Edward Snowden Is Wrong: The War for Your Privacy Is Already Lost

"I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself." -- Edward Snowden, in a recent Washington Post interview.

Source: Laura Poitras, Praxis Films, Prism (screenshot via Wikipedia).

Edward Snowden has been one of 2013's most prominent and most polarizing figures. In his retelling, he's already won his battle against the encroaching surveillance state by simply giving them the chance to choose their future. But in a world where cameras are as common as computer chips, and where machines can learn who you are, what you like, where you go, and how you behave with greater levels of precision each passing year, the real war for privacy is already won by those who demand every citizen expose themselves to the watchful eyes of greater powers. Snowden's document dump may have only shown us what many long suspected -- that a world governed by ubiquitous technology is a world where privacy is a thing of the past.

The notion of privacy, as we understand it, is a relatively recent one. For thousands of years, with only a few localized exceptions, humans lived in small bands with few barriers between each other. They ate communally, farmed and hunted communally, ate around a communal campfire, and even squatted over a communal latrine. It was pretty hard not to know what your neighbor was up to, because you saw them every day, often for much of the day. This is the environment Internet pioneer Vint Cerf hearkened back to in a speech at the Federal Trade Commission's Internet of Things workshop last month. His comments -- "In a town of 3,000 people, there is no privacy," and more prominently, "privacy may actually be an anomaly " -- point out the fundamental flaw in the pro-privacy movement in an era of increasingly communal digital lives.

Think about that. Privacy may actually be an anomaly. The anonymity longtime Internet users took for granted since the early 90s is already fading into history, replaced by persistent online identities that follow us from site to site thanks to the efforts of Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) , Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) , and other Internet giants to embed themselves in our daily lives. Over 4.5 billion people click the "Like" button on Facebook each day (go ahead and click Like for this article now, you'll find the button floating at the top left of the page), and 350 million new photos flow into Facebook's servers daily from roughly 1.2 billion users worldwide.

That's a powerful example of the basic human need for close community, even in an era of global connections. Every Like you click and every photo you upload is you reaching out to your self-selected community of Facebook friends and saying "I'm here and I matter, and this is what I'm thinking about right now." Before the Industrial Revolution, you'd gather around the community well or church or firepit to talk about the same basic things. Most people want to talk about themselves and each other; otherwise Facebook wouldn't have 1.2 billion users sharing on a regular basis.

What profits the watchers?
Facebook updates and Google search histories haven't been the targets of Snowden's acts, but as technology continues to improve, corporate data-collection efforts will increasingly become indistinguishable from the digital dragnet cast across the Internet by the NSA and other surveillance agencies. It's already difficult to tell where Google ends and where the NSA begins, particularly in light of Snowden's revelation that the surveillance agency has actively worked to infiltrate the search giant's servers at a very basic level . Nor should anyone feel particularly reassured when NSA backers claim that no identifying information is collected by the agency's "routine" data-gathering efforts. A Stanford Security Lab research project  recently showed that metadata (phone numbers and basic call records) can easily be matched to individuals or businesses, often with simple searches on Facebook and other major sites that retain user information. As we share more of ourselves with the commercial Internet, we wind up sharing ourselves with the surveillance web as well, intentionally or not.

Source: SHARE Conference via Flickr.

What sort of world do we have in store as surveillance becomes truly pervasive? I recently considered the possibility that tomorrow's children simply won't comprehend the notions of privacy that today's anti-surveillance crusaders grew up with, and that by exposing them (and ourselves) to social media at ever-earlier ages, we come to accept a reality in which being watched, watching others, and wanting to give others something to watch or see are all simply a part of our daily lives. When I was growing up, we watched TV. Now we watch each other. Some forms of entertainment ask us to give parts of ourselves in exchange for inexpensive access. TV asked us to give away a part of our creative imaginations. The Internet asks us to give up part, or all, of our private lives.Future battles for privacy probably won't take place over how much data winds up in corporate or government hands, but over what corporations and governments are obligated or allowed to do with that data. Even this more limited battleground may be stacked against privacy crusaders; there's little indication that either big business or the world's surveillance states have any intention of loosening their chokehold on the flow of information.

