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Book Review: Privacy on the Line

11 September 2013

I just finished reading Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption. With all of the information being revealed and confirmed recently about United States government surveillance on personal communications, I wanted to be more educated on the issues.

Going about our day-to-day lives, how much privacy do we really have? The authors explain:

From video cameras that record our entries into shops and buildings to supermarket checkout tapes that list every container of milk and package of cigarettes we buy, privacy is elusive in modern society. There are records of what we do, with whom we associate, where we go. Insurance companies know who our spouses are, how many children we have, how often we have our teeth cleaned. The increasing amount of transactional information — the electronic record of when you left the parking lot, the supermarket’s record of your purchase — leaves a very large public footprint, and presents a far more detailed portrait of the individual than those recorded at any time in the past. Furthermore, information about individuals is no longer under control of the person to whom the information pertains; such loss of control is a loss of privacy.

What about U.S. government surveillance? The authors provide chapters of fascinating details, including:

Beginning in 1940 and continuing until 1973, FBI and CIA agents read the private mail of thousands of citizens. … Without warrants and without congressional or clear presidential authority, intelligence agents opened and perused the mail of private citizens, senators, congressmen, journalists, businessmen, and even a presidential candidate.

Numerous other examples include the FBI’s excessive surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., authorized wiretaps being left activated beyond their official period of use, the FBI seeking information on who has borrowed unclassified scientific and technological books from public libraries for the purpose of identifying possible Russian spies, and more. In some cases, the FBI admitted that their surveillance tactics exceeded legal limits; in other cases, evidence against the FBI magically disappeared. Either way, it appears that if government agents wish to violate the law when it comes to surveillance, there is little (if any) actual oversight of their actions.

While government surveillance has been expanding by leaps and bounds, the authors make the case that not only is the huge amount of surveillance not commensurate with the relatively small amount of criminal or violent activity that it helps prevent, but even in situations where surveillance has been credited with helping to prevent undesirable outcomes, the surveillance tactics may not have been necessary.

It is important to apply common sense to the issue of terrorist investigations and to think clearly about which acts can be prevented and which cannot (Heynmann 1998, pp. xxi-xxiii). Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the federal office building in Oklahoma City was the work of a group of three people. … Unless the United States moves to a surveillance society on the scale of the former East Germany, the country will never be able to protect itself fully against attacks by “lone warriors” such as McVeigh.

To be clear, the authors do not claim that surveillance is useless against criminal or terrorist behavior; rather, it is of limited usefulness, and we need to appropriately balance legitimate surveillance needs with the privacy of the citizens.

On a more practical level, should we use encryption to protect the privacy of our emails and other communications? The authors seem generally in favor of it, but also warn us that:

One strategy followed by many pieces of intercept equipment should be a caution to anyone using cryptography: if an intercepted message is found to be encrypted, it is automatically recorded.

Since most emails are presently not encrypted, the very act of encrypting yours may draw attention to yourself. But at the same time,

as the use of cryptography increases, the privacy of everyone’s traffic benefits.

In light of the recent disclosures about the NSA’s methods of circumventing encryption, the book’s concluding chapter offers some especially interesting thoughts:

By building the machinery for surveillance into the US communication system, we overcome the largest barrier to becoming a surveillance society on a possibly unprecedented scale.

Once past that barrier (a place we may already have arrived at), it is much easier for laws and policies to fall into place in accordance with what is technologically possible.

This book is tightly packed with well-sourced information; I’ve only hit a few highlights here. It is available both in printed form and for Amazon Kindle, but if you don’t want the NSA to know that you bought this book, and if you don’t want Amazon to know how you read it, you might want to pay cash at the MIT Press Bookstore in Cambridge…