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Q&A: Blogger Bruce Schneier

‘There Is No Appetite to Curtail Surveillance Capitalism’

By Jackson Chen

Last of two parts.

Bruce Schneier has penned an extensive collection of his musings on topics ranging from cryptography to encryption to digital-security issues to mass surveillance.

In “Data and Goliath” (2015) Schneier offered an extensive look at how governments and companies conduct mass surveillance and how it affects peoples’ daily lives.

In the last of a two-part interview, Schneier, 58, told Digital Privacy News that tech monopolies must be broken up to give customers better choices.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

In “Data and Goliath,” you mentioned that a government’s ability to conduct mass surveillance isn’t very effective in finding potential threats. Is this technology accurate enough to actually locate threats or is it an excuse for mass surveillance?

There are a lot of automated surveillance technologies — and those include identification technologies.

That’s something that’s useful for both corporate surveillance, where the point is to persuade you to make purchases you otherwise would not, and social control.

Photo: Vivian Babuts

“There are a lot of automated surveillance technologies … where the point is to persuade you to make purchases you otherwise would not, and social control.”

It’s not very useful for pinpointing potential threats, mostly because the sorts of threats we’re worried about are rare and unique.

So, while Chinese surveillance is an effective means of social control — it’s not very good at crime prevention.

And, while Google’s surveillance is both intimate and comprehensive, it’s not really clear how much marketing value it actually has.

Your book also mentions that 9/11 was a catalyst for changes that ultimately degraded privacy in the name of patriotism. Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic and the political riots last month are going down a similar route?

I worry about the failed coup attempt being used as a justification for further surveillance.

We’re seeing more calls for intrusive government surveillance in both cases.

Photo: David Brody

“Chinese surveillance is an effective means of social control — [but] it’s not very good at crime prevention.”

It’s already being used to preemptively identify people, with little care for the civil-liberties implications or the false positives.

COVID-19 has been much the same.

A global pandemic is an extraordinary circumstance that requires some extreme measures, but those need to be temporary.

The worry is that the surveillance systems remain after the crisis passes.

Photo: Thomas Hofman

“I worry about the failed coup attempt being used as a justification for further surveillance. We’re seeing more calls for intrusive government surveillance.”

That happened two decades ago, when emergency security measures put in place in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks are still in place today — and being used for very different purposes than originally intended.

“Data and Goliath” also details how governments and private companies work in tandem to gather as much of our data as possible. Has this relationship changed? 

I think of it as a public-private surveillance partnership — and I don’t think it’s diminishing.

Yes, there are calls to regulate Big Tech and to break up the Big Tech monopolies, but there is no appetite to curtail surveillance capitalism.

The industry is just too powerful — and Congress is too dysfunctional.

If we are going to see regulation, we need to look at the states and abroad.

Photo: David Betts

“Competition will give users and customers choices.”

The EU is the regulatory superpower on the planet right now — and the General Data Protection Regulation is its attempt to control surveillance capitalism.

California has passed a data-privacy law that’s similar to GDPR.

This is where the action is.

Has the balance of power between private companies and its users shifted? Are people starting to realize that they need to control their data?

Users have always valued their privacy and wanted control of their data; the problem was that they didn’t really have that option.

Big Tech made it easy to be surveilled, and hard to maintain privacy. 

Photo: Sue Bruce

“There are calls to regulate Big Tech and to break up the Big Tech monopolies, but there is no appetite to curtail surveillance capitalism. The industry is just too powerful — and Congress is too dysfunctional.”

This is why breaking up the tech monopolies is so important: Competition will give users and customers choices. 

Jackson Chen is a writer in Groton, Conn.

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