This week saw two interesting, and supposedly shocking, stories about the scale of the US government’s Internet surveillance. Starting Thursday with the news that the phone operator Verizon had been ordered to hand over all meta-data on its customers’ communications to the NSA. The following day, a different program was revealed, leaked by the means of a terribly amateurishly looking PowerPoint slide deck, which showed that the NSA had direct access to all customer data and content from all the major Internet service providers, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and more.
The reaction to the first story is interesting in that it involves only meta-data. The same type of data collection was enacted in law by the EU in the 2006 Data Retention Directive. This directive was no secret at the time, and the scrimmage in individual member countries which started to implement it a few years back was mostly around who would pay for it; the Internet and phone providers or the government. At any rate, by now any EU citizen should expect this kind of system to be in place. It is therefore somewhat ironic when the US press pretends that there are stronger privacy protections in place on their side. The last decade has for the most shown the opposite to be true.
The second story, around the full content access, should be no big surprise either. A similar story broke seven years ago, although it was and still is considered “warrantless”. Another example from the post-911 area is the Information Awareness Office, which despite heavy criticisms in 2002, still lives on. And even before that, it has always been speculated that the US government, through CIA, NSA, FBI or other TLAs, was listening in on phone and Internet communication. Take for example the ECHELON project, which probably has been around since the cold war area. It was investigated by a committee of the European Parliament, which amongst other things concluded: “the existence of a global system for intercepting communications, operating by means of cooperation proportionate to their capabilities among the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the UKUSA Agreement, is no longer in doubt”.
So why the outrage just now? We don’t have to look further than The Guardian’s summary: “Obama defends secret NSA surveillance programs – Insists surveillance is essential for national security.” In that light, it no longer seems like a coincidence that two completely separate NSA programs were leaked on two consecutive days. As a political cheap shot, it seems to have worked very well. What’s more, Obama took the bait, and swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
So even though these stories are akin to declaring water wet, from a privacy and security point of view, it is useful that more people are made aware of and start to ponder the risks of the information systems we surround ourselves with. We just have to make sure that the outrage is directed towards the right institutions, and that any change is implemented where users need it. Voting, joining a political party, and working for change within that system is definitely a noble goal, however, it will unfortunately not protect your data any time soon. Asking the various ISP and service providers to improve their security, encrypt our data, and not hand it over to the government is also appropriate. It’s just that they are required by law to hand over data, so we cannot trust that to not happen.
The only way to make sure your own data is secure from government hands, and be aware of any requests that might be made against it, is to store it yourself. If you are storing something they are after, that will of course not stop them from knocking on your door, but at the very least you will know.
The right response to these stories is not blind rage, resignation, or declaring defeat. Rather it should be to decentralize: Avoid large scale, single point of failure, services. Build and maintain your own systems, based on free and open source software, so you can be confident that no warrantless access is granted. Make sure data is encrypted, communication is encrypted and signed, and nothing flies in plain-text over the Internet. If you are dealing with sensitive information, maybe as a lawyer, as a doctor, or a secret business deal, anything else is simply incompetent, or possibly gross neglect.