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Thursday, June 08, 2023

Has technology enabled a surveillance society?

The Guardian carries an interesting article focussing on the reflections of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed the scale of surveillance – some of it illegal – by the US National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ, and subsequently fled to Russia.

The most chilling part of that interview is Snowden's warning that surveillance technology is so much more advanced and intrusive today that it makes that used by US and British intelligence agencies he revealed in 2013 look like child’s play:

But he is depressed about inroads into privacy both in the physical and digital world. “Technology has grown to be enormously influential,” Snowden said. “If we think about what we saw in 2013 and the capabilities of governments today, 2013 seems like child’s play.”

He expressed concern not only about dangers posed by governments and Big Tech but commercially available video surveillance cameras, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and intrusive spyware such as Pegasus used against dissidents and journalists.

Looking back to 2013, he said: “We trusted the government not to screw us. But they did. We trusted the tech companies not to take advantage of us. But they did. That is going to happen again, because that is the nature of power.”

The paper says that Snowden views the widespread use of end-to-end encryption as one of the positive legacies of the leaks:

The big Tech companies had been embarrassed by revelations the NSA had been handing over personal data.

That embarrassment turned to anger when further leaks revealed that, in spite of that cooperation, the NSA had been helping themselves to data from the Big Tech companies through backdoor vulnerabilities. In response, in spite of opposition from the agencies, companies rushed in end-to-end encryption years earlier than planned.

End-to-end encryption “was a pipe dream in 2013 when the story broke”, Snowden said. “An enormous fraction of global internet traffic traveled electronically naked. Now, it is a rare sight.”

But Snowden is worried by technological advances that eat into privacy. “The idea that after the revelations in 2013 there would be rainbows and unicorns the next day is not realistic. It is an ongoing process. And we will have to be working at it for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives and beyond.”

I suppose most of us knew this already, it's just not so comfortable having it pointed out to us by an insider, albeit a disgraced one.
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