You Shouldn't Expect an Open Global Network to be Private
There's been a lot of talk recently about Big Brother and governments reading your email or listening to your phone calls, and that the age of the internet is a surveillance state akin to East Germany, but let's reflect on what our expectations of the internet should be.
Privacy is a good thing
Just to be clear: I think the NSA monitoring everything is creepy, I think privacy is a good thing that should be protected (I'm not saying that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear), and I think that there are real dangers like misunderstanding context, jumping to conclusions, connecting correlations to causations, and general fear, uncertainty, and doubt. I think if the government is opening our emails, citizens should be able to openly know what's being done with them to keep that power in check.
But the internet is public by nature
The internet is a huge array of interconnected computers accessible to any other computer on the network. I don't expect anything I do on that network to be, in any real way, private. The internet is like a public square. Everyone in the square can see what you look like, hear what you're saying, and analyze all the data you're broadcasting out into the open air. That's why I usually wear clothes, keep my money in a bank (not in my pocket) and I watch what I say to others that may overhear what I'm saying. I don't feel the internet is any different. I don't expect what I say on the internet to be hidden from eavesdroppers, and I try to act accordingly and think about what I say out loud before I open my mouth.
That is not to say that I will censor my ideas, more that being aware of my surroundings I'll say what I want to say (if that's what I believe in), only I will say things with the understanding that my audience may be broader than who I'm directly addressing and take care to state my ideas clearly and to limit misunderstanding (as I believe I should be doing regardless).
It's hard to hide
You can certainly make it harder for people to hear what you're saying. You can encrypt your messages, talk on burner phones, and bounce your signal off different routers to mask your origin. But the data is still out there in one form or another. If someone really wants to know who your are and what you're saying it's possible to decipher it (but maybe just not in an acceptable timeframe). With the advent of quantum computing, botnets, keyloggers, data mining, and machine learning, it just gets harder and harder to keep things secret.
If it's not the NSA, it will be someone else
Recently the NSA has been taking heat from it's monitoring practices. But I'm fairly certain other governments are doing the same thing. I'm sure organized crime is checking things out with its botnets and virii too. And corporations will always be interested in how to better sell more stuff to more people, thereby wanting to know what people want so they can sell it to them. The motivations for surveillance might not always be noble, but I don't think it's completely avoidable on a network that's connected to everyone else. When I'm on the internet I expect to be monitored and tracked and analyzed and filtered by someone. But this isn't any different than the public square analogy: if I'm talking out loud to my friends, I'm sure anyone in close proximity can hear what I'm saying too, and I consider that when I'm talking. If it can be done, it will be done, right or wrong, by somebody. Privacy is held on my local computer, my LAN, and behind my front door, not outside in the public square, on the internet, or over the airwaves.
Terrorism bad; liberty good
So, the general argument for all this government surveillance is that it needs all this data to better protect its citizens (e.g., from "terrorists"… although to be more accurate, from "enemies of the state") and that it's a trade-off for increased security at the cost of liberty. I think that's fine, but that maybe it's currently out of balance too much on the security side. Security will always be inversely proportional to liberty. Too little security and too much liberty might mean something like the wild west and individuals going around shooting each other, heisting stage-coaches, and other bad stuff. But too much security and too little liberty might mean something like East Germany where nobody can say what they really think because most the country is informing on the rest of the country. There needs to be a balance. We should definitely try to protect ourselves from those that would do us harm, but I'd rather have the odd incident (as horrible as it may be) in exchange for the ability to openly share my free-thinking ideas without fear of being arrested for saying some words. Benjamin Franklin said "those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." In other words, what are we protecting in the first place if we give it all up to be safe? It's like an over-protective parent sheltering their child so much that s/he is deprived of the opportunity to experience anything. Life is risky; that's a given. We can't protect and insure against the universe, and sometimes shit happens.
The risks are worth it
Citizens, terrorists, rogue states, and corporations can all benefit from the open network alike. And that's a good thing. With this openness we are able to do all the amazing things the internet enables us to do (e.g., access almost all human knowledge, instantaneously communicate with anyone on the planet, automate lots of boring information management tasks so human brains can focus on the interesting problems, and equality in global commerce). Both moral and amoral users benefit. But I'm ok with that. I think it's worth the risk.
For example, Gmail is a tradeoff (I knew all my email would be monitored and analyzed by a corporation going in; in other words, I knew there was an inherent lack of privacy). Google is analyzing all my emails in order to send me personalized ads (how they make money). But in return for that tradeoff of privacy I get a free email account. The problem with the NSA is we don't get anything out of it. If we're paying them (in taxes) we should at least get something in return, or don't do it.
Don't expect privacy in the cloud
The current surveillance-data-mining-scandle doesn't surprise me. I expect these sorts of things to be happening simply because they can happen. I do have stuff I want to keep private though, I just don't post that stuff on the open network or display it in the public square for everyone to see. But we need to keep a balance between security and liberty, and this current issue is a good indication that we're likely swinging a little too far in the direction of security over liberty, and that needs to be kept in check.
I'm not trying to determine what the solution is to private communications. I'm just trying to highlight that the internet is not the type of thing that is inherently private and thus we shouldn't expect it to be.
Update: A conversation with Tatiana
Nice... I still do not like when my emails are read by someone they are not assigned to... even if there is nothing important or personal in them and even if in return I have a free email account. I've never agreed to this. That feels like someone is reading your letter from behind your shoulder.
Yep. But that's what I think the internet is like. If you really don't want anyone to know what you're saying, I just think you shouldn't use the internet to transmit your communications. But even knowing there are going to be eavesdroppers, I think there's still a lot of value to be had with the internet. I just don't think it's a right (or even possible) to have privacy out in the open ;)
Yes, I don't think people should think that what they store in the cloud, or what they transmit over the wires (however "secure" they think it is), is something that can be kept private. All computers on the internet are connected to one-another and as such the internet is by definition not private.
Yeah, I guess what bothers me most is that the government is acting hypocritical. On the one hand it arrests and levies large punishments for hackers breaking into their computers, but on the other hand when the government breaks into our computers there aren't any consequences.
World friendship network image by Paul Butler