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Schneier on Security: Blog Entries Tagged surveillance

Schneier on Security

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Entries Tagged “surveillance”

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How Surveillance Inhibits Freedom of Expression

In my book Data and Goliath, I write about the value of privacy. I talk about how it is essential for political liberty and justice, and for commercial fairness and equality. I talk about how it increases personal freedom and individual autonomy, and how the lack of it makes us all less secure. But this is probably the most important argument as to why society as a whole must protect privacy: it allows society to progress.

We know that surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom. People change their behavior when they live their lives under surveillance. They are less likely to speak freely and act individually. They self-censor. They become conformist. This is obviously true for government surveillance, but is true for corporate surveillance as well. We simply aren't as willing to be our individual selves when others are watching.

Let's take an example: hearing that parents and children are being separated as they cross the US border, you want to learn more. You visit the website of an international immigrants' rights group, a fact that is available to the government through mass Internet surveillance. You sign up for the group's mailing list, another fact that is potentially available to the government. The group then calls or e-mails to invite you to a local meeting. Same. Your license plates can be collected as you drive to the meeting; your face can be scanned and identified as you walk into and out of the meeting. If, instead of visiting the website, you visit the group's Facebook page, Facebook knows that you did and that feeds into its profile of you, available to advertisers and political activists alike. Ditto if you like their page, share a link with your friends, or just post about the issue.

Maybe you are an immigrant yourself, documented or not. Or maybe some of your family is. Or maybe you have friends or coworkers who are. How likely are you to get involved if you know that your interest and concern can be gathered and used by government and corporate actors? What if the issue you are interested in is pro- or anti-gun control, anti-police violence or in support of the police? Does that make a difference?

Maybe the issue doesn't matter, and you would never be afraid to be identified and tracked based on your political or social interests. But even if you are so fearless, you probably know someone who has more to lose, and thus more to fear, from their personal, sexual, or political beliefs being exposed.

This isn't just hypothetical. In the months and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of us censored what we spoke about on social media or what we searched on the Internet. We know from a 2013 PEN study that writers in the United States self-censored their browsing habits out of fear the government was watching. And this isn't exclusively an American event; Internet self-censorship is prevalent across the globe, China being a prime example.

Ultimately, this fear stagnates society in two ways. The first is that the presence of surveillance means society cannot experiment with new things without fear of reprisal, and that means those experiments­ -- if found to be inoffensive or even essential to society -- ­cannot slowly become commonplace, moral, and then legal. If surveillance nips that process in the bud, change never happens. All social progress­ -- from ending slavery to fighting for women's rights­ -- began as ideas that were, quite literally, dangerous to assert. Yet without the ability to safely develop, discuss, and eventually act on those assertions, our society would not have been able to further its democratic values in the way that it has.

Consider the decades-long fight for gay rights around the world. Within our lifetimes we have made enormous strides to combat homophobia and increase acceptance of queer folks' right to marry. Queer relationships slowly progressed from being viewed as immoral and illegal, to being viewed as somewhat moral and tolerated, to finally being accepted as moral and legal.

In the end, it was the public nature of those activities that eventually slayed the bigoted beast, but the ability to act in private was essential in the beginning for the early experimentation, community building, and organizing.

Marijuana legalization is going through the same process: it's currently sitting between somewhat moral, and­ -- depending on the state or country in question -- ­tolerated and legal. But, again, for this to have happened, someone decades ago had to try pot and realize that it wasn't really harmful, either to themselves or to those around them. Then it had to become a counterculture, and finally a social and political movement. If pervasive surveillance meant that those early pot smokers would have been arrested for doing something illegal, the movement would have been squashed before inception. Of course the story is more complicated than that, but the ability for members of society to privately smoke weed was essential for putting it on the path to legalization.

We don't yet know which subversive ideas and illegal acts of today will become political causes and positive social change tomorrow, but they're around. And they require privacy to germinate. Take away that privacy, and we'll have a much harder time breaking down our inherited moral assumptions.

The second way surveillance hurts our democratic values is that it encourages society to make more things illegal. Consider the things you do­ -- the different things each of us does­ -- that portions of society find immoral. Not just recreational drugs and gay sex, but gambling, dancing, public displays of affection. All of us do things that are deemed immoral by some groups, but are not illegal because they don't harm anyone. But it's important that these things can be done out of the disapproving gaze of those who would otherwise rally against such practices.

If there is no privacy, there will be pressure to change. Some people will recognize that their morality isn't necessarily the morality of everyone­ -- and that that's okay. But others will start demanding legislative change, or using less legal and more violent means, to force others to match their idea of morality.

