Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier (Book Review)

With more of our lives increasingly taking place online, the issue of privacy, especially in regards to our personal data, has never been more important. Without even knowing it we broadcast a wide range of information about our locations, habits, interests, and beliefs just by carrying a smartphone in our pocket or using the web. This data isn’t lying fallow in digital fields though; it’s being collected, collated, and used to build detailed profiles so that companies such as Facebook, Google, and even our own governments can know more about us than ever before.

This isn’t a good thing.

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Bruce Schneier has been a specialist in the data security industry for many years, and in Data and Goliath he expertly outlines the way in which we are being monitored and analysed by a variety of interested parties. Unlike some other books that cover this subject, Schneier is careful not to invoke histrionics or sensationalism in order to sell his story, instead he calmly explains how tracking works and why it is used so widely.

From its origins in the cold-war, he charts the way that government agencies regularly spied on their enemies (not to mention each other), and how this eventually transformed into the digital surveillance culture that Edward Snowden so spectacularly revealed in 2013. Schneier actually handled some of the famous Snowden documents while working with the Guardian newspaper, and even interviewed the whistleblower after he sought asylum in Russia.

Data and Goliath is a fascinating exploration of this post-Snowden world we live in. It shows how the back-doors that technology companies were forced to implement for the NSA, have actually become weapons for other agencies and hackers to use. We’re taken through the murky world of international espionage, and shown how we have all become collateral damage in this digital arms race. Schneier also explains that even when we try to protect ourselves by leaving Facebook or Gmail, the fact that our friends and relatives still use them means we’re caught up in this global informational dragnet.

I’ll admit, at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility. But all is not lost. In the final third of the story, Schneier outlines his manifesto for how governments, corporations, and individuals can change they way they act, thus restoring some kind of trust to the online world. Sadly this is also one of the slowest part of the book, as the governmental and corporate sections really feel more like a utopian call to arms than an actual solution. Data has become so valuable  that the prospect of them surrendering it for the greater good seems a distant and unrealistic possibility.

“…at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility.”

Tips on how individuals can at least obfuscate the data we generate is useful. Schneier advocates software such as the Tor browser, HTTPS Everywhere, plus other helpful tools. He also has some ingenious ideas about throwing in random behaviour to mess with the algorithms that predict our patterns.

In the end you’re still left with the knowledge that big brother really is watching, and won’t be stopping anytime soon. But at least if you’re aware of the facts it could help you make better decision about how much you, at least willingly, share. It might not be a happy read in a lot of ways, but it is an important one.

Data and Goliath is published by W.W.Norton in the UK and USA.

 

 

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Book Review: Cypherpunks – by Julian Assange

If you had sat down to read this book when it was initially written in 2012, you might think that a lot of the content belonged squarely to the tin foil hat brigade.

Julian Assange, editor in chief at whistleblowing site Wikileaks, has a marmite effect on people. Some see him as a valiant hero taking on the increasingly controlling and manipulative governments of the world, while others cast him as a fame seeking egotist. As is usually the case in things like this I’m sure a little of both is true. What is undeniable though is that inside the pages of the book are discussions about the security services and their deep spying techniques that only came to public light when another whistleblower, Edward Snowden, gave up everything in his life to bring the information to the public.

So, time to take off the tin foil hat and start paying attention.

Assange, in dramatic fashion, sets the scene with the statement ‘This book is not a manifesto. There is not time for that. This book is a warning.’

By the time you’ve finished reading, you can’t help agreeing.

Cypherpunks are activists who use strong cryptography tools to protect their identity and privacy online. They also promote the idea that everyone should do the same unless they want their every digital transaction and communication stolen and stored by the security services of the western world. It’s a harsh political stance, but over the course of the debates that rage in the book, allied with Snowden’s revelations, the reader is drawn into an incredible, scary world that isn’t like the one we imagine it to be.

Assange brings together three other advocates – Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmermann – to have a round table discussion of the dangers that electronic spying has for an unwitting population, and how they can safeguard against it. The writing style is that of a transcription of these talks, which is effective in bringing out the differing standpoints of those involved.

