Data Privacy and Security: An Interview with Author and Technologist Bruce Schneier

By: Rebecca Hill

Technologist Bruce Schneier is a long-time fixture in the world of security. He was also one of the first people to analyze the National Security Administration’s surveillance documentation leaked by Edward Snowden. Now a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Security, Schneier has written and spoken out extensively about these issues. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon too, his opinions flow as freely as the Internet does.  

His first bestseller, Data, and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World describes how the information generated from our electronic devices amasses into mountains of data, often metadata, and explains how that data track our activities, interests, and concerns.  While the book centers on data privacy, Schneier, though he argues that privacy is a human right, he acknowledges that it is, in fact, a foregone conclusion that there is absolutely nothing that we can do about protecting our data privacy anymore.  

Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected WorldHis new book, Click Here To Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World, not only confirms that we cannot protect our data privacy, but also confirms that we can no longer have data security.  In the book, Schneier addresses the Internet of Things, or what he calls, Internet + and the interconnectivity that impacts our security.  Not only, he claims, can you lose your data privacy, but now you could lose something bigger..your life.  

I talked to Schneier about his books and what’s happening today with data privacy and security. Here’s what he told me. 

RH: Currently, several companies and government entities are considering apps or tracking systems that will identify and track individuals who might be coronavirus vectors.  What are your thoughts on this? 

BS:  It will harm privacy though that is not the point. This is an extraordinary time, and extraordinary measures can make sense.  We need to make sure that these measures are necessary and proportional to the time and that we have a way to ration back to normal times when things get better.  

RH:  What do you mean by “rationing back?”

BS:  For example, if we are going to confine people to their homes, we need to stop tracking people once they are home.  If we are good at that, then I think that we will be fine.  But the worry is that this will be a one-way function.  All surveillance actions should be necessary and proportional, so if there is more surveillance, now it’s because it’s necessary. That’s ok. 

We need to make sure that what we do is based on science with transparency and due process, and we need to ration back and end surveillance. We need to recognize that this is for an important reason and that it is not permanent.  The government of Israel decided to track cellphones because they needed to know who’s in contact with whom, and they have adequate tests to make sure that works.  It doesn’t mean that we do it for all time. 

RH:  Is this type of digital tracking what you called in your book, Data, and Goliath, a response to fear?  

Yes. But it could also be based on science.  

RH:  Currently, the Patriot Act, Section 215 was set to expire in 2019, but was pushed to March 2020.  It was postponed again, and Representative Zoe Lofgren has proposed amendments to limit government data collection further.  What’s going to happen to section 215?

BS:  What seems to happen is that there is a lot of debate and a lot of hope, but nothing changes.  I hope it will be different though it’s hard to know.  We try to ration back on these things. However, we’ve had very little success rationing back.  Every time these things come up for renewal, we have another chance to make it more reasonable.

RH:  Do you think that this will happen?

BS:  No. 

RH:  Have we gotten used to these surveillance activities and don’t care? 

BS: Of course, we have. I think most of us put our cell phones in our pockets, not worrying that it is the most exquisite transaction and tracking device that has ever been invented.  Then we go onto Google. We use it 

RH:  Do you think that people are mostly unconcerned about their data privacy?  

BS:  Every Pew Research survey I have ever seen shows that every American is concerned about tracking. Why?  Because they are powerless. Americans have no choice, and there is nothing they can do about it. So, a lot of people are resigned to it because they are powerless. 

RH:  You say that people are completely powerless, but they aren’t really, are they or aren’t’ they?

BS:  In a sense, you can say…Don’t have a cellphone.  Don’t have a credit card.  Don’t have an email.  But this is moronic advice to have in the 21st century.  Saying these things is not fair, nor is it right. That is what powerless means.  Today, you cannot have an email address.  You cannot have a credit card.  You cannot have a cellphone.  These are not options.  We can pretend they are, but they are not. Despite this, we are still ignorant of the full extent of surveillance, and many people are unaware of how pervasive it is. The industry, too, spends a lot of time trying to make sure that you don’t realize how pervasive it is.    