It's easy to imagine the more conservative (in the small-c sense, not in the sense of the named political party) among us getting enough power to make illegal what they would otherwise be forced to witness. In this way, privacy helps protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

This is how we got Prohibition in the 1920s, and if we had had today's surveillance capabilities in the 1920s, it would have been far more effectively enforced. Recipes for making your own spirits would have been much harder to distribute. Speakeasies would have been impossible to keep secret. The criminal trade in illegal alcohol would also have been more effectively suppressed. There would have been less discussion about the harms of Prohibition, less "what if we didn't?" thinking. Political organizing might have been difficult. In that world, the law might have stuck to this day.

China serves as a cautionary tale. The country has long been a world leader in the ubiquitous surveillance of its citizens, with the goal not of crime prevention but of social control. They are about to further enhance their system, giving every citizen a "social credit" rating. The details are yet unclear, but the general concept is that people will be rated based on their activities, both online and off. Their political comments, their friends and associates, and everything else will be assessed and scored. Those who are conforming, obedient, and apolitical will be given high scores. People without those scores will be denied privileges like access to certain schools and foreign travel. If the program is half as far-reaching as early reports indicate, the subsequent pressure to conform will be enormous. This social surveillance system is precisely the sort of surveillance designed to maintain the status quo.

For social norms to change, people need to deviate from these inherited norms. People need the space to try alternate ways of living without risking arrest or social ostracization. People need to be able to read critiques of those norms without anyone's knowledge, discuss them without their opinions being recorded, and write about their experiences without their names attached to their words. People need to be able to do things that others find distasteful, or even immoral. The minority needs protection from the tyranny of the majority.

Privacy makes all of this possible. Privacy encourages social progress by giving the few room to experiment free from the watchful eye of the many. Even if you are not personally chilled by ubiquitous surveillance, the society you live in is, and the personal costs are unequivocal.

This essay originally appeared in McSweeney's issue #54: "The End of Trust." It was reprinted on

Posted on November 26, 2018 at 6:54 AMView Comments

The PCLOB Needs a Director

The US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is looking for a director. Among other things, this board has some oversight role over the NSA. More precisely, it can examine what any executive-branch agency is doing about counterterrorism. So it can examine the program of TSA watchlists, NSA anti-terrorism surveillance, and FBI counterterrorism activities.

The PCLOB was established in 2004 (when it didn't do much), disappeared from 2007-2012, and reconstituted in 2012. It issued a major report on NSA surveillance in 2014. It has dwindled since then, having as few as one member. Last month, the Senate confirmed three new members, including Ed Felten.

So, potentially an important job if anyone out there is interested.

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 6:44 AMView Comments

Israeli Surveillance Gear

The Israeli Defense Force mounted a botched raid in Gaza. They were attempting to install surveillance gear, which they ended up leaving behind. (There are photos -- scroll past the video.) Israeli media is claiming that the capture of this gear by Hamas causes major damage to Israeli electronic surveillance capabilities. The Israelis themselves destroyed the vehicle the commandos used to enter Gaza. I'm guessing they did so because there was more gear in it they didn't want falling into the Palestinians' hands.

Can anyone intelligently speculate about what the photos shows? And if there are other photos on the Internet, please post them.

Posted on November 18, 2018 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Are the Police Using Smart-Home IoT Devices to Spy on People?

IoT devices are surveillance devices, and manufacturers generally use them to collect data on their customers. Surveillance is still the business model of the Internet, and this data is used against the customers' interests: either by the device manufacturer or by some third party the manufacturer sells the data to. Of course, this data can be used by the police as well; the purpose depends on the country.

None of this is new, and much of it was discussed in my book Data and Goliath. What is common is for Internet companies is to publish "transparency reports" that give at least general information about how police are using that data. IoT companies don't publish those reports.

TechCrunch asked a bunch of companies about this, and basically found that no one is talking.

Boing Boing post.

Posted on October 22, 2018 at 8:13 AMView Comments

Another Bloomberg Story about Supply-Chain Hardware Attacks from China

Bloomberg has another story about hardware surveillance implants in equipment made in China. This implant is different from the one Bloomberg reported on last week. That story has been denied by pretty much everyone else, but Bloomberg is sticking by its story and its sources. (I linked to other commentary and analysis here.)

Again, I have no idea what's true. The story is plausible. The denials are about what you'd expect. My lone hesitation to believing this is not seeing a photo of the hardware implant. If these things were in servers all over the US, you'd think someone would have come up with a photograph by now.

EDITED TO ADD (10/12): Three more links worth reading.

Posted on October 11, 2018 at 6:29 AMView Comments

Counting People through a Wall with Wi-Fi

Interesting research:

In the team's experiments, one WiFi transmitter and one WiFi receiver are behind walls, outside a room in which a number of people are present. The room can get very crowded with as many as 20 people zigzagging each other. The transmitter sends a wireless signal whose received signal strength (RSSI) is measured by the receiver. Using only such received signal power measurements, the receiver estimates how many people are inside the room ­ an estimate that closely matches the actual number. It is noteworthy that the researchers do not do any prior measurements or calibration in the area of interest; their approach has only a very short calibration phase that need not be done in the same area.