The truth is that it's becoming easier with each passing year to give up our private lives without really thinking about it, and the real driver of this loss of privacy is not the government, but data-hungry businesses that ask us to trade parts of our lives for free access to information (Google) or entertainment (Facebook). Hardware solutions, like cameras and GPS chips, will keep improving in quality while simultaneously becoming cheaper, and these are not the focal point of today's most advanced surveillance efforts. Rather, it's what happens to the data our hardware creates that determines how much of our lives become part of the surveillance web. The software solutions to this hardware-driven data explosion are becoming dramatically better, and it's data-driven companies like Google and Facebook that are leading its development.

Thinking machines
Machine learning is one way of approaching the classic Big Data problem -- how do you make sense of a flood of information, much of which is dreck and noise? Google has used it to train its systems to recognize images on YouTube videos, and also uses it to improve voice recognition accuracy. IBM's (NYSE: IBM  ) Watson platform , which was so successful at trivia shows, uses machine learning techniques to answer complex questions and has been put into service as a resource for diagnosticians. If the medical drama House were remade a few years from now, Watson would probably solve the show's major problem within the first sequence, leaving viewers to enjoy 50 minutes of uninterrupted sexual tension and interpersonal sniping without all that fancy hospital talk. Facebook, too, is entering the machine learning field in a big way, as it's recently hired New York University machine-learning guru Yann LeCun  to lead an effort to derive meaning and business value from the 350 million photos its users upload every day.

Source: Mike Herbst via Flickr.

Computers that can diagnose problems, identify voices, and analyze images are only some of the works in progress that take the data billions of people willingly create every day and translate it into a form that companies can use to identify and target you. This sort of software is extraordinarily difficult to create at the moment -- an advanced form of machine learning called "deep learning " claims fewer than 100 graduate students worldwide, and salaries of $250,000 are not uncommon for these rare gems. But high remuneration and intense demand tend to combine to swell professional ranks, so it's reasonable to expect deep learning experts, and other machine learning pros, to be far more common in a decade than they are today. By that point, such advanced solutions to the Big Data problem are likely to be far more commonplace, too.

Most people have a deep human need to share themselves with a community. With few exceptions, we give away bits of ourselves as the price of entry to the global online community, and most of us do so quite willingly. Society's already determined itself to be OK with this arrangement, which is something privacy advocates like Edward Snowden don't seem to fully appreciate. The data genie is already out of the bottle, so to speak. Instead of trying to cram it back inside, let's ask it instead to keep us safe from those -- government and corporations included -- that would use it to do us harm.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 2:16 PM, Vernon1943 wrote:

    Snowden is not wrong, If we have to have Armed

    Revolution to Remove the current Administration

    and Dismantle the NSA.

    We Armed American Citizens will Fight

    with every ounce of our energy, The same as

    as my GGG Grand Father Did in 1776

    Vernon Gomez

    Bryan Texas

    Viva la Revolution

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 3:22 PM, Bvedel wrote:

    Privacy is an anomoly. What a pointless comment. FREEDOM is an anomoly. So does this mean we shouldn't want freedom? Does this mean we should just accept oppression and criminal behavior from our Government? Any of you out there right now who say you don't care about privacy, your freedom, your rights..etc.. YOU ARE NOT AMERICANS! Renounce your citizenship immediately as you have no right to claim it. Many many people have fought and died for those rights and there are many true Americans that are prepared to continue to fight for them. Facebook, Twitter, etc.. is a SCAM to data mine information about us and destroy our privacy and our rights one at a time. Free enterprise and Capitalism is GREAT and this is the best road for our country but these corporations have corrupted our system of trade and bought and paid for our legislature to turn us into mindless consuming units with no independent thought. The NSA is a tool and they are doing what they were told to do by the legislature. If you aren't happy with what they are doing as I am not, then the blame and need for change should go where it belongs. CONGRESS funds and directs federal agencies. CONGRESS voted for the Patriot act. Don't blame the NSA or FBI, CIA..whatever. Who cares who's president? The president is not required to represent us, he is the head of the executive branch. We need to vote and hold accountable our Congress. That's where the power is and that's who has the responsibility for decision making. That's who is supposed to be representing the people.

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 3:57 PM, Lesliewonder wrote:

    The real reason Obama’s poll numbers are down are because of his support for the NSA. His putting security through secrecy and their crony laws over truth, has put his ratings in the doldrums. He thinks Snowden’s empowering our adversaries and straining relationships with our allies more detrimental then the fear in the populace of an NSA out of control. Who think will turn on us, on a dime, once they’re wholly politicized.

