In 1949 George Orwell published the novel 1984. In Orwell’s future, citizens were under constant surveillance by Big Brother. “Big Brother is watching” became a staple in our language, of something to be feared. The fear is that our governments were spying on us, and that we had no real privacy.
Fast forward to 2013 and we discover that Orwell may not have been too off base. Thanks to the leaking of information by Edward Snowden, we discovered that Big Brother was indeed watching. In this case, Big Brother was the U.S. government. More specifically the NSA through the PRISM surveillance program. We learned that huge amounts of data was not only being collected from specific targets, but from all of us. Our phone conversations, our private message conversations, our locations. There was even the revelation of such projects as Drop Out Jeep in which the NSA could turn on the microphone and camera of iPhones to watch and listen to users, all without their knowing.
This enraged the public. We were being spied on! How dare they! And the world truly did change, a little. People became concerned, to an extent, about their privacy. The thought of the governments which we elected and placed in power would have the gall to do such a thing disgusted us. How dare they take the authority which we had given them to spy on us in such a way.
One would think that this would be enough to get people to think critically about the services they were using and what they are doing. Sadly, it did not. Sadly it seems, most of the public simply listens to media and takes what is told to them at face value.
Apple had come forward to deny the accusation of Drop Out Jeep. They claimed that they had never installed back doors in their phones. Numerous internet companies such as the aforementioned Apple, Google, Facebook, and others which were named in Snowden’s leaks have changed the narrative in the world of privacy. They now state they are concerned for our privacy. They state that they are fighting for our privacy. They are taking that fight for our privacy to very extreme lengths. Now, these same companies that were specifically named by Snowden as leaving wide open back doors to PRISM are now refusing to give the governments any help at all, regardless of the reason. Using the outcry of the public against unnecessary spying, these companies are now using encryption as a means to deny the government help in cases of crime or terrorism. A large portion of the public is happy with this. They happily believe that these companies are looking out for their privacy because they are fighting their governments.
There is a critical flaw in this theory. The flaw is that back doors are not needed when there are wide open front doors.
Big Brother is indeed watching. Big Brother is watching more intently than he’s ever watched before. But it’s not the Big Brother most people would recognize. It turns out that Big Brother is not the governments of this world. Instead, Big Brother is commercial companies. The same commercial companies originally listed by Snowden in his leaks. And these commercial companies are not watching us so ensure we are stepping inside the lines, they’re not watching to ensure we follow the laws of the land, they are watching for profit. They are watching to commoditize the user.
Let’s look back to what the public was outraged about. It was the wholesale spying on our communications. Be they voice calls, emails, or messages sent via different messengers. It was not the wiretapping of criminals, that has gone on for long enough with no complaints by the public. It was the fact that regular law abiding folk was being watched and listened to. The fact of the matter is, that those regular law abiding folk are now being watched and listened to at an even greater extent.
Social media giant Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, tracks us to an extent I believe Project PRISM would be jealous of. They track users location, web history, they have access to millions if not billions of photos of it’s users. It is now being found out that Facebook leaves the mic active on phones using it’s apps, and is scraping information from the so called private messages being sent between users. Google has placed many apps in the Apple App Store, one of the newer ones is a keyboard which will relay information back to Google, with the reasoning that it will provide a better experience to the user. The fact of the matter is it is information being collected on the user, and sent out to a third party. The shocking thing? Apple and Google, who have stated a strong stance against the supposed back doors requested by governments are allowing apps not limited to Facebook and Google full access to their users. The very access they claim to be protecting from governments.
How can we ensure that users fully understand what they are giving up by using these “services”? I think it’s obvious that users do not. All too obvious. Many of these activities carried out by these apps are hidden deep withing EULA agreements which no one ever realistically reads, or camouflaged behind confusing permissions. Do we need further proof? Here’s a perfect test. Do a quick internet search of “turn off location services in Facebook” and you will find hundreds of posts written over the last several years which follow the same pattern. That pattern is as follows;
“Did you know Facebook tracks your location? No one wants that. Here’s how to turn it off”
This is generally followed by a few angry comments from readers that are shocked that Facebook has done such a thing. They will then turn off their location services, and go back to happily using Facebook and on the next Facebook update those location services are turned back on again, with the user none the wiser.
If you’d like further proof, simply read any of the comments on any site which was speaking about the Apple vs. FBI encryption debate. You shall see hundreds of users irate over the idea that the government would have access to the messages of users, all the while gladly handing over this very same information to companies which have absolutely no responsibility to our welfare. The only responsibility these companies have is to profit. And it shows.
If you ask me, the battle over back doors is simply a diversionary tactic. A diversion so that users will not notice that the front door is wide open.