inside the man

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Schneier on the future of privacy

In a recent essay, Bruce Schneier paints a chilling picture of the future of privacy in the USA. Consider the following:

"Wholesale surveillance is a whole new world. It's not 'follow that car,' it's 'follow every car.' The National Security Agency can eavesdrop on every phone call, looking for patterns of communication or keywords that might indicate a conversation between terrorists. Many airports collect the license plates of every car in their parking lots, and can use that database to locate suspicious or abandoned cars. Several cities have stationary or car-mounted license-plate scanners that keep records of every car that passes, and save that data for later analysis."

It is important to understand for those who do not follow American national security news that this is not science fiction or dystopic futurism. This paragraph describes the currently deployed surveillance technology in the USA.

From a personal privacy perspective, the future is not rosy for US citizens. The trend towards increasingly pervasive and invasive global surveillance technologies shows no sign of slowing, and the US legislative environment shows little interest in limiting the employment of these technologies by government agencies tasked with responsibility for Homeland Security.

One intriguing idea that Schneier puts forward is the notion of the 'life recorder'.

"A 'life recorder' you can wear on your lapel that constantly records is still a few generations off: 200 gigabytes/year for audio and 700 gigabytes/year for video. It'll be sold as a security device, so that no one can attack you without being recorded. When that happens, will not wearing a life recorder be used as evidence that someone is up to no good, just as prosecutors today use the fact that someone left his cell phone at home as evidence that he didn't want to be tracked?"

In principal, to me the life recorder is not a particularly odious idea as long as it remains under the control of the owner. In fact, I applaud laws and technologies that allow me to maintain control over my own personal information. One example of this is the CustomizeGoogle Firefox extension which I am using right now. Among its many features is the ability to alter your Google cookie UID and blocking communications with Google Analytics making it a little harder for Google to build up a comprehensive web surfing profile on you. The life recorder becomes a particular privacy concern only if:
  • As Schneier suggests, you attract the attention to yourself for not wearing one;
  • Somebody with a bluesniper rifle a kilometer away can read your life recordings without your knowledge; or
  • When Google offers a free service to perpetually archive your life for you (so that your holographic data chip does not fill up) - placing everyone's complete life recording within the reach of unaccountable access by government authorities under the Patriot Act.

As a Canadian, I am hopeful that Canada continues to choose a path that strikes more of a balance between personal privacy rights and national security concerns in comparison to our neighbors to the south.

Schneier's essay was originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


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Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Returned to working as a Management Consultant, specializing in risk, security, and regulatory compliance, with Fujitsu Canada after running the IT shop in the largest library in the South Pacific.

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