    His, Obama’s assumptions based on basketball, thinking the other team more lethal, and about to score again and that the opposition’s fans are everywhere even among our populace . That the NSA protects the team, an our people this way. That people don’t change; that evil will always exist in the world. That adversaries will eventually fall to greater power. That our history is good evidence for that. So we need to be hard nosed about our security.

    Those being the assumptions, the world view of most of the policy makers in our foreign policy establishment, i.e. our Military, Oil, Industrial and Intelligence communities in the US and elsewhere. Despite what’s come from Snowden’s leaking.

    At lease we’re aware now of how close we are to, ‘1984’. We been shown once again, how those who think they’re trying to protect us can easily lie to us. We’ve been alerted to the suicidal amount of money involved in intelligence gathering. We’ve been given an opportunity to assess the efficacy of our spy and intelligence gathering services. Even those in the Intelligence community, were given a opportunity to access what they’re doing here on the earth at this time. At least those who haven’t been totally captured by their assumptions, and their world view, like the one listed above, and by the money and their indoctrination. Who like sheep can only justify and rationalize their peeping and blacklisting in order to maintain their jobs, outlook and equilibrium.

    Yet with a different set of assumptions about the workings of the world, all that supposed hurt and damage, that Snowden did, that all falls apart.

    Namely that spying and intelligence gathering is more often perceived by others as nefarious, thus fear producing, which people will defend against. That one’s enemies are entities developed by fear and opposition albeit unconsciously? That enemies are a function of their opposition’s policies as much as they are a function of their own greed, fear and dogma. That an adversaries lethality is a function of your own. That they’ll attempt to match, or even better yours. That this years enemies are next years friends if you play you cards right, an look for win-win solutions, explain what your doing, by winding down tensions and establishing trade and economic ties.

    That openness and truth allows you to make decisions about efficacy. Whether spying really protects you and yours. If it isn’t just setting your grand children up for wars in their generation. That spying isn’t just duping for enmity. That people in the world can evolve up and away from enmity by choosing differently and having different assumptions, thinking strategically.

    There’s plenty of evidence in history for this as well. So with this set of assumptions Snowden’s more like a savior. Saving the NSA that is, giving it a chance to reform into an agency that works for veracity instead of its opposite.

    So the question is, which set of assumptions do you want carved on your tomb stone, by you son’s and daughter’s when you die, telling the sky what you did, who you were and why?

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 5:38 PM, reidh wrote:

    I'm only an occasional foolish reader, but I find your foolish writer "Panes" to be drunkenly cynically confounding interpersonal privacy with Homosexualistic FBI-style wiretapping by Taxpayer Funded Government Agencies ( notice it is plural in actuality ) since 1952. He is being over-paid to do what young punks today do. Overlook any educational retrospective history and lump all sex toys into the same category. You claim yourselves to be foolish, well that isn't foolish, its asinine ignorance, and it is that, up with which I will not put.

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 5:48 PM, CashorStock wrote:

    I think you confused what the victory is, Snowden has never advocated a dark age information philosophy, only to make us aware of what the government is doing with the information.

    We all suspected they were doing things like this, and those in the information business knew it for a fact, as well as the capabilities of the technology, what Snowden did is take this from the realm of the tin foil hat crowd to mainstream hard reporting with facts to support his claims and undeniable proof.

    Going from Clancy to Front page NYT's, WP and most others was a significant win for everyone.

    Snowden is not about putting the genie back in the bottle, he is about the ground rules between society and government on access to that information and what rights we have if any to how the information we must give up and willingly give up to participate in the Internet can be used to do us harm, specifically from the government.

    If you look historically there is no other entity known to do people more harm with information than authorities and governments.

    What Snowden did was bring the discussion into the public mainstream, where we can do what you said we did on internet use, decide what we find acceptable in trade for our information and what authorities and government can to do with that information.

    Snowden actually won this pretty early, but I think the timing of his claim is appropriate, it is painfully clear that his claims were not conspiracy theory and we have an issue that rates talking about.

