In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations, the debate about mass surveillance, government secrecy and the appropriate balance between national security and information privacy raged on at South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
"Hiding In Plain Sight: Anonymizing the Internet" was one such discussion – and the alluring title, combined with promotional imagery featuring the iconic "V for Vendetta" mask, attracted a full house.
The conversation was both lively and wide-ranging. Everybody has opinions and nobody has answers, making it a perfect intellectual storm. Host Ian MacDowell, a creative technologist at argodesign – and, more intriguingly, a former bouncer – began by wondering whether proposing this topic could make him the subject of unwanted NSA attention.
More importantly, he asked the attendees, were we now being monitored given the RSVP on the invite?
The central issue behind such questions is that technology has enabled the collection of personal data on an unprecedented scale. Our "digital exhaust" – the by-product of our online lives – leaves an indelible record of our most intimate conversations, thoughts and activities, often without our knowledge and consent, or else buried in the fine print of privacy conditions.
While data is primarily being collected by commercial organisations, the NSA, GCHQ, et al. can intervene and seize the metadata. And as General Michael Hayden – a former director of the NSA and CIA – put it: "We kill people based on metadata."
From a legal perspective, the right to privacy in the US is founded on an article written in 1890 by Louis Brandeis – later a Supreme Court justice – inspired by the intimate coverage of individuals' personal lives being published in many newspapers.
We have come a long way from hacks with cameras and notebooks to server logs, geolocation, cellphones, ad cookies and IP connections. While you may feel that you personally have nothing to hide, this is not the same as agreeing that everyone's private life is fair game. And what about those for whom anonymity is critical, such as whistleblowers?
Awareness is a major issue. Many people are simply unaware of how their data is being collected and, potentially, monitored. Astoundingly, even the mobile game Angry Birds takes five megabytes of data from your phone in the first five minutes of usage alone.
This might not be an issue when it's only an algorithm making movie suggestions on Netflix – however inaccurate they may ultimately be. But in making the point about surveillance, MacDowell showed how he'd hacked a friend's Facebook barbecue invitation to post the "The NSA Likes This".
Everyone agreed perceptions of anonymity online are an illusion. Messaging apps such as Whisper, Snapchat and Yik Yak are not secure. The "incognito" mode on Google's Chrome browser similarly offers no real protection. Downloading Tor – a suite of software allowing for anonymous browsing and communications – to avoid surveillance and traffic analysis seems to be one option: the tech experts in the room weighed in with stories of how difficult it is to crack. But then what about our phones and CCTV?
Some attendees suggested millennials are to blame for the devaluation of privacy, treating the internet "like a private club" with their relentless urge to give, share and participate with no regard for the consequences. Others – notably, not just the millennials in the room – leapt to their defence. No one, perhaps, really values privacy until it is violated.
From this fascinating, swirling conversation came an existential question: "Who owns the internet?" If I get hacked, or my identity is stolen, or I suspect I am under surveillance, who do I contact for redress? Nobody knows.
So, we need to talk about Edward for sure. Our recent technological innovations have outpaced our security and legal frameworks, rendering them – in many cases – obsolete. We need a coherent perspective which protects the rights of individuals to privacy and is fit for purpose for the 21st century. But how we achieve this remains unclear.
With that, we all went our separate ways into downtown Austin, our digital exhausts trailing in our wake.
To read more of Neil Dawson's articles on Warc, click here.