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During the discourse they cover subjects such as government surveillance, digital currency, censorship, and from there branch into other tangential thoughts as their minds fire on all cylinders. Perhaps one of the most prescient arguments they make is how governments use the ‘Four horsemen of the Infopocalyse’ – child pornography, terrorism, money laundering, and the war on drugs – to pass overreaching legislation that none dare argue with, lest they be seen to support these awful practices.

It rings true when you look at David Cameron’s recent internet censorship bill that trumpets the filtering of pornography, but also seemingly cuts off access to dissident sites in the background. It’s a subtle, complex issue, and one that Assange and co don’t really offer any tangible solutions for (in that how do you stop these things without some form of censorship?), but the beginning of the discussion, and the eye opening effect it has to make you scrutinise government policies, is something we all can all benefit from.

It’s not a light read by any means, filled to the brim as it is with ideas, arguments, and sometimes chilling visions of the future, but it is an important book. The debates do lend themselves to easily becoming echo chambers, and I would like to see another edition where they include someone to argue the opposite position, though Assange often strays into a devil’s advocate role to keep the discussion on some kind of level footing.

Whether you care about computers, surveillance, hackers, Assange or not, Cypherpunks should be on your reading list.  The sooner the better.

 

Book Review: The New Digital Age

As you’re here on this blog there’s a fair chance that you’re interested in technology. So a book written by two of the senior minds at Google is probably a good thing to mention.

The New Digital Age is a collaborative work between Eric Schmidt, long time Google CEO, and Jared Cohen, the Director of Google Ideas and previously advisor to US Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton. Here they lay out their vision for how technology will be used in the future, thankfully avoiding the standard fare of obsessing over the various devices that will emerge.  Instead they focus on how an ever more online world will interact socially, what impact technology will have on emerging nations, and how wars, revolutions, and terrorist activities will be played out with the aid of the internet.

Ideas flow fast and furious, causing the reader to have to slow down and reread many a section to keep up with what’s being stated. It isn’t that the book is badly written, or in any way unclear, it’s simply a dense collection of thoughts on how the world will change, and you really don’t want to miss any of them. It’s true that chapters can feel a little repetitive at times where theories are revisited from different angles – say cyber–terrorism or government oversight – but the multi-layered nature of the subject matter makes this a necessary  way of exploring the themes. The real thrust of the book though is painting a picture of the future where the smartphone,  or rather access to the internet on a mobile device, is the centre of the universe. It’s surprising how many times the simple technology that we take for granted now is the fulcrum for prison control, tracking terrorists, keeping rogue governments in line through public accountability, or even enabling fishermen in the developing world to get fair prices for their catch.

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It’s not often that technologists the calibre of Schmidt and Cohen set out their ideas in such a straightforward and expansive manner, but the New Digital Age is exactly that. You know they’ve seen the secret labs which develop new hardware, their access to Google records also means that they can analyse data that other social scientists could only dream of, and as they have dealt directly with governments all around the world they can speak with real insight into the issues they’ve witnessed first hand.

The New Digital Age is a rare creation, in that it doesn’t feel speculative at all, instead it’s a wisely considered and authoritative map for the path that lies ahead.

This, of course, isn’t always a better, happier, road to take. Whereas they argue that mobile devices mean that citizens can report on their governments quickly and easily – thus causing the officials to be more careful with their abuses – It also demonstrates clearly that doing so will make you an easy to find target of said governments. In the light of the recent Edward Snowden / Prism scandal this only seems more real. An interconnected world is a frightening one when you realise that information and access to the internet are key to the future, but the means for both still resides mainly with those in power. Schmidt and Cohen are more optimistic though, seeing the internet as an incredible opportunity for those who can embrace its potential, with mobile devices freeing them to do that in their natural environments.

I remember reading Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte many years ago and being astounded by the ideas he put forward for the future, many of which we are now finally seeing in everyday life. The New Digital Age has a simliar feel. You don’t really need to be interested in technology to read it, just curious about how societies will use the already existing means of communication and self expression to move the world forward. There are exciting avenues to explore, and some dark passages to hide from, but in the end that’s true in life whether it’s digital or not.

 

The New Digital Age is out now in Hardback from John Murray. If you are in the UK then you can click here to buy a copy, US readers can click here . If you live in any other part of the word, which judging by the latest WordPress stats I’ve been reading many of you are (hooray!), then please head over to your preferred bookseller and purchase a copy of this fascinating book.