Eavesdropping by algorithm is still eavesdropping

Bruce Schneier writes: Increasingly, we are watched not by people but by algorithms. Amazon and Netflix track the books we buy and the movies we stream, and suggest other books and movies based on our habits. Google and Facebook watch what we do and what we say, and show us advertisements based on our behavior. Google even modifies our web search results based on our previous behavior. Smartphone navigation apps watch us as we drive, and update suggested route information based on traffic congestion. And the National Security Agency, of course, monitors our phone calls, emails and locations, then uses that information to try to identify terrorists.

Documents provided by Edwards Snowden and revealed by the Guardian today show that the UK spy agency GHCQ, with help from the NSA, has been collecting millions of webcam images from innocent Yahoo users. And that speaks to a key distinction in the age of algorithmic surveillance: is it really okay for a computer to monitor you online, and for that data collection and analysis only to count as a potential privacy invasion when a person sees it? I say it’s not, and the latest Snowden leaks only make more clear how important this distinction is.

The robots-vs-spies divide is especially important as we decide what to do about NSA and GCHQ surveillance. The spy community and the Justice Department have reported back early on President Obama’s request for changing how the NSA “collects” your data, but the potential reforms – FBI monitoring, holding on to your phone records and more – still largely depend on what the meaning of “collects” is. [Continue reading…]

Those who claim a special privilege to define words in their own way, defying the dictates of everyday usage, are also claiming a right to employ their own definitions of truthfulness and lying. This might have some legal utility, but the price for going this route is that language, thus constrained, becomes worthless.

As Schneier notes, Google has also fallen back on the dumb-machine defense when claiming that it does not read our email.

Back when Gmail was introduced, this was Google’s defense, too, about its context-sensitive advertising. Googles computers examine each individual email and insert an advertisement nearby, related to the contents of your email. But no person at Google reads any Gmail messages; only a computer does. In the words of one Google executive: “Worrying about a computer reading your email is like worrying about your dog seeing you naked”.

The absence of human eyes does not add a layer of privacy. On the contrary it constitutes a glaring lack of oversight by promoting a fiction: that what people don’t see, must be harmless.

Google is not a dumb companion, eager to please and dependably obedient; its only loyalty is to its own commercial interests and it currently sees those interests best served by pursuing an ambition to dominate the field of machine learning.

The data analysis being performed by computers enables surveillance more sweeping than could ever be carried out by people.

Although most Americans seem more afraid of government than commerce, the powers being exercised by the NSA are dwarfed by those that have been acquired by companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Indeed the intelligence community has been doing little more than opportunistically taking a piggyback ride on the shoulders of Silicon Valley.

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