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A surveillance state beyond Orwell’s wildest dreams

Bruce Schneier is the unofficial dean of security experts in the digital age: an “internationally renowned security technologist,” a TED speaker, and the author of a popular newsletter plus 2012’s Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive and a huge library of additional books, blogs, and essays. “The closest thing the security industry has to a rock star,” The Register (Britain’s technology news and opinion megasite) called him in a widely quoted quip.

Schneier has long been a prominent pessimist about our collective digital trajectory, and lately it’s looking and sounding more and more as if he has flat-out thrown in the towel when it comes to envisioning any kind of fundamentally positive human future in a world of all-pervasive interconnected technology and online-ness. In both substance and rhetoric, his message is fully and forcefully dystopian.

This came out last year in a brief profile of him that appeared in The New York Times in connection with the publication of Liars and Outliers:

Trust, Mr. Schneier writes, is the glue that binds our societies. Over centuries we have invented various means of ensuring it: moral codes, reputation within a certain community, laws and of course security tools, from embankments, the most primitive kind of defense, to facial-recognition technology. The liars he worries about most these days are not cyberwarriors or even cybercriminals but private companies and government agencies advancing their own interests, whether for surveillance or commerce. Apple controls the memory on our iPhones. Google keeps tabs on what we search for, and whom we write to, when we use Gmail. We unknowingly pledge allegiance to the companies we do business with.

[H]is greatest fear is ubiquitous surveillance: license-plate readers, sensors, geolocation tracking and so on. He is troubled, too, by the Internet’s refusal to let our memories fade. He predicts a presidential race in the near future in which a candidate’s bad junior high school poetry will be resurrected as a political weapon. “You should be mindful,” he warned, “that the Internet never forgets.”

— Somini Sengupta, “Trust: Ill-advised in a Digital Age,” The New York Times, August 11, 2012

More recently, he has characterized our present and future circumstance in terms as bleak as the bleakest fictional dystopian vision. “The Internet,” he says in a blog post recently published at CNN, “is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we’re being tracked all the time.” Moreover, everything we do on the Internet is being combined with data gained about us from other sources to achieve a more comprehensive picture of our movements, preferences, and lives. And increasingly, nothing we do in the way of trying to protect ourselves from such surveillance can really make a difference:

There’s location data from your cell phone, there’s a record of your movements from closed-circuit TVs. . . . There are simply too many ways to be tracked. The Internet, e-mail, cell phones, web browsers, social networking sites, search engines: these have become necessities, and it’s fanciful to expect people to simply refuse to use them just because they don’t like the spying, especially since the full extent of such spying is deliberately hidden from us and there are few alternatives being marketed by companies that don’t spy.

— Bruce Schneier, “The Internet is a surveillance state,” CNN, March 16, 2013

Governments and corporations can’t and don’t want to change the situation, he says, and in fact they’re actively working to keep everything this way, because it’s in their self-perceived self-interest to do so.

In other words, and regardless of how we feel about the matter, it’s “game over” as far as personal privacy goes:

So, we’re done. Welcome to a world where Google knows exactly what sort of porn you all like, and more about your interests than your spouse does. Welcome to a world where your cell phone company knows exactly where you are all the time. Welcome to the end of private conversations, because increasingly your conversations are conducted by e-mail, text, or social networking sites. And welcome to a world where all of this, and everything else that you do or is done on a computer, is saved, correlated, studied, passed around from company to company without your knowledge or consent; and where the government accesses it at will without a warrant.

. . . This is ubiquitous surveillance: All of us being watched, all the time, and that data being stored forever. This is what a surveillance state looks like, and it’s efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell.

For more on a similar theme, see the collection of recent writings about the rise of Big Data in our latest installment of Recommended Reading.