POTUS Puts Leash on Surveillance Agency – Short Enough?

It seems to never end – only this week we learned that the NSA’s Dishfire-system picks up close to 200 million text messages every day. Americans are not the only culprits, UK’s GCHQ also use the system. And it also turns out that spy programs were inserted in a 100,000 computers before they were shipped to customers, so the NSA and its associates could monitor them even if they’re not connected to the internet. We can only expect more reveals will follow, the age of innocence is over for sure. It used to be that we could feel secure by hiding in plain sight, just because the numbers were so big: billions of users, calls, messages, e-mails, status updates, GPS records. But with big data analysis, the shoal no longer obscures the fish. Everything digital should be regarded as immediately visible to authorities and private companies, even if you’re not online. When privacy is of the essence, use non-digital communication (and I don’t mean postcards).

Oxford professor of internet governance, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, should be familiar to most Netopia-readers by now. His thinking, and previous book Delete, is an obvious influence on EU data protection policies such as the “right to be forgotten”. In his more recent work, Mayer-Schönberger moves the focus from collection of data, to the use and suggests accountability to be the most effective regulatory tool. The only problem with this approach is once the data is collected, the risk is it will leak one way or other never mind the best intentions of the collector.

Today, President Obama announced restrictions on the NSA’s mandate. For sure they could be more ambitious, but the basic idea is sound. Anonymity and invisibility is not the answer to privacy. In fact, they are an illusion with today’s technology. Democracy is much better, government institutions should decide what information can be collected, for what purpose and how it can be used. Not only for government functions, but also for private data collectors. The questions will then be “what should be collected”, “why”, “how can it be used” and “when should it be deleted”. Those are great questions for public debate. Much better than the current “if” there should be any restrictions whatsoever on what happens online. Great to see Obama in this camp. Next order of business should be to drop the charges against Edward Snowden. Why not bring him on board as an expert advisor to the government on these matters? You know, just like cyber-security companies make a habit of hiring the hackers that beat their systems.