We Asked For This

There is a certain jollity in the reactions of the webby class to news that the NSA has been, first, spying on Verizon communications for years, and second has approached multiple information-gathering startups, hat in hand, asking for access to their data stores. It is indeed funny: faceless bureaucrats who, we are certain, can barely click the Start menu, are horking down data from America’s Can You Hear Me Now Network while browsing our Facebook profiles over lunch. Now that the truth has come to light, we’re positively giddy. All of our worst fears have come to call and it’s hilarious.

I had heard the refrain for years from the conspiracy-minded: “Google/Facebook/Twitter/Apple will sell you out in a second.” Well, they have. Every word written by RMS (“I refuse to have a cell phone because they are tracking and surveillance devices”) was true and every time Doctorow incited us to run Ubuntu with an encrypted root partition we should have listened. But who cares? We’re not building bombs in our kitchens, we’re playing Farmville. Their jeremiads only reminded us of what sticks-in-the-mud the privacymongers are and how clever we are when it comes to routing around damage.

Maybe we should have listened.

We asked for this. We asked for this when we traded password protection for single sign-in. We asked for this when we chased social network after social network, creating a deer trail that could lead a hunter to our crushed-grass bed, still warm. We asked for this when, almost a decade ago, we traded some privacy for some security and got neither in the bargain.

I’m as guilty as you (unless you’re Cory Doctorow.) I dumped my photos into someone else’s hard drive. We use a publishing platform that will roll over to plagiarists and lairs thanks to the DMCA. We have no expectation of privacy (nor do we particularly need it, I’d imagine) and so we upload our work to the “cloud” where it sits, potentially unmolested, in DropSugarGoogleBox’s servers. We give Amazon a list of things we like and do not like and are amazed when it offers up a slew of products that will strike the perfect chord of our fancy. We are like a drunk blundering through a crowd of pickpockets. That we are not poor and naked already is a testament to either the goodness of humanity or the ineptitude of the criminal class.

In short, we didn’t trade privacy for security. We traded privacy for convenience. And the government, seeing a hole, took advantage of this.

This era of absolute trust is fading, at least in certain circles. Facebook is boring and Twitter is a firehose so people late to the game probably won’t even bother with those services. It will take a few good Google crashes to wean us off of cloud services but as the price of storage falls precipitously and the ability to connect to a home network becomes increasingly easy I could see a time when Yahoo’s promise of a free terabyte is vaguely seedy. This breach itself will probably encourage millions of programmers to use harder encryption. And so it goes.

A bad sysadmin can get away with typing “chmod a+rwx .” for years. Then some hacker discovers that little peccadillo and hides a rootkit in his server. Then that sysadmin learns his lesson and moves on. I’d like to think we’re going to be the same way, but I doubt it. We love our ease-of-use, our single sign-ins, our constant pings and instant access. We will not trade that because someone, somewhere, may be reading our private correspondence.

And so we’ll ask for it again and again. The crypto-lovers will cry wolf, then the real wolf will come and we’ll laugh it off, confident in our abilities behind the keyboard to outsmart a bureaucratic apparatus so outdated that they still require us to file our taxes on paper. Slowly, steadily we will watch this crisis erode and the next one will build itself in the old one’s stead. By that time we’ll be lifecasting what we see and hear 24/7 using wearables, perhaps, but we web savvy users will laugh that off as well. We’ll smirk at some lumpen NSA agent hunched behind a computer watching us spoon sugar into endless coffees and talk about movies and TV shows. It serves them right, we’ll say, for wanting this data in the first place.

As Schneier writes: “Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight.”

When apathy is our defense we deserve what we get. But apathy breeds another kind of insecurity and makes us bigger targets still. We forget this at our peril.