Growing up in the US, I heard about how Russia and China were totalitarian states, with the government listening in on everyone and–this is the important part–taking action. It wasn’t just that the state was listening in on your conversations, if you said the wrong thing, you really would get the dreaded midnight knock on the door. For now, in the US, that isn’t happening… yet. And that’s perhaps the most dangerous part. Some time, probably not too far away, the government will start jumping on what people say. And then it will be too late.
I have to admire Edward Snowden, the consultant who brought the secret of NSA snooping out on the world. He has brought a world of hurt upon himself: I hope that I would be able to do the same if pressed with similar circumstances. The New York Post suggested that he could face espionage charges if caught. Yeah, right: we’ll hear all about it at trial. If our leadership ever gets their hands on him, he’ll simply disappear.
OK, now that the cat is out of the bag, why don’t we simply stop it? No, it isn’t that we’d leave ourselves open to the terrorists. If someone is really a terrorist, the government can get a warrant like they’re supposed to. The other problem, that nobody dares breathe a word about, is that there are billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs associated with this effort. It drives research that maintains what’s left of our technological primacy. Do we really want more unemployed hordes?
The presumption of privacy for a telephone call had its origin in another time, and the telephone networks were designed and built around that premise. There is no presumption of privacy on the Internet: when you have an encrypted communication, perhaps to buy something or review your bank records, it’s the functional equivalent of having a conversation in a public park speaking, say, Inuit. You’re relying on the premise that nobody else can understand your conversation, and you accept the risk that there just might be another Inuit speaker in the park with you. (In fairness, with encryption you have a mathematical justification for your premise. But the risk is still there.) And even if the outsider cannot understand the content of the message, the fact that you’re meeting and the length of your conversation (the ‘metadata,’ to borrow a phrase) are still available for inspection. Anyhow, the telephone networks of years ago are largely history: now most telephone calls travel, for some part of their route, over IP networks, if not the actual Internet. And there isn’t any privacy over the Internet.