Total Surveillance

June 11th, 2013

Imagine you live in a world where the buildings are glass and you can’t ever close the curtains. Imagine the floor is glass, the ceiling is glass and all the walls are glass. There are no curtains, no window shades, no shutters and you can’t make your own. We’re heading into this world online. A robust network, cheap sensors and massive data manipulation builds the equivalent of glass houses.

The question today is whether we can have curtains. Whether any business or ecosystem provides curtains and whether we can make our own. Today we have very little ability to close the curtains in commercial activities. Websites are technically able to track *everything* we do, from how long we stay on a page to what ads attract us to how to travel from one website to the next. The data about you can be sold to others. Online data can be combined with data from your physical world and made available or sold to others  Telephone providers know when we make a phone call, where we made it from, who we called, how long we talked, our regular patterns of calls, and more.

Now we know that the U.S. government is gathering significant quantities of this data. Currently it’s understood to be using only “metadata” about phone calls for U.S. citizens, and to be using the actual content as well for foreign nationals. Now we also know that the inability to pull the curtains applies to governments as well.  We can also wonder how many other governments are collecting these types of data.

Now is the moment to ask — do we care?  Do care how much our government watches us, tracks us without our knowing it? Do we care how  the U.S. government treats the citizens of friendly, allied states? Do we care if other governments emulate the U.S. and gather this data?   How do businesses, organizations and individuals approach the US knowing the scope of online activities that are being monitored?  How much do other governments do this — either to  citizens or to foreign nationals?

How do we balance between civil rights and national security?

At Mozilla we have a long, deep focus on individual control of online life, including the degree of privacy a person wants. We build products to promote this goal, and we will continue to do so. In essence, we try to provide the option of pulling the curtains for individual citizens.

However, products do not make government policies. This is the role of  citizens. We urge all citizens to get involved with the issue of wholesale government surveillance. It will determine the realities of  online life going forward.  Our online houses are become increasingly built of glass. Our lives our increasingly visible to whomever wants to look.

Let’s ask ourselves: do we want to live in a house or a fishbowl?

18 comments for “Total Surveillance”

  1. 1

    Heather Angel said on June 11th, 2013 at 9:36 am:

    I am having a lot of trouble figuring out how to pose this question to people about privacy… I have been participating in Mozilla’s #teachtheweb initiative and plan on encouraging the learners I work with to think about these topics. I think you’ve addressed them in a way that really discusses it in an easy easy way to understand. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  2. 2

    Michael McCarthy said on June 11th, 2013 at 11:39 am:

    This is the first time I have the privilege to write to you, Mitchell, and I’m really glad I’ve saved this opportunity until now.

    I have never, ever, been prouder to be a part of the Mozilla community than I am right now. It matters more than perhaps even you can imagine, for me to be a part of turning these tides in favor of all the good citizens of the world. We are good people, in good standing, who deserve the best from each other. Let us bring out our very best, and show the world what change is really made of!

    You’re a champion. I will always appreciate this moment. I know I am not alone. I know who we are, and what we stand for.

    Priceless, and beyond words.

  3. 3

    Ben Werdmuller said on June 11th, 2013 at 11:46 am:

    Thank you for fighting for us.

    This is a turning point for everybody on the web: the people who build it, the people who use it, and the people who legislate around it. But it’s also, as you rightly point out, a turning point for us as a society. Where do we want to live?

    I think the biggest argument we have to work against is the “I have nothing to hide” knee-jerk response. We’ve already seen representatives use it, and I’m sure we’ve all heard it from ordinary people in our daily lives. This post is a great first step to creating an accessible answer that allows everyone to understand what freedom really is, and how important it should be to us all.

    Thank you again.

  4. 4

    pablocubico said on June 11th, 2013 at 12:35 pm:

    Hi Mitchell, this is exactly why I asked some time ago about Firefox adopting social add-ons, when Facebook supported CISPA. Products don’t make policies but they do make a stand, that makes features as Do-Not-Track so important.

    We had a townhall debate in MozCamp LatAm about policies, and there was the intention of building a special SIG inside Mozilla for contributors interested in this area. How come we have no lawyers on the community? We should.

    I guess this things should be addressed in the summit, maybe we can host debate sessions, and gather info about what’s happening on every country.

    Despite of that, as Jacob Appelbaum said in the 29C3 Keynote (available on Youtube), today we have no borders, and what the NSA is spying is the Internet itself: Google; Facebook. Any traffic, so it’s not a US matter anymore: it impacts on all of us.

    So, having a global community, we should focus on understanding these mechanics more and more.

  5. 5

    Mike Ratcliffe said on June 11th, 2013 at 4:38 pm:

    This whole thing makes me feel conflicted. Privacy is extremely important to me but, at the same time, governments should be able to monitor terrorists.

    Heck, I used to write for a privacy magazine but I have to admit that there could be huge value in knowing a terrorist’s contacts. I sincerely doubt that a terrorist group would store their information in the cloud. They would also surely be working through encrypted connections so packet sniffing would be fairly useless.

    I suspect that exactly where the privacy line is to be drawn will be a debate for a long time to come.

  6. 6

    pablocubico said on June 12th, 2013 at 10:50 am:

    The line exists, the government can break into your house is there’s a search warrant, a due process, etc.

    The “terrorist” laws were used to put everybody under surveillance, hence you become “guilty until proven innocent”.

    Anyway, I agree the debate will be alive for a long time.

  7. 7

    Pete said on June 12th, 2013 at 1:10 pm:

    Often quoted but still good: He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither – Benjamin Franklin

    I think that the US is in the same hysterical state as they were 50 years ago. Just replace communist by terrorist.

