It has been over a year since the revelations of mass surveillance were exposed. As expected, the people of the United States have gone back to work, placing issues of privacy deep into their subconscious. When a new revelation is reported, we think, oh yeah, that security thing again. We bury the thought that all of our decisions are logged and indexed into a database for someone to sell, analyze, or subpoena. We are told, over and over, that if we’re not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to worry about. On the surface, this is true. It is what I would tell my elementary school age children. But my children will grow, and I have to wonder what world we will leave them.
Peggy Noonan wrote some wonderful words on the matter back in August of 2013 (unfortunately now behind the WSJ paywall). She writes, “Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things—the innards of your head andcheart, the workings of your mind—and the boundary between those things and the world outside. A loss of the expectation of privacy in communications is a loss of something personal and intimate, and it will have broader implications.” She continues, making the suggestion that when the Fourth Amendment’s balance of power shifts away from the individual to the State, the First Amendment becomes far less important. We self-censor. We fear.
Unfortunately, this is now all too true. During the summer of 2013, Pamela Jones of Groklaw, shuttered her blog. Her work from 2003 to 2013 was invaluable to the Linux community, providing comfort in the wake of a very scary copyright infringement lawsuit brought by SCO against IBM that threatened the very existence of Linux. As a paralegal, she carefully documented all the details of the case, providing daily insight to the technical community, making the legal world bearable. She was there to say, do not panic, the assertions are only assertions, there will be an end to it all. Pamela Jones, not her real name, was an anonymous blogger. Her work existed in a mine field. What we learned from the SCO case is anyone can bring suit, and it is costly to defend. Had she ever been outed, unmerited defamation and slander suits would surely follow. So, farewell Pamela Jones. We miss your thoughts and your right to free speech.
What makes the shuttering of Groklaw a terrific story is its relationship to another shuttered site, Lavabit. Lavabit provided secure e-mail services. Edward Snowden was alleged to be a customer. The founder and CEO, Ladar Levison, received a national security letter, not just asking for one SSL private key, but all keys. Lavabit’s foundation is based on trust. Once broken, there is nothing left. Realizing this, Ladar Levison literally pulled the plug. He took everything down, and eventually turned over encryption keys (albeit in a 4pt font on printed paper). Ironically, the NSA may have already had the keys to Lavabit’s kingdom, if Lavabit was using rev 1.0.x of OpenSSL. During this time, OpenSSL was (unknowingly to some) suffering from heartbleed, allowing for remote decryption. Farewell Ladar Levison.
It does seem bleak. While Edward Snowden was talking about government surveillance at SXSW 2014, tech companies were introducing all of their wearable smart devices. There is no better example of this contradiction. We want privacy, but are perfectly willing to ignore license agreements and contracts in order to run our gadgets. With the Internet of Things moving into high gear, options for surveillance will blossom horrifically. Keep in mind, too that surveillance is not limited to communications. If you use plastic to purchase anything, data brokers purchase the right to analyze your spending patterns down to the item level, and sell that information. This scenario is by far the most frightening, because it zeroes in on the core of economics. The Summer of 2013 may be remembered as the good old days.
Is there anything that can be done? Absolutely, but it is up to the individual to care, to cherish the freedoms not yet lost. Now that chess table is set, we can see what it takes to play. This game will be difficult, but it is a game that can be played. To start, every person who cares about free thought and speech should take a position that this inevitability is not certain, and that there are countermeasures, that good people do win. Technology meets the needs of those who desire it, and it also is cyclical.
Peggy Noonan: What We Lose if We Give Up Privacy – August 16th, 2013
Pamela Jones Farewell Notice – August 20th, 2013
Lavabit Farewell Notice – August 8th, 2013
Ladar Levison Battle with FBI (NPR) – October 3rd, 2013
On the Media, New Security Standard for Journalists – August 16th, 2013