Activist, author, blogger, journalist and self-described “Facebook vegan,” Cory Doctorow presented a fire hose of information about Internet privacy at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall on October 25. During his hour-long talk, entitled “Alice, Bob and Clapper: What Snowden Taught Us About Privacy,” Doctorow deftly navigated through the complicated issues of government and corporate surveillance, technology, copyright wars, education and Internet privacy.
Anytime Someone Puts a Lock on Something but Doesn’t Give You the Key, it Was Not Put There for Your Benefit
Doctorow points out that before Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance activities, most people who thought the government was spying on them were considered paranoid. After Snowden, 87 percent of Americans took steps to protect their privacy. Unfortunately, those efforts were in vain due to the lack of good tools to do so.
Doctorow suggests that the cause of privacy issues stem from copyright wars, in which companies have gone to great lengths to prevent users from accessing technology in other than approved ways, for example applying Digital Rights Management (DRM) to digital works. The copyright wars brought about back doors and bugs in software where people keep their most private information, and that the public is unaware exist. Doctorow cited the Sony BMG copy protection scandal as an example.
In 2005, Sony BMG included a deceptive and potentially harmful form of DRM on about 22 million CDs. The programs could not be easily uninstalled and made computers vulnerable to unrelated malware. As a result, the drive to protect copyright has now essentially locked the public out of technology. For example, Apple does not allow third-party software on the iPhone. Doctorow compares such limitations to “… having a toaster that only allows approved bread or a dishwasher that only allows approved dishes.”
Cryptography is the Author of Our Sorrows and Joy
Doctorow believes that good cryptography, or “crypto,” will solve most, if not all of our privacy issues. However, average computer users would need to get a degree in computer science to understand how to use it to keep their data safe. Doctorow points out that during the early era of desktop publishing, the first tools were complicated and made for people who already knew about typography and printing. As time went by, more tools were created that were easy to use right out of the box. Doctorow says that the same thing will happen with cryptography and that we will soon have the lock and the key to our data.
Technology is Not a Problem to Be Solved, But a Fact on the Ground
According to Doctorow, we have achieved “peak indifference to surveillance,” which means that the number of people who care about privacy will only increase. He says that “If you can change the technology designed to control you, you will,” a hopeful position that relies on the public to do something. However, we need good tools to help us, he says. As an example of how good tools lead to better results, Doctorow points out how, during the era of the film camera, most families took about two rolls of film a year. Because the photos needed to be processed before the result could be seen, most people never really got any better at taking photos. Most photo albums consist of the same type of mistakes: Fingers and thumbs in the way, red eyes from flash and similar issues. With the advent of digital photography, people can now quickly identify and correct their mistakes, closing the feedback loop and improving their photography skills.
Doctorow subscribes to Lawrence Lessig’s code and laws of cyberspace, which describe four major regulators for change: Market, norms, laws and code. According to Doctorow, we need simple tools to be made available to the public to enable people to secure their information. We need people who believe that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, to care about those who do and to work to protect the rights of those who did not win the “lottery of privilege.” We need laws to protect our basic rights to privacy. Finally, we need code that can be secured, but that allows the user to have the key.
Doctorow’s latest book, Information Does Not Want to Be Free, explores these ideas in more depth. The book seems like a direct response to the corporate tech rallying cry of “Information wants to be free” by such notables as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a person who has famously been critical of privacy.
Cory Doctorow’s talk was a pre-conference lecture for the upcoming Surveillance and Privacy, Art, Law and Social Justice symposium. This multi-day event, free of admission, will focus on the response of artists and cultural institutions to issues related to privacy and surveillance.