Author Topic: Stop Thinking That Tech Hacks Are the Solution to Our Surveillance Woes  (Read 1174 times)

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Offline mayya

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Stop Thinking That Tech Hacks Are the Solution to Our Surveillance Woes

By Jathan Sadowski08.12.139:30 A

photo: Josh Koonce / Flickr

That’s it, I’m calling it early: this is officially the “summer of surveillance.” Especially with the latest news that due to this surveillance, not one, but two, separate companies announced they were shutting down their encrypted email services (including the one that Edward Snowden was using) this week.

“If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either,” said the owner of one of those companies, Lavabit.

This statement, paradoxically, both misses the point and hints at the right course of action.

Because there are two separate — yet often entangled — ideologies in our discourse about the surveillance state: The first is the individualistic conception of cyber-hygiene: how you should behave to secure your own communications, protect your own data, and avoid your own tracking. The second is the notion of tech-centric solutionism (a term popularized by Evgeny Morozov): what tech hack, device, or app can I turn to for a quick fix to my privacy troubles?

The problem is that focusing on one or both of these approaches distracts from the much-needed political reform and societal pushback necessary to dig up a surveillance state at its root.
It’s a telling sign when such companies go against the prevailing instinct of developing yet another fix.

To be sure, personal protections are important. There are some easy plug-ins and simple behavioral changes people can make. And there’s no shortage of articles and how-to guides tips for securing privacy, with headlines promising “Five ways to stop the NSA from spying on you.” Through means such as end-to-end encryption, software for anonymized web surfing, and removing device’s batteries, why, you too, can enjoy secure communications. But if we really want to attempt to thwart the NSA’s spying, well, you’ll need to brush up on your computer science skills and take a deep dive into cryptographic techniques.

Here’s the thing, though: We shouldn’t resolve ourselves to a life where cyber-hygiene and an obsession with technological solutions fools us into thinking we’ve somehow preserved our privacy.

This might be sufficient if, say, we’re trying to prevent a boss or partner from snooping. But it’s always going to be a losing battle when going against a panoptic titan whose methods are wide-reaching, constantly evolving, and classified. Just look at the fates of Lavabit and Silent Circle, the two email services that shuttered last week. Despite no subpoenas, warrants, security letters, “or anything else by any government”, Silent Circle admitted “we see the writing on the wall.”

It’s a telling sign when one company is bullied — and the other preemptively so — into going against the prevailing instinct of developing yet another technological fix that provides the desired protections. (It’s also a telling sign that Obama explicitly endorses solutionism. He said in his speech Friday that people can turn to tech if they don’t like government snooping: “I mean, there may be some technological fixes that provide another layer of assurance.”)

The fundamental belief in technology’s ability to “fix” everything ignores the fact that not everything needs to be fixed in the first place. And it gives birth to questions such as what if Trayvon Martin wore Google Glass? Sure, technology could help — but such questions (and answers!) miss the larger social and cultural context that needs to be addressed here.

In fact, taking the tech-centric route can lead to even more severe, unintended consequences. There’s a feedback loop between solutionist tendencies and the growth of a surveillance state: The rapid spread and use of technologies ironically laid the very foundation for it to engulf more and more aspects of our lives. Governments around the world must be saying a prayer of thanks because most of us willingly carry, at all times, a location tracker, listening bug, camera, internet hunter-gatherer, and more in the form of a smartphone.

Except for the most cybersecurity-savvy among us (and even then not if services like Lavabit and Silent Circle continue to wane), trying to outsmart and outrun the government’s data-hungry tendrils will only leave people ensnared. This is especially true when it comes to those who do not have the privilege — knowledge, ability, or wealth — to protect their privacy.

Being a “techie” often blinds us to the plight of the majority — who, for one reason or another, don’t know they’re targets for tracking or simply can’t avoid being one. For many, the actions necessary to set up encryption or even abandon certain services are not feasible. Privacy should not become a luxury for an elite tech-savvy few; it matters far too much. Yet without structural reform those who lack cyber-privilege are often left exposed and tracked.

And even if we do take the steps to have good data practices, we’re likely to run up against a precarious catch-22 where many common techniques to protect privacy can be met with legal recourse — as security expert Ashkan Soltani pointed out here in WIRED. Just using encryption can land you on NSA’s list of suspicious people.

Lest we forget, these power dynamics aren’t distributed evenly, either. Those of under-represented class, gender, race, and other minorities — who by birth or circumstance don’t have the benefit of a social network of influencers — are often the first to fall.

The Snowden leaks have led to renewed, even frantic, interest in finding the best ways to protect privacy and resist the government’s blanket monitoring and collecting of our data. A recent Pew Research poll shows, for the first time, that more people are concerned about the status of their civil liberties than about threats from terrorism.
Those who are under-represented don’t have the benefit of a social network of influencers and are often the first to fall.

Concern. It’s a great start, but preserving democratic freedoms and fighting the government’s spy-machine will mean focusing and turning concern into actionable change. It will require “coordinated dissent” from individuals, advocacy groups, and, yes, technology companies. Smart people like Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) warn that our inaction opens the door for such surveillance to become an irreversible and regrettable part of our society, but the hard truth is that citizens need to muster incredible will to demand or enact sorely needed privacy protections.

But the task of defending privacy from surveillance shouldn’t fall to a tech-savvy or solutionist few. And even then, as Michael Phillips pointed out in The New Yorker, the few dissenters “are painted as a rogue’s gallery of hackers, leakers, spies, and traitors.”

The task of defending privacy from surveillance should be taken up by all citizens, together. As Mark Hagerott and Daniel Sarewitz argued in Slate, “(O)ne of society’s most powerful narratives of democratic struggle — the myth of the individual who rebels against social and political conformity — has been rendered implausible by the development of pervasive security technology.” It’s time to change that narrative so that the notion of a “democratic” struggle in our time isn’t always equated with a solely technological one.

Jathan Sadowski

Jathan Sadowski is a freelance writer and Ph.D. student in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. His research focuses on the social, political, and ethical side of technologies. Follow him on Twitter @jathansadowski.
« Last Edit: August 12, 2013, 19:55:40 PM by mayya »