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 9:55 PM, thegodfather4u wrote:

    ... When the NSA/CIA violated our rights guaranteed to all under the Constitution, they committed TREASON and they opened all the privacy doors you and I had to everyone in the entire world. Now I have to use a VPN to pay bills, log on my bank, insurance etc, if I don't all my information can be stolen in nano seconds, (and a vpn is no total safeguard either) and it is all open now thanks to the NSA committing TREASON against the American people and spying on all we held sacred, and the rest are sure to follow their game. I assure you all our emails, phones, social network conversations, passwords and discussions will be open to anyone and everyone, thus NOW OUR SO-CALLED SUPREME COURT (an oxy moron) IS TELLING AMERICANS THEY DON'T CARE EITHER............no bull, just fact !!!!!!!!!!!!!...TREASON IS PUNISHABLE BY DEATH .......The NSA is not only collecting phone calls, but also bank transfers, financial records, emails, travel records, social media communications, health records and more. All of this will soon be housed in the NSA’s new mega-data-center in Utah, where a 5-zettabyte storage facility will be completed this fall. All of the known digital information in the world is believed to be only about 2.7 zettabytes, so the NSA has big plans to spy on you. In fact, they will know more about you than you know about yourself.

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 10:55 PM, emiguel wrote:

    Snowden opened our eyes to the magnitude of the problem that everybody knew existed, just how big it was caught everybody by surprise.

    By the way does anybody have the nsa´s phone?

    I forgot my password.....

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 11:40 PM, TacitusDominatus wrote:

    The insidious, hence dangerous, message this article slips in is that the right to privacy exists to protect us from ourselves; which couldn't be further from the truth.

    The right to privacy WAS a fail-safe instituted by our nation's founders to protect our form of self-government from those men who would serve in it. Men who would arbitrarily take it upon themselves to violate the very foundation upon which this nation WAS founded.

    The underlying deception here is that just because many tend to throw away their privacy (which they are free to do) that there is no danger in permitting those unilateral-types we have in government today to literally ride roughshod over individuals' privacy without warrant and our constitutional charter without permission. That would be that constitutional charter (5 USC 3331) that they swore an oath to support and defend!

    Brian Kilcullen

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 11:49 PM, fyrist wrote:

    "The notion of privacy, as we understand it, is a relatively recent one."

    ..as is the notion of democracy, equality between the sexes and races, science, medicine.. nearly everything that makes life worth living.

    Shall we also give those up without a fight?

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2013, at 11:55 PM, fyrist wrote:

    All the arguments about the latest communication technology developments making it easier to spy and control applied to the last several developments too.

    the television, radio, telephone.. even the regular US mail made it easier than it was before.

    freedom and privacy is not determined by technology. it is determined by our determination.

    As Jefferson said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. This is one of the things he was talking about.

    Its time to exercise a little vigilance right now.

    This is not a right issue or a left issue. its an American issue. Our nation (in fact, the world) needs both sides to send a clear message to those in government: stop this *now* or get the f out.

    We can go back to squabbling later.

  • Report this Comment On December 30, 2013, at 12:14 AM, fyrist wrote:

    The fact that the tech giants suddenly grew a spine and/or a conscience, and have finally begun pushing back against the government, is a clear indication that they are aware that nothing about them is inevitable.

    People vote with their feet more often, and arguably more effectively, than they vote with the ballot. So corporations can't be quite as tone-deaf as government can.

    People want privacy and, with or without our present masters, we are going to get it.

    Google is beginning to figure that out. Obama and the SCOTUS have heard the rumbling, even if they haven't experienced the storm yet. Congress is next.

  • Report this Comment On December 30, 2013, at 2:04 PM, ironhead wrote:

    START SHINING YOUR GOLDEN BB'S PEOPLE!!!

  • Report this Comment On December 30, 2013, at 3:58 PM, nismo724 wrote:

    There is a difference in privacy at home and in a public place. Keeping records of texts, phone calls and emails for decades to be used against you in a court of law, if you can call tribunals a court of law, is unjust and UNCONSTITUIONAL! What ever happened to the right to defend yourself and not to testify against yourself? We have all said and done things in our past that we shouldn't have but with todays technology the images last forever and that's scary!

  • Report this Comment On December 31, 2013, at 10:19 AM, PeakOilBill wrote:

    Hey, all you right wing 'wacko birds' Obama haters, Bush and Cheney ramped it up exponentially, soon after 9/11.

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