Privacy in a Networked World

This is the first post about Privacy in a Networked World, the Fourth Annual Symposium on the Future of Computation in Science and Engineering, at Harvard on Friday, January 23.

A Conversation between Bruce Schneier and Edward Snowden (video chat)

Bruce Schneier is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the author of Data and Goliath. Edward Snowden was a sysadmin at the NSA who revealed the extent of the government’s mass surveillance. The conversation was recorded (no joke) and is available on YouTube.

I have to say it was an incredibly cool feeling when Snowden popped up on the giant screen and was there in the room with us. There was sustained applause when he first appeared and also at the end of the conversation, when he was waving goodbye. Schneier started by asking Snowden about cryptography: What can and can’t be done? Snowden replied, “Encryption…is one of the few things that we can rely on.” When implemented properly, “encryption does work.” Poor cryptography, either through bad implementation or a weak algorithm, means weak security. End points are also weak spots, even if the data in transit is protected; it’s easier for an attacker to get around crypto than to break it.

Snowden pointed out a shift in the NSA’s focus over the last ten years from defense to offense. He encouraged us to ask Why? Is this proper? Appropriate? Does it benefit or serve the public?

The explosion in “passive” mass surveillance (collecting everything in case it’s needed later) is partly because it’s easy, cheap, and simple. If more data is encrypted, it becomes harder to sweep up, and hackers (including the NSA) who use more “active” techniques run a higher risk of exposure. This “hunger for risk has greatly increased” during the War on Terror era. Their targets are “crazy, unjustified….If they were truly risk averse they wouldn’t be doing this…it’s unlawful.”

Snowden said that the NSA “is completely free from any meaningful judicial oversight…in this environment, a culture of impunity develops.” Schneier said there were two kinds of oversight: tactical oversight within the organization (“did we follow the rules?”) and oversight from outside of the organization (“are these the right rules?”). He asked, “What is moral in our society?”

Snowden asked if the potential intelligence that we gain was worth the potential cost. He stated that reducing trust in the American infrastructure is a costly move; the information sector is crucial to our economy. The decrease in trust, he said, has already cost us more than the NSA’s budget. “They are not representing our interests.”

Schneier, using his NSA voice, said, “Corporations are spying on the whole internet, let’s get ourselves a copy!” (This was much re-tweeted.) “Personal information,” he said, “is the currency by which we buy our internet.” (Remember, if you can’t tell what the product is, you’re the product.) It’s “always amusing,” he said, when Google complains about the government spying on their users, because “it’s our job to spy on our users!” However, Schneier thinks that the attitudes of tech companies and standards bodies are changing.

These silos of information were too rich and interesting for governments to ignore, said Snowden, and there was no cost to scooping up the data because until 2013, “people didn’t realize how badly they were being sold up the river.” Schneier said that research into privacy-preserving technologies might increase now that there is more interest. Can we build a more privacy-preserving network, with less metadata?

“We’ve seen that the arguments for mass surveillance” haven’t really held up; there is little evidence that it has stopped many terrorist attacks. Schneier cited an article from the January 26, 2015 edition of The New Yorker, “The Whole Haystack,” in which author Mattathias Schwartz lists several recent terrorist attacks, and concludes, “In each of these cases, the authorities were not wanting for data. What they failed to do was appreciate the significance of the data they already had.”

Unlike during the Cold War, now “we all use the same stuff”: we can’t attack their networks and defend our networks, because it’s all the same thing. Schneier said, “Every time we hoard a zero-day opportunity [knowing about a security flaw], we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to attack.”


Snowden was a tough act to follow, especially for John DeLong, Director of the Commercial Solutions Center for the NSA, but that’s exactly who spoke next. Stay tuned.



2 thoughts on “Privacy in a Networked World

  1. Pingback: Privacy in a Networked World, II | Jenny Arch

  2. Pingback: Privacy in a Networked World, III | Jenny Arch

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