The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership: The Death of Privacy

By Bruce Schneier

Cell phone (featured image)Imagine the government passed a law requiring all citizens to carry a tracking device. Such a law would immediately be found unconstitutional. Yet we all carry mobile phones.

If the National Security Agency required us to notify it whenever we made a new friend, the nation would rebel. Yet we notify Facebook Inc. (FB) If the Federal Bureau of Investigation demanded copies of all our conversations and correspondence, it would be laughed at.

Yet we provide copies of our e-mail to Google Inc. (GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) or whoever our mail host is; we provide copies of our text messages to Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ), AT&T Inc. (T) and Sprint Corp. (S); and we provide copies of other conversations to Twitter Inc., Facebook, LinkedIn (LNKD) Corp. or whatever other site is hosting them.

The primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance, and our government’s intelligence-gathering agencies have become addicted to that data. Understanding how we got here is critical to understanding how we undo the damage.

NSA surveillance targets political dissidents

                                          Click: NSA surveillance targets political dissidents (Press TV)


Computers and networks inherently produce data, and our constant interactions with them allow corporations to collect an enormous amount of intensely personal data about us as we go about our daily lives. Sometimes we produce this data inadvertently simply by using our phones, credit cards, computers and other devices. Sometimes we give corporations this data directly on Google, Facebook, Apple Inc.’s iCloud and so on in exchange for whatever free or cheap service we receive from the Internet in return.

The NSA is also in the business of spying on everyone, and it has realized it’s far easier to collect all the data from these corporations rather than from us directly. In some cases, the NSA asks for this data nicely. In other cases, it makes use of subtle threats or overt pressure. If that doesn’t work, it uses tools like national security letters.

The Partnership

The result is a corporate-government surveillance partnership, one that allows both the government and corporations to get away with things they couldn’t otherwise.

There are two types of laws in the U.S., each designed to constrain a different type of power: constitutional law, which places limitations on government, and regulatory law, which constrains corporations. Historically, these two areas have largely remained separate, but today each group has learned how to use the other’s laws to bypass their own restrictions. The government uses corporations to get around its limits, and corporations use the government to get around their limits.

This partnership manifests itself in various ways. The government uses corporations to circumvent its prohibitions against eavesdropping domestically on its citizens. Corporations rely on the government to ensure that they have unfettered use of the data they collect.

Obama's Nobel Prize should be given to Snowden

                     Click:  Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize should be given to Edward Snowden (PressTV)


Here’s an example: It would be reasonable for our government to debate the circumstances under which corporations can collect and use our data, and to provide for protections against misuse. But if the government is using that very data for its own surveillance purposes, it has an incentive to oppose any laws to limit data collection. And because corporations see no need to give consumers any choice in this matter — because it would only reduce their profits — the market isn’t going to protect consumers, either.


Our elected officials are often supported, endorsed and funded by these corporations as well, setting up an incestuous relationship between corporations, lawmakers and the intelligence community.


The losers are us, the people, who are left with no one to stand up for our interests. Our elected government, which is supposed to be responsible to us, is not. And corporations, which in a market economy are supposed to be responsive to our needs, are not. What we have now is death to privacy — and that’s very dangerous to democracy and liberty.


Challenging Power

The simple answer is to blame consumers, who shouldn’t use mobile phones, credit cards, banks or the Internet if they don’t want to be tracked. But that argument deliberately ignores the reality of today’s world. Everything we do involves computers, even if we’re not using them directly. And by their nature, computers produce tracking data. We can’t go back to a world where we don’t use computers, the Internet or social networking. We have no choice but to share our personal information with these corporations, because that’s how our world works today.


Why Edward Snowden is an American Hero

                            Click: Why Edward Snowden is an American Hero (Press TV)


Curbing the power of the corporate-private surveillance partnership requires limitations on both what corporations can do with the data we choose to give them and restrictions on how and when the government can demand access to that data. Because both of these changes go against the interests of corporations and the government, we have to demand them as citizens and voters. We can lobby our government to operate more transparently — disclosing the opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be a good start — and hold our lawmakers accountable when it doesn’t. But it’s not going to be easy. There are strong interests doing their best to ensure that the steady stream of data keeps flowing.


Bruce Schneier is a computer security technologist. He is the author of several books, including his latest, “Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Thrive.”  This article originally appeared here.


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12 Comments for “The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership: The Death of Privacy”

  1. They need to do this due to the inept, incompetent and impotent jobs they are doing both at home and around the world. They know, throughout all their efforts to establish the Bush buffoonery called the NWO, they now are withdrawing from their own proposed world order, stating that international law does not apply to the U.S.

    We already carry tracking devices, and so does the president right on down the line. But, it is American citizens who are doing these jobs, selling their souls for a little more than a minimum wage paid hourly. To sell your soul to an evil force like what we’ve experienced in the past 25 years, and spy on others is as un-patriotic and un-American. Selling out to these traitors compromises the entire American system.
    Thank God for Snowden, Manning, even Assange.

    Just imagine, we bought into a president who’s ancestry financed Adolf Hitler even after they know what he and his morons were doing to others. We followed his word and accepted it as truth, and caved to his advice. His V.P. Cheney was about as demented as any public figure I have ever witnessed.

