Bruce Schneier on the NSA’s Surveillance 4: The Social Value of Privacy

The radio talk show host and security expert Bruce Schneier now discuss the amount and methods of data collection by the NSA and how it affects citizen privacy.

– I’m speaking with authoritative security expert Bruce Schneier about the data collecting agency, the NSA. We’re talking about fear, real and manufactured; we’re talking about the corporate/government crossover as consumers give more and more information to the companies that, ultimately, share the information with the NSA. But first I want to beat on this fear concept just a little bit further, because it seems to me that while we have a large degree of fear in our populous, fear of terrorism, fear of whatever, fear of what’s going on in the Internet – I don’t know if we should fear as much as we’re doing, and that’s why I keep wondering what else is behind this massive data collection, because I don’t think now the people who are doing this data collection are as fearful as they were 12 years ago.

New NSA data center in Utah

New NSA data center in Utah

– I don’t either. But remember that the NSA’s charter is to collect everything. In some ways it’s what they do. They have the hammer and the world is a nail. If you put the NSA in charge of anything, first thing they’ll do is collect all the data on everybody everywhere. These programs have taken the life of their own. I don’t think there is some secret hidden agenda; I think it’s just the natural proclivities of the people who are running this right now. And this data collection will continue forever until it’s stopped, because that’s the NSA’s job, that’s their mission, that’s why they get paychecks. I don’t think it’s malicious; I think it’s just the way they see the world. The world is one big bucket of data that they need to collect, and by God they’re going to collect it.

– And the amount of collection that is going on – it’s increasing right now, it seems, but are we seeing just the fact that our spy agencies have gotten their hands on some amazing toys and they have to play with them. I mean, how could they not?

– I think it’s less the toys and more this confluence of goals between the government and the industry. It’s sort of interesting to watch that the government is getting data that it could never get without industry help.

So, for example, imagine the government tried to pass a law saying: “Everybody must carry a tracking device with them 24/7”. That would never ever pass, they could never get it through Congress. Yet we all carry cell phones and the government can just ask Verizon for our tracking data.

Or if the government said: “Whenever you make a new friend, you must inform the police”. That’s so unconstitutional, we can laugh at it. Yet, when we make a new friend, we inform Facebook, and Facebook informs the government. Or if the government says: “Whenever you send a message or write a letter or send a note to somebody, send us a copy, please”. It would never happen, it’s ridiculous. Yet, Google does it for us. So all of these things that the government cannot possibly do by themselves – because we are using all of these social tools, they’re being enabled.

– Does that mean that all these social tools make us less secure?

– They do, but they have enormous benefits as well. It would be hard for me to say: “Look, you should stop using them”. And this is the fundamental trail of the problem, that we do all these things for good reasons. The Internet gives us enormous benefits. Facebook and Google and Apple and Verizon, cell phones, credit cards – all these things are incredibly valuable to us. They’re convenient, they help us in numerous ways.

They have this side effect of informing the government of everything we do, but that’s because we have allowed it. And again, this is where we need as a culture, as a country to decide what it is that we’re going to allow the NSA to do, how far the NSA can go. We get to decide these things.

– As a host of a talk show I have to cover a lot of different things. When you talk about how we have to assert our oversight of NSA – we do it through elected officials, etc. – I think evidence is very strong right now that we don’t have control over our elected officials.

– There is that. If, in fact, there is no way for us to stop this, we’ve lost, we’re done. And I do think that this will turn around. It might take a generation. The examples from the Church Commission in the 70s are good examples, and it will happen again. It might take our children to say: “Oh my God, what were our parents thinking? We can’t do this”, but it will happen. Long-term history is on our side; short-term – maybe not so much.

– I wonder, going into that future, where our children will make this decision that we’re all stupid…

– Or at least very scared, very shortsighted…

NSA cooperation with big data aggregates

NSA cooperation with big data aggregates

– Yeah, not really thinking of our own best interest, because we’re afraid of the dark, but would a greater level of openness, just a society-wide level of transparency, which we’re moving towards anyways – you know, like you said Google and Facebook are already mining our data anyways, and we are complicit in that. If we were to embrace a different standard for secrecy and openness that flooded the receptors with all of our information, would that defang it? If we made all of this information readily available?

– When you think about: “We’re going to overwhelm the computers, flooding them with information”, really loses the side effect of how good computers are at sifting through information. You just can’t; it’s not going to help that they already have so much data; the capacity to sift through data is doubling every 18 months. You’re not going to solve the problem by giving it more data. You’re going to solve the problem by giving it less data, by saying: “This stuff is private; government can’t collect it without a cause, without a warrant”. That’s just not going to be the way it’s going to work.

– I guess where I was really going with that is not so much the technical amount of data that’s being displayed; what if we were to embrace the fact that we cannot have secrets, if we were to embrace the fact that we cannot have secrets and live? It would be a paradigm shift?

– There’s a lot of good stuff written on the social value of privacy. Privacy is individuality; that’s how we maintain our sense of self. Privacy is essential for human relationships, it’s essential for governments, for business; it’s essential for everything. If someone knows everything about you, they have power over you, you cease to be an individual, you’re a prisoner, you’re someone who’s being watched. You act differently. I think we lose social change, we lose individuality.

There’s a huge amount written on the psychological effects of the loss of privacy. This is not some abstract “Let’s just put everything on Facebook”. And this is a huge difference for our society, and not something we should do lightly. I mean, yes, the social norms are changing – people are sharing more stuff, people are more public with things. But even so, people don’t want to automatically post their salaries, automatically post their sexual fantasies, automatically post their health. I mean, there’re things people keep private. Even those who live very publicly separate public and private.

– In other words, more sharing, more voluntary sharing, isn’t going to take the power away from the NSA?

– No, and the power is really how you have to look at it. If you think about it, it’s better if I do this visually, but you have to imagine this. Think of a government with a lot of power up high and people with less power down low. What privacy does is increase your power. So the goal in our society is to have the least differential. The most liberty means the least power of government over people.

If you increase government secrecy, you’re raising government power that increases the differential; it’s bad for liberty. If you increase citizen privacy, you’re increasing personal power; that decreases the differential.

And the opposite is true for forced openness. If the government can spy on their people; it reduces the people’s power, reduces liberty. If the government has to be open transparency, it reduces the government power, increases liberty. So this power imbalance is how you make sense of this all. This is why, and it’s Glenn Greenwald who said this first: “Public officials and private citizens”. That’s why we want public and openness in our government, we want privacy in our people, because that’s how you get the most liberty.

Read previous: Bruce Schneier on the NSA’s Surveillance 3: Misperceptions of Terrorism

Read next: Bruce Schneier on the NSA’s Surveillance 5: Possible Backlash of Ubiquitous Spying

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