Data and Goliath

Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath is a well-written, knowledgeable, and somewhat compassionate look at the sheer amount of data that surrounds our everyday lives, the intimidating corporate and government surveillance monitoring and judging that data, and what we can/should do about it. Written in 2014, this book is current enough that events are fresh in our minds but doesn’t include some more recent invasions of privacy. The well-organized book has three sections: the prevalence of data and surveillance; what’s at stake; and solutions for moving forward. Schneier starts off with a description of how cell phone carriers always know where you are based on where your cell phone is. All the data that a cellphone collects throughout the day every day leads to the phone knowing more about a person than the person does themselves.

The introduction alone introduces some scary information that I hadn’t heard of; blind calls and HelloSpy. A blind call isn’t detectable and doesn’t ring, but allows someone to find your location “within one meter” (Schneier, p. 3). HelloSpy is particularly terrifying because it allows someone to track someone else without their knowledge – making it easier for abusive relationships to fester. Someone I know was in an abusive relationship in which her abuser would call, text, and instant message her at all times of the day, and if she didn’t answer within an hour or so he would try to figure out and travel to where she was to ‘find out’ why she wasn’t answering. If he had access to this app, it would have been exponentially harder for her to get rid of him[1], and he would be able to find her after their breakup.

Data and Goliath takes a more widespread scope than my short example above, examining how we make implicit agreements with corporations and governments to monitor us with carte blanche. As Schneier says, “[Mass surveillance] is being used to control what we see, what we can do, and, ultimately what we say. It is being done without offering citizens recourse or any real ability to opt out, and without any meaningful checks and balances…We need to fix that, and we need to do it very soon” (p. 5).

Part one of the book describes society through the context of surveillance. Chapter one looks at the varieties of personal data we create, including metadata and personally identifiable information. Chapter two looks at how data is used for surveillance, and chapter three looks at how data is treated under ubiquitous mass surveillance. In chapters four through six, he looks at how corporations and governments work independently and together to benefit from mass surveillance. Part two focuses on harms caused by mass surveillance, including both government and corporate surveillance – this surveillance allows institutions to categorize and manipulate us. Chapter nine discusses economic harms. Chapters ten and eleven focus on loss of privacy and harms to security. Part three of the book provides guidance for where to go from here “to protect ourselves from government and corporate surveillance” (Schneier, p. 9). Chapter twelve sets out general principles. Chapters thirteen and fourteen provide specific policy recommendations; thirteen discusses corporations and fourteen discusses governments. Chapter fifteen discusses what each individual can do to protect themselves, and sixteen discusses society as a whole. Towards the end of the introduction, Schneier says that the “surveillance society snuck up on us” (p. 10). Here’s a question I want to pose to the class: did the surveillance society sneak up on us, or was it already there in a diluted, historical, or lesser form or extent?

I focused on two chapters in Data and Goliath: chapter seven and chapter fifteen. Chapter seven discusses the focuses on the harms caused by government surveillance. Schneier writes that the biggest cost is liberty, and this cost is big enough that people across the political spectrum are up in arms about its loss. The section “Accusation by Data” discusses how governments can use data to arrest people. With the advent of cameras in laptops that take pictures without the knowledge of the user, spyware, and a new predictive AI that can supposedly use ‘gaydar’ to identify someone’s sexual orientation, a restrictive country that oppresses LGBT+ people could easily start arresting people based on whether data collected about them makes them look like they’re LGBT+. This would be a form of ‘signature strike’ that oppressive governments could use. The section on the chilling effects was poignant in pointing out that such omnipresent surveillance instills fear in the general population. Journalists have had to deal with government surveillance, limiting the stories they can publish and news they can uncover.

As Schneier writes, surveillance systems are susceptible to abuse. On page 123, he details two situations in which surveillance had been abused, and the discussion of Lower Merion School District was especially disturbing. School administrators shouldn’t install spyware on student laptops and they certainly shouldn’t be taking pictures of students in their bedrooms. I found this especially disturbing – these students are minors and they deserve their privacy. I quite like the principles set forth in chapter thirteen and fourteen. I don’t expect governments or corporations to follow these anytime soon, but these guidelines certainly are going in the right direction. I am certainly a fan of transparency and safeguards against illegitimate access. Chapter fifteen offers individual suggestions for increasing one’s privacy when using technology. I picked up on the tape over laptop cameras (mainly because I do that), and was reminded of the fact that while cameras can be blocked, microphones in computers can’t. At any point a device could be recording audio without user knowledge. Schneier suggests avoiding certain topics in email, and I wonder what those topics are. I appreciated the mentions of Tor, Ghostery, and DuckDuckGo. I don’t recall any mention of VPNs, a crucial privacy tool, though I could have missed that.

African Fractals by Ron Eglash is a fascinating book about the prevalence of fractals in African cultures. It covers the basics of fractal geometry as well as cool cultural phenomena such as divination. It was interesting to see how often fractals are used in the design everyday objects. It was also interesting to see how different cultures use math, and fractals, differently. Geometric angles are prevalent in Mangbuetu culture; heads on the hatpin are angled 45 degrees from each other, and wearing a royal-style head wrap resulted in an angle of 135 degrees between the chief’s head and neck. In some Ghanaian cultures, however, logarithmic spirals are prevalent. They see a link between a spiritual force and the structure of living things through logarithmic spirals. It is cool to see how math is embedded in different cultures. In some cultures, numbers are highly significant and can signify luck (I’ve heard 4 in unlucky in Chinese culture because it sounds like the word for death; 18 is considered a lucky number in Judaism). Mathematical methods and concepts can be embedded in artistic cultural practices as well, such as cornrow braids. Cornrows are fractals, and can convey all sorts of meanings (such as age, social status, and kinship).

I was particularly interested in the mention that ‘6’ was an important number in ancient China; I thought of my extensive training (sixteen years) in northern shaolin kung fu and tried to remember any significant mention of the number six. I couldn’t think of any, though this could be because shaolin kung fu came over to ancient China from somewhere around western India-ish (According to legend, the original temple was nestled between two mountains. That doesn’t help find the location much.) Since this was brought over from somewhere else, it makes sense that the number ‘6’ doesn’t have too much significance in something seemingly from ancient China. In chapter 11, Dr. Eglash mentions that there’s a potential problem that someone who knew what he was after might fabricate what he wanted to hear. This makes me think of the quantum observer effect, where observing a particle changes its behavior. It also makes me think of the Hawthorne experiment, where organizational psychologists went to a factory and changed the different aspects of the workplace. They found that changing the lighting in the factory in any way improved productivity and decreased absenteeism. The factory workers thought that if they became more productive the experiment would go better, so they became more productive.

[1] Thankfully, she has switched phones since then so even if HelloSpy was installed then it wouldn’t work now.