    We allowed this country to be run by those who violated our Constitution, and insulted our Bill of Rights. Flaunted their illegitimacy to us without blinking an eye, killed thousands of innocent people, declared war on cronies, and violated a multitude of young human beings minds leading to the massive suicide rate we see today. They are the ones who need tracked, and spied upon not us. Good article!

  2. noneofyourbusiness

    Mr. Fetzer, Sincerely appreciate this informative article by Bruce Schneider. Nothing is private, hasn’t been for a long time. The “U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) includes 16 separate U.S. government agencies working separate and together conducting intelligence/surveillance activities both foreign and domestic, with over a 70 + BILLION dollar annual budget. …lists all of them

    Thanks again for keeping the public informed.

    • @ noneofyourbusiness

      “Thanks again for keeping the public informed.”

      So now that you’re informed, what are you going to do to reduce your surveillance footprint? What changes are you going to make in your life to reduce access by government and corporations to your private life?

      What good is being “informed” is one doesn’t act on the information?

      As an analogy, what’s the value of being aware of the dangers of eating GMO “foods,” if one doesn’t change his own eating habits?

      (Yes, I know that I’m being a jerk. And I’m good at it, too!)

  3. If we want to thwart the surveillance grid, then it is up to us to discover and to implement our own solutions. Corporations and “our” government have their own – not our – interests at heart. They are not on our side.

    So let’s talk Internet safety. You must – repeat, must – get a VPN. In addition to slowing your connection speed down to near dial-up rate, TOR has now been compromised. If you’re using it, then stop.

    If you want to learn about a VPN, then you’ll need to use a search engine, right? Don’t use Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc., because they track and store your search entries. There are three – Ixquick, DuckDuckGo and Startpage – that don’t. It makes sense to use one of them instead.

    You will discover what a VPN is and how it provides a level of security. You will also find out that there are free VPNs. The best one, in my opinion, is VPNBook. Setting up a PPTP VPN doesn’t require downloading and installing any software. The procedure is a piece of cake, and it works on Windows, Mac OS, Linux and even Android smartphones and tablets.

    More to come…

  4. Our fascist system of government is the problem, and it is inherently incapable of providing any solutions. Even if our-bought-and-paid-for Congress were willing to pass privacy laws, it wouldn’t do any good. Corporations and government agencies blithely violate the laws that already exist.

    It is up to us to provide our own solutions:

    If you don’t want your purchases tracked, then don’t use credit/debit/discount cards. Pay with cash.

    Break the Super Glue bond between your ear and your so-called smartphone. Break your addiction to being on the phone continuously.

    Then junk your smartphone and get a pay-as-you-go feature phone. Tracfone/NET10 have decent phones for $20-30. Activate and add minutes across town from where you live. Register with a phony name and an address on a freeway overpass or in the middle of a golf course.

    More to come…

  5. What a joke for VT to protest about the NSA!

    I kid you not that nearly all of my comments are monitored and deleted, such as my comments in the shrimps thread about fires in Australia, where I simply pointed out that wild fires have happened for thousands of years and have nothing to do with the DVD/Mossad/al-Qaida … all deleted.

    Or there were my replies in support of Yukon … all deleted in favour of Tyron apparently, or whomever favours Christianism generally. NSA have a thing or six to learn from VT, it seems. Nothing like “freedom of speech” exists here, so I wonder how long this post will last, or if it will be left up to imply that I’ve lied about previous deletions?

    • gerryhiles, Sorry to hear of your experience. I almost never delete comments on my articles. Glad to have you here!

    • @ gerryhiles

      Nothing like “freedom of speech” exists here…

      That’s right, and it is not reasonable to expect it. Freedom of speech does not apply to private spaces, and a Web site is a private space. If the person who posts an article or a moderator doesn’t like a comment, he has the right to delete it, and it’s likely that he will.

      Complaining about it won’t change it. The options are to shine it on or to go elsewhere.

      I, too, have had comments deleted. I’ve learned to take it in stride. There are more important things to get upset about than a slight to my ego.

    • gerryhiles better to be deleted than to make a fool of yourself, as I have done many times. I’ve made so many errors, and been corrected so many times, I wanted to give it up. I am a nothing when it compares to these journalists here at VT. Sometimes I wish they would have deleted a few I have entered. It is their website, they can do what they like. Please feel privileged and write what you want. I enjoy reading all entries, and opinions. This is a very intelligent website and I encourage you to keep logging your opinions. VT is really pretty permissive. All opinions and ideas are welcome. ( I don’t speak for VT but I bet they would tell you the same.) My children read many articles so watch the profanity. Thanks!

  6. Yup, it’s exactly why government funds giving phones to people who cant afford them.
    they play good guy bad guy, pass the buck, pass the blame, but they’re both guilty partners!

    Relative.. They’ve sabotaged our real economy, sent all production overseas.
    there’s less real demand for energy for production, but energy prices skyrocket?

  7. @ John

    “If you really wanna screw with the gooberment, buy an older vehicle, ones without all the gadgetry and monitoring devices.”

    My car is a 1974. In addition to the other advantages that you cited, there are no monthly car payments, and I carry only liability and uninsured motorist coverage — about $35/mo.

    I also have an excellent barter arrangement with my auto mechanic. He keeps my car running, and I keep his computers running.

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