The future of mass surveillance

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The concept of mass surveillance existed long before the computer itself. Nazi Germany and the USSR are prime examples of nations that attempted to completely control the lives of their citizens by monitoring their every move through indirect means. This was done to enforce an ideology. Nowadays on the other hand it is commonly thought that mass surveillance is used to achieve security, however some events suggest otherwise. A recent leak of information by an activist website took the world by storm, turning mass surveillance into a topic of heated debate all across the world. But what exactly did happen, and what kind of information did the leak contain?

The story begins with WikiLeaks, a non-profit organisation started in 2006 by Julian Assange, an Australian internet activist who has gained a vast amount of fame in the recent years, most notably after Edward Snowden, ex-CIA agent turned whistleblower, leaked a large amount of classified information from the NSA to various journalists. WikiLeaks obtained the information from Snowden as well as other undisclosed sources and, as of 7 March 2017, released a fraction of this to the public. WikiLeaks labelled the leak “Vault 7”, the first instance in a series codenamed “Year-Zero”.

Julian Assange

“Vault 7” contains almost 8000 webpages and 900 attachments containing classified information from the Centre of Cyber Intelligence. Part of the leak describes the CIA’s possession of cyber superweapons capable of breaking into electronic devices such as smart TVs, smartphones, and computers running public operating systems such as Windows, macOS, GNU/Linux and BSD. At this point in time, it is safe to assume that these weapons are fully capable of breaking into all consumer devices, as well as software privately developed by hobbyists due to the nature of software development. It is important to keep in mind that a large portion of “smart” devices contain microphones and cameras which are frequently hidden and can be used to spy on their owners. Thankfully for the public, WikiLeaks has resisted releasing the superweapons to the public due to the obvious threat of malicious hackers taking advantage of them for personal gain. Also, since these weapons consist of millions of lines of code, they’re impossible to replicate without a big, sophisticated team of experts.

Regarding the leak, Julian Assange stated that he will notify large companies of vulnerabilities the leak has exposed them to, which will drastically reduce negative impacts. Furthermore, according to Assange a mere 1% of all the data has been revealed, meaning the next release in the series is likely to be bigger and even more controversial than Vault 7.

This situation raises a number of ethical and political questions. A question that has been brought up by Assange himself, is whether the CIA’s hacking capabilities exceed its mandated powers, and whether action should be taken to restrict it. Whilst any action against the CIA is unlikely to be seen at this point in time, further leaks and public debate could cause this to become a topic of hot debate between those who value their personal privacy and those who believe it is the government’’s responsibility to keep the people safe from threats such as terrorism. Technology giant Microsoft stated that it desires a “New Geneva Convention” regarding the use of cyber weapons against non-combatants.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, once said that “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither”, which in my opinion is very much the case in this situation. Following the Patriot Act of 2001, mass surveillance has progressed to a point where it is no longer serving the people as a tool designed to keep them safe, but is instead invading the privacy of innocent people. Mass surveillance is a tool, and can easily lead to the suppression of free speech and expression, which undermines democracy. Furthermore, privacy is a part of human nature. We as people own ourselves, and hence decide which parts of ourselves and our ideas we are willing to share.

However, the ethics of mass surveillance is a topic of debate, which is simply impossible to entirely cover in a single article. How the society as a whole views this topic will likely change in the following months, as more information is revealed by WikiLeaks. Year-Zero will make 2017 a controversial year regarding mass surveillance, but for now all we can do is wait and see how the situation unveils.