Unaccountable surveillance is wrong

As I mentioned earlier, the information in the documents released by Edward Snowden show a clear pattern of corporate and government abuse of the information networks that are now deeply intertwined with the lives of many people all over the world.

Surveillance is a power dynamic where the party doing the spying has power over the party being surveilled. The surveillance state that results when one party has "Global Cryptologic Dominance" is a seriously bad outcome. The old saw goes "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". In this case, the stated goal of my government appears to be absolute power in this domain, with no constraint on the inevitable corruption. If you are a supporter of any sort of a just social contract (e.g. International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance), the situation should be deeply disturbing.

One of the major sub-threads in this discussion is how the NSA and their allies have actively tampered with and weakened the cryptographic infrastructure that everyone relies on for authenticated and confidential communications on the 'net. This kind of malicious work puts everyone's communication at risk, not only those people who the NSA counts among their "targets" (and the NSA's "target" selection methods are themselves fraught with serious problems).

The US government is supposed to take pride in the checks and balances that keep absolute power out of any one particular branch. One of the latest attempts to simulate "checks and balances" was the President's creation of a "Review Group" to oversee the current malefactors. The review group then asked for public comment. A group of technologists (including myself) submitted a comment demanding that the review group provide concrete technical details to independent technologists.

Without knowing the specifics of how the various surveillance mechanisms operate, the public in general can't make informed assessments about what they should consider to be personally safe. And lack of detailed technical knowledge also makes it much harder to mount an effective political or legal opposition to the global surveillance state (e.g. consider the terrible Clapper v. Amnesty International decision, where plaintiffs were denied standing to sue the Director of National Intelligence because they could not demonstrate that they were being surveilled).

It's also worth noting that the advocates for global surveillance do not themselves want to be surveilled, and that (for example) the NSA has tried to obscure as much of their operations as possible, by over-classifying documents, and making spurious claims of "national security". This is where the surveillance power dynamic is most baldly in play, and many parts of the US government intelligence and military apparatus has a long history of acting in bad faith to obscure its activities.

The people who have been operating these surveillance systems should be ashamed of their work, and those who have been overseeing the operation of these systems should be ashamed of themselves. We need to better understand the scope of the damage done to our global infrastructure so we can repair it if we have any hope of avoiding a complete surveillance state in the future. Getting the technical details of these compromises in the hands of the public is one step on the path toward a healthier society.


Lest I be accused of optimism, let me make clear that fixing the technical harms is necessary, but not sufficient; even if our technical infrastructure had not been deliberately damaged, or if we manage to repair it and stop people from damaging it again, far too many people still regularly accept ubiquitous private (corporate) surveillance. Private surveillance organizations (like Facebook and Google) are too often in a position where their business interests are at odds with their users' interests, and powerful adversaries can use a surveillance organization as a lever against weaker parties.

But helping people to improve their own data sovereignty and to avoid subjecting their friends and allies to private surveillance is a discussion for a separate post, i think.

Tags: cryptography, nsa