Academic paper.

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 7:43 AMView Comments

Five-Eyes Intelligence Services Choose Surveillance Over Security

The Five Eyes -- the intelligence consortium of the rich English-speaking countries (the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand) -- have issued a "Statement of Principles on Access to Evidence and Encryption" where they claim their needs for surveillance outweigh everyone's needs for security and privacy.

...the increasing use and sophistication of certain encryption designs present challenges for nations in combatting serious crimes and threats to national and global security. Many of the same means of encryption that are being used to protect personal, commercial and government information are also being used by criminals, including child sex offenders, terrorists and organized crime groups to frustrate investigations and avoid detection and prosecution.

Privacy laws must prevent arbitrary or unlawful interference, but privacy is not absolute. It is an established principle that appropriate government authorities should be able to seek access to otherwise private information when a court or independent authority has authorized such access based on established legal standards. The same principles have long permitted government authorities to search homes, vehicles, and personal effects with valid legal authority.

The increasing gap between the ability of law enforcement to lawfully access data and their ability to acquire and use the content of that data is a pressing international concern that requires urgent, sustained attention and informed discussion on the complexity of the issues and interests at stake. Otherwise, court decisions about legitimate access to data are increasingly rendered meaningless, threatening to undermine the systems of justice established in our democratic nations.

To put it bluntly, this is reckless and shortsighted. I've repeatedly written about why this can't be done technically, and why trying results in insecurity. But there's a greater principle at first: we need to decide, as nations and as society, to put defense first. We need a "defense dominant" strategy for securing the Internet and everything attached to it.

This is important. Our national security depends on the security of our technologies. Demanding that technology companies add backdoors to computers and communications systems puts us all at risk. We need to understand that these systems are too critical to our society and -- now that they can affect the world in a direct physical manner -- affect our lives and property as well.

This is what I just wrote, in Click Here to Kill Everybody:

There is simply no way to secure US networks while at the same time leaving foreign networks open to eavesdropping and attack. There's no way to secure our phones and computers from criminals and terrorists without also securing the phones and computers of those criminals and terrorists. On the generalized worldwide network that is the Internet, anything we do to secure its hardware and software secures it everywhere in the world. And everything we do to keep it insecure similarly affects the entire world.

This leaves us with a choice: either we secure our stuff, and as a side effect also secure their stuff; or we keep their stuff vulnerable, and as a side effect keep our own stuff vulnerable. It's actually not a hard choice. An analogy might bring this point home. Imagine that every house could be opened with a master key, and this was known to the criminals. Fixing those locks would also mean that criminals' safe houses would be more secure, but it's pretty clear that this downside would be worth the trade-off of protecting everyone's house. With the Internet+ increasing the risks from insecurity dramatically, the choice is even more obvious. We must secure the information systems used by our elected officials, our critical infrastructure providers, and our businesses.

Yes, increasing our security will make it harder for us to eavesdrop, and attack, our enemies in cyberspace. (It won't make it impossible for law enforcement to solve crimes; I'll get to that later in this chapter.) Regardless, it's worth it. If we are ever going to secure the Internet+, we need to prioritize defense over offense in all of its aspects. We've got more to lose through our Internet+ vulnerabilities than our adversaries do, and more to gain through Internet+ security. We need to recognize that the security benefits of a secure Internet+ greatly outweigh the security benefits of a vulnerable one.

We need to have this debate at the level of national security. Putting spy agencies in charge of this trade-off is wrong, and will result in bad decisions.

Cory Doctorow has a good reaction.

Slashdot post.

Posted on September 6, 2018 at 6:41 AMView Comments

Google Tracks Its Users Even If They Opt Out of Tracking

Google is tracking you, even if you turn off tracking:

Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you've been. Google's support page on the subject states: "You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored."

That isn't true. Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.

For example, Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app. Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint roughly where you are. And some searches that have nothing to do with location, like "chocolate chip cookies," or "kids science kits," pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude ­- accurate to the square foot -­ and save it to your Google account.

On the one hand, this isn't surprising to technologists. Lots of applications use location data. On the other hand, it's very surprising -- and counterintuitive -- to everyone else. And that's why this is a problem.

I don't think we should pick on Google too much, though. Google is a symptom of the bigger problem: surveillance capitalism in general. As long as surveillance is the business model of the Internet, things like this are inevitable.

BoingBoing story.

Good commentary.

Posted on August 14, 2018 at 6:22 AMView Comments

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