and corporations not only collect much larger and more wide ranging datasets on us as individuals, but are also, now more than ever, able to compile it, make sense of it and take action based on in-depth big data insight. As noted by Chief Data Scientist of an admired Silicon Valley company during an interview with Jemand mit Eiern, the goal is to “change people’s actual behaviour at scale” through capturing their behaviors and identifying the ‘good’ versus ’bad’ behaviours to then create ways to reward the ‘good’ and punish the ‘bad’. The ultimate goal? Profit and control.

The application of big data to alter behaviours is very clear on both the corporate and government side; from Google, which announced that its maps will no longer merely provide users with a route they search for, but also suggest a destination, to China, which is now building a ‘pre-crime’ big data platform. China’s new tool will allow predictive policing, identifying individuals who ‘have the potential’ to engage in suspicious activities, based on complex data derived from citizens’ online and offline activity (including transactions, locations, who they engage with etc.) and thus to prevent crime, altering the way individuals behave.

Schneier finds what happens a ‘at the back-end’ in terms of big data rather disturbing. During Forbes’s first tech podcast ‘The Premise‘ he spoke about ‘dossiers’ that are built up with multiple inputs, such as “face recognition plus miniature cameras, plus Facebook’s database of tagged photos, plus the credit card database of your purchasing habits data… all of that put together…” The data privacy thought leader stresses that while on the corporate side big data and surveillance are used to get people to consume things, on the government side it is a tool for a variety of things: law enforcement, social control, terrorism, and political manipulation, making sure that ‘certain’ ideas don’t spread and silencing ‘certain’ people.

Knowledge is power and it is important to consider whom these surveillance/intelligence powers can be used against. Snowden recently reminded us of the case of UK Government Communications Headquarters (GSCHQ), which has previously used their ‘powers’ to spy on journalists and human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

How much of our data do we agree to ‘give away’? Is it at all possible to ensure that only the ‘good guys’ can access all this big, big data which, as we discussed, can be used to alter our behaviours?

During one of his recentAsk Me Anything Reddit sessions, Bill Gates himself drew the attention to the issue of data security. Microsoft’s founder demanded more public debate around bulk data collection and stressed that there are currently insufficient safeguards in place to make sure that information on us is only used for – what he called – the ‘proper’ reasons.

How do you even define ‘proper’ reasons?

The issue is highly relevant to the UK. In an interview for the Guardian, UN privacy chief Joseph Cannataci stated that “UK surveillance is worse than 1984″, “a rather bad joke at its citizens’ expense” and criticised the government for its approach to the Investigatory Powers Bill  In the case of the bill proceeding into statute, the Snooper’s Charter will have significant ramifications for Brits’ collective privacy.

Edward Snowden, during a talk he gave in Poland in mid-March, summarised the surveillance vs. security ‘dilemma’ (one, which the British MPs are currently facing) as follows:

 “Do we want liberty or do we want sort of a sense of total order where you may feel that life is a little bit more predictable but you are reliant upon some great authority that really has the extraordinary power to interfere in your life and tell you where to go what to do and how (…) and watch you at all times in exchange for a feeling of safety that in practical way is not delivered in any more reliable way today than it was before?”.

Schneier agrees with this view and stresses that surveillance with no probable cause is not compatible with liberty:

“the whole point of democracy is that we are willing to live with some amount of crime because we realise that a totalitarian police state is much worse”.

At the same time, the security champion discredits the ‘myth’ that surveillance is good for security: “There is no evidence for that. It has been stated as a truism and we’re expected to believe”. Whenever we see counter-terrorism success it is based on targeted, not mass surveillance.

Big data will get bigger, there is no question to it. However, “we need comprehensive laws that regulate all forms of data: collection, storage, use, sale, destruction. The whole process”, Schneier argues. Let’s hope that sooner or later we will learn to appreciate our privacy and put in place systems to protect it.