RH:  How much as our data privacy eroded?

BS:  While we value privacy enormously, we have no choice to give privacy up when it comes to this.  Because it is not just about technology, it’s about politics. Now if the politics surrounding technology were different, we could re-engineer all our systems to be more privacy-preserving. Right now, we have enough privacy-preserving technologies to make everything better.  But what we don’t have is the political force to make companies make these changes in favor of privacy.  Technology companies want to spy and right now, the law lets them get away with it. I know, for a fact, that Google spies on you at a level that no government could dream of doing thirty years ago.  Still, that is going to change because that’s how they make their money. That’s why they are so profitable.  At some point, you have to say this is an immoral business model. But we are not willing to do that because these companies are too big and too powerful. 

RH:  When you talked about being powerless, from what perspective did you mean this? 

BS:  I get back here to the policy solution because our power is through policy and passing laws.  Legislating these issues is our only power and the only hope of reigning in a company like Facebook.  It might be ten to twenty years, but it will change, and we will get senators who will understand technology. So, I tend to be short term pessimistic and long term optimistic. 

In the end, I don’t believe that technology is the death knell of liberty and freedom.  I think that we will eventually figure this out.  The government can step in and make the hard choices and do the hard things. The question is now is what happens in the interim.  How we survive what happens?  

Right now, in Europe, they are stepping into a power vacuum.  Some of the states, California, New York, and Massachusetts, are stepping into the power vacuum and doing things that the U.S. government will not do.  Then again, it may take a crisis.  No, we are not done with freedom and liberty. Democracy will come back.   

Right now, this is not an election issue.  As much as people care about it, they don’t care about it enough to make this part of the debate, so it’s not discussed on the campaign trail.  Because it’s not, the corporations can do what they want because they are the power and money.  There is nothing there to balance it.  I worry about the Internet of Things because that could change things because it involves property. It feels more real and visceral.  Data privacy is more abstract.  The Internet of things is a lot more real be used. It could involve the shutting off your pacemaker.  

RH:  Can you explain the long-term cost of surveillance capitalism?

BS:  The person who writes about this is Shoshana Zuboff.  Her book is titled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. I’ll give her book a shout-out because it is phenomenal.  It is about the loss of autonomy and the loss of self.  Surveillance capitalism is about the ability to control how you present yourself to the world and how that is what we are giving up. 

RH: Doesn’t today’s technological world sound more like a science fiction novel than real life? 

BS:  It does, and that is because technology moves so fast.  This kind of stuff was around science fiction only a few decades ago.  I think that, in many cases, many people don’t realize what is happening because they don’t think that things like this are possible. They still feel that they get the same privacy for blending into the crowd.  But the industry has taken a lot of effort to make sure that you don’t realize how much privacy has been lost.  They are counting on us not paying attention.  

RH:  Do you foresee the US implementing regulations like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations?  

BS:  The EU is a good start. You could complain about many things about their privacy law, but it is a good start.  But Europe is, in a sense, the regulatory superpower of the planet right now.  They are willing to regulate the Internet in many areas where the U.S. is not willing to regulate it.  A lot of it is simply that the U.S., Republican-dominated, business-friendly world where it is very hard to do the kind of things that money doesn’t want to be done. Here, we have a bias in this country that corporations are good, and the government is bad.  But in Europe, it is the opposite with a very broad brush, so I think that makes it easier in Europe to regulate corporations. Government spying in Europe on citizens is much less regulated than in the United States, but corporate spying in citizens in Europe is more regulated.

RH:  Do you think that it would be difficult then to establish these protective protocols here? 

BS:  We don’t have any protective protocols. We can’t even get lists of who the data brokers are, let alone the information that they have about you. In the United States, the amount of regulation is very, very low, nil.


Rebecca Hill

Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine.  She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.

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