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Listen, do you want to know a secret?

Updated on August 19, 2013
A well worn slogan, but does anyone even care anymore?
A well worn slogan, but does anyone even care anymore?

From Echelon to PRISM: Internet surveillance goes way back

In my student days, when I was doing a course on Technology and Philosophy, the news came out that the European Commission had approved a program that would enable large scale government monitoring of private communications. This was in 2000, the program was called ECHELON, and it was designed to give governments unfettered access to telco's backbone, essentially allowing them to snoop on whatever private communication you thought you were having. I wrote a paper then, analyzing the relationship between these hidden 'towers of observation'. Off course we have come a long way, but if you have followed the developments since then, it did not come a s a surprise that governments have been tapping private communications on a massive scale. However, its not only governments that are doing this. Big data companies are doing the same, and we do hand over our information willingly. How worried should we be? Quite worried, as it turns out. It is no longer adequate to say: "Well, I have nothing to hide, so I don't care about privacy intrusions." Recent research has shown that we have all the reason in the world to worry about this, as the effects of snooping may have myriad and unexpected ramifications for the way we live our lives.

No reasonable expectation

According to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the rise of social networking online means that people no longer have an expectation of privacy. This stance was recently reiterated by Googles lawyers. Yet a recent survey by 123people in the Netherlands (Article in Dutch) shows that almost 90 percent people online ‘worry’ about their privacy. This majority said ‘yes’ to the question whether they think it is highly probable that their personal information, reputation or privacy is in danger on the internet. According to them, One out of ten people has lost their job or was rejected for a job on the basis of information found on their profiles. In Spain this number would even be 1 in 5.

Are you worried yet? Maybe our biggest concern should be that no one is concerned.
Are you worried yet? Maybe our biggest concern should be that no one is concerned.


This -apparently not entirely fictitious- fear does not translate into much action. Maybe the advantages outweigh the perceived dangers. While two thirds of the respondents chooses to mark their profile as private on social networks and tools like Facebook and Twitter when given, almost 30% of these same respondents does not want to lock these profiles off from the outside world or search engines. It’s a classic: We want to be free, but we don’t want to run the risks that inherently come with that freedom.

Uncle Ben once told Peter Parker that with great power comes great responsibility. So it is with freedom on the internet. Interestingly enough, a majority of Dutch users think that internet users are responsible themselves for guarding their private information. While a majority of German users puts that responsibility in the hands of companies. And one thirds of American and Canadian internet users feel that the government should do something about it.

Is this you?
Is this you?

Attempts to discredit Snowden

When Snowden came out with his revelations, the word was mostly about the supposed illegality of his actions, not about what he actually revealed. Additionally, many media outlets found it necessary to portray Snowden as a lone ranger, or a dropout. Yet other people found it interesting to talk about Snowdens girlfriend. Quite a pretty and buff lady that is undoubtedly worthy of a lot of attention, but also quite a distraction from the matters at hand, as I'll happily show you below.

Lindsay Mills, quite distracting

What do you think, does Snowdens girl Lindsay Mills detract attention from the message of her boyfriend? Weigh in the comments below.

You ARE the product

It seems high time that we change our viewpoint of the relationship between us and the companies that we choose to give out or private information to. This is not the relationship anymore in the traditional sense that exists between consumers and the producer of a product. But as security expert Bruce Schneier points out in a recent Cryptogram: “We’re not Google’s customers, we’re Google’s product that they sell to their customers.” This is not an exaggeration; it's a business model. After all, we do not actually pay for anything, we are simply enlisted like drones into the armies of Facebook and Google. We are the true googlebots.

And the real question is: Do we mind? The real answer seems to be: “In theory: yes, in practice: no” Maybe its just down to good old human nature. So far we seem to have a lot of fun with these services. And we have not yet felt much of the possible effects that this commodification might entail. Who knows what the future will bring. In Schneiers sketch of the internet future: “It’s a three-way relationship: us, the IT service provider, and the advertiser or data buyer. And as these noncustomer IT relationships proliferate, we’ll see more IT companies treating us as products. If I buy a Dell computer, then I’m obviously a Dell customer; but if I get a Dell computer for free in exchange for access to my life, it’s much less obvious whom I’m entering a business relationship with. Facebook’s continual ratcheting down of user privacy in order to satisfy its actual customers—the advertisers—and enhance its revenue is just a hint of what’s to come.”

To Finalize: What we know and what we don't know

We know that the NSA does 1000's of illegal taps a year, we know that your information is handed over to the government by default, and we know that everybody can be spyed upon if they have as little as your email address. What we don't know, we don't know. But given the propensity for secrecy, what we know is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. Be safe out there, and live well.

Juts the few facts we know about NSA surveillance right now

I wholly recommend this

The classic


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