Edward Snowden’s interview at SXSW was likely the most talked about, debated and controversial session at SXSW this year. Regardless of how you feel about Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s surveillance program, the session raised some very profound questions that are worth talking about. Before we can get to those questions, I’ll set the stage with some background from the conversation.
Mass Surveillance is Happening
If we learned nothing else from Edward Snowden, the most important revelation in all of his interviews is that the NSA is collecting data from telecommunications, email, web searches, and a variety of other forms of communication on a massive scale. This surveillance hasn’t been limited to those who are under suspicion; rather it applies to every American. They have collected data on you, on me, on your parents, your grandparents and yes, even your kids. They are storing our conversations without our permission and ultimately we have no legal recourse. There is no opt-in or opt-out because quite frankly they never asked for permission.
Our Data is Not Secure
The primary reason this type of surveillance is even possible is because ultimately our data is not secure and as general consumers we have very few options to make it more secure. We have to make a choice between tools that are inherently difficult if not impossible for the general user to use or select tools that make it easy for us to use, but lack the security that would make it difficult to access our data. Something I thought was very interesting and likely very true, is that the companies we use to communicate think about security last, rather than first. Therefore, the apps and tools we use to communicate are inherently insecure. This makes mass surveillance possible, but it also makes our data available to hackers, stalkers and other people with bad intentions. What’s worse is that it’s easy for them. Snowden talked about how to make it more secure and it would require encryption at the individual computer level and there aren’t great options for this at the general consumer level. Basically, if you aren’t already a hacker or someone with an in-depth understanding of encryption you are at risk.
Are Services Provided by Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter and Others Part of the Problem?
Ultimately, these companies have vast amounts of data on us. We use their tools to communicate on a daily basis and over time they hold some of our most private and intimate conversations and thoughts. Snowden argues that the big companies we rely on for communication services are part of the problem for two reasons.
It Requires Less Hacking to Get To Our Data
At the core, the biggest challenge is that instead of having to hack into our individual computers the NSA and others simply have to hack into a very small list of companies to get our data. By having a list so small, it allows a concentrated effort that can be much more successful at hacking into our data. Instead of having to hack into millions of computers, the NSA and others simply have to penetrate a handful of databases. And frankly, when they can’t hack in they are simply serving these companies with court orders forcing them to turn over the data. The best option is for these companies to stop storing the data past a reasonable amount of time for usage.
Not Storing the Data is a Conflict of Interest
Not storing the data opens up a whole different can of worms. While this may be in the best interest of consumers, it is a conflict of interest for the companies who are providing the services. These services may be “free” to us, at least in monetary terms, but these companies scan our communications and monetize it by selling advertising. One point that wasn’t lost in the presentation is that all of the companies they discussed are advertising companies. If their goal is to sell advertising, there is a direct conflict of interest in their business model for not storing and mining this data. We are kidding ourselves, if we think they have our privacy at the center of their interests.
As consumers we have put our trust into the companies who provide us with communication tools without fully understanding the risks that come with a “free” and tools. After all, there has to be a way to monetize a free tool and the way they are doing it is by selling our data to third parties for all intents and purposes. Snowden made it clear that the solution isn’t going to be free for consumers. We have to be willing to pay for services that protect our data from mass surveillance in order to create a business model for the companies who are willing to provide them. The answer sounds complex, but it comes down to encryption, according to Snowden. Encryption makes it far more difficult and more expensive for the government and criminals to get to our data. As consumers we need to demand better encryption and we need to be willing to pay for it so that companies have a way to monetize their efforts to provide us with what we want.
In short, data privacy needs to be at the forefront of the conversation. Regardless of your stance on the policy debate, I think we can all agree that we want our communications data to be secure.
Did you watch the interview? Are you concerned about the privacy of your communications data? Do you think centralizing our communications with a few companies is part of the problem? Leave a comment and let’s have a conversation.
If you missed the interview, feel free to watch it below.