Bruce Schneier: “Surveillance by algorithm.”
Government and big business are collecting vast troves of data about us, but they claim it isn’t actually surveillance until a human being looks at it.
> Increasingly, we are watched not by people but by algorithms. Amazon and Netflix track the books we buy and the movies we stream, and suggest other books and movies based on our habits. Google and Facebook watch what we do and what we say, and show us advertisements based on our behavior. Google even modifies our web search results based on our previous behavior. Smartphone navigation apps watch us as we drive, and update suggested route information based on traffic congestion. And the National Security Agency, of course, monitors our phone calls, emails and locations, then uses that information to try to identify terrorists.
> Documents provided by Edward Snowden and revealed by the Guardian today show that the UK spy agency GHCQ, with help from the NSA, has been collecting millions of webcam images from innocent Yahoo users. And that speaks to a key distinction in the age of algorithmic surveillance: is it really okay for a computer to monitor you online, and for that data collection and analysis only to count as a potential privacy invasion when a person sees it? I say it’s not, and the latest Snowden leaks only make more clear how important this distinction is.
The NSA wants to redefine the word “collects” to say it means what the agency wants it to mean.
> Director of National Intelligence James Clapper likened the NSA’s accumulation of data to a library. All those books are stored on the shelves, but very few are actually read. “So the task for us in the interest of preserving security and preserving civil liberties and privacy,” says Clapper, “is to be as precise as we possibly can be when we go in that library and look for the books that we need to open up and actually read.” Only when an individual book is read does it count as “collection,” in government parlance.
> So, think of that friend of yours who has thousands of books in his house. According to the NSA, he’s not actually “collecting” books. He’s doing something else with them, and the only books he can claim to have “collected” are the ones he’s actually read.
> In the words of one Google executive: “Worrying about a computer reading your email is like worrying about your dog seeing you naked.”
But now that we have an example of a spy agency seeing people naked — there are a surprising number of sexually explicit images in the newly revealed Yahoo image collection — we can more viscerally understand the difference.
> To wit: when you’re watched by a dog, you know that what you’re doing will go no further than the dog.
The dog doesn’t remember the experience, or even know what it’s seeing. It won’t use the information to market to you, arrest you, or otherwise restrict your freedom. The dog won’t leak the information to outsiders, or have it stolen by hackers.