  8. 8

    Larry said on June 14th, 2013 at 9:42 am:

    If only it was about catching terrorists, but it’s not, it’s about the power of information, who has it and how do they use it. The terrorist argument assumes that politicians, government workers, and the contractors they hire are all altruistic in nature and don’t have a lust for power. When you look at the amount of money that is being spent on this, it develops special interests who do not want to let it go. Follow the money trail.

  9. 9

    Kane said on June 15th, 2013 at 8:05 am:

    I have been following this since the story broke 24X7 and I must say I am dazed at the blanket capture of data by the PRISM program and that all the major US companies as service providers, now being called the NSA nine appropriately, have been collaborating actively since starting 2007. Any data on customers entire digital life of these companies can be just a click away for a NSA contractors – who now number 900,000 + – has just blown away my entire belief.

    To be able to make internet use of people free of surveillance has to now completely reviewed.

    The first step must me to remove the complete control of ICANN and thereby US in the entire registry of the World Wide WEB. The citizens of the world are, by this process of ICANN’s complete control and thereby Partriot Act and the US laws, are all fare game for complete surveillance without the re-course to a court for redress of the violation of their rights.

    Mozilla’s involvement in the Stop Watching us, though recommendable, only addresses the American citizens concerns i.e the violation of their 4th and 1st Amendment rights. They do not address the concerns of the vast majority of the non-Americans who use the internet to protest and work to earn a living all around the world and …. use Firefox.

    So I appeal that Mozilla create a community action platform – the vast majority of who are non-Americans who are fare game to NSA and where there is not even a rubber-stamp court to bulk collect their data into BIG DATA of NSA. For every potential terrorist out there there are 100’s of millions of innocents whose human rights are being violated by the NSA and the NSA nine.

    And by the way, what will Mozilla do when they receive the NSL next time from the FBI? Will they oppose it and let the community of Mozilla users know before if they are forced to comply?

  10. 10

    Hans (Germany) said on June 16th, 2013 at 9:15 am:

    I can also add the news that a spokesman of the Russian intelligence FSB said in an interview on RT (= kind of Russian CNN, only sometimes more differentiated) about the alleged “chemical weapons” in Syria: “How can we know if the intelligence of the United States is not wrong again? They were already wrong in 2002 when they had allegedly detected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

    I should also add that the Russian intelligence warned the American intelligence several times against the two Chechen weirdos, they had better information than the American intelligence about the two. And for such an information – forwarded by Russian intelligence following EXACT observation of extremist circles in Chechenia, the American intelligence doesn’t need to watch the whole world. But they ignored the Russian warning.

    This American “Somebody’s watching you” intelligence agenda is a kindergarten mentality. One may ask if the US intelligence really deserves the term “intelligent” + more the terms “infantile” + “hysterical”.

  11. 11

    Eqbal said on June 19th, 2013 at 1:32 pm:

    A quick comment about the original post: IF we decided to live in completely transparent environments AND the government did the same, well, that might be worth considering. Right now, however, the government is invading our information-environments while conducting many, many activities–from FISA courts to drone strikes to monitoring–without providing any view of decision-making processes, oversight or accountability measures.

  12. 12

    Jeanne Rothenbuecher said on June 20th, 2013 at 10:27 am:

    Thank you Mitchell & for championing this very important issue. A statement to ponder: “I’d often heard my parents say, “the government is me; everyone’s business is no one’s business, but the government’s business is my business.” Alma Sanford.

  13. 13

    Steve B said on June 20th, 2013 at 2:48 pm:

    “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Ben Franklin

    Although historians are quick to point out that this statement was regarding trading legislative authority to tax certain landowners versus a windfall for defense of the Pennsylvania colony, that doesn’t in any way diminish its applicability here.

    The take away is that whenever you ask government, organizations, friends and even family to provide you with something, you will lose something in return. It may be your dignity, your wealth, your independence, your privacy and/or your quality of life. There is no such thing as a free lunch, never, ever. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar or a dupe.

    In exchange for our liberty and privacy, we are told by those that wield great power over us that these powerful tools are only used for good things and are never abused. We are assured that adequate checks and balances are in place to prevent abuse. The people who profit from building and running the leviathan apparatus pay for the PR campaigns for their reauthorization. They also pay for the campaigns of the politicians that vote large portions of our deficit-financed wealth to fund the beast.

    I beg to differ. Our country’s history is littered with abuse of power. Whether the enslavement of people to expropriate their labor, Indian massacres, deadly medical experiments run without their knowledge (Tuskegee), the abuses at the FBI under Hoover, abuses of imminent domain, countless CIA boondoggles, Japanese internment camps, secret wars fought without congressional knowledge, use of the IRS to retaliate against political enemies (Nixon admin, Obama admin), secretly running guns (Iran/Contra, Fast and Furious, etc.), suspension of habeas corpus (Lincoln, Bush 43, Obama), etc., etc.

    I’ll leave you with a couple of quote from another American. He didn’t always walk the talk, but the words are more applicable now than ever before.

    “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take all that you have.” – Ronald Reagan

    “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and passed on … or we will spend our sunset years telling our children’s children what it was like in the United States when men were free.” – Ronald Reagan

  14. 14

    invest_mavin said on July 4th, 2013 at 7:03 pm:

    Intelligence isn’t just about information.

    Especially when it comes to your personal private information. It’s a 4th amendment issue…

    Especially when it degrades(surveillance via hacking) the ability to place a phone call most especially in a life saving emergency.



  15. 15

    ian southward said on July 10th, 2013 at 2:33 am:

    It seems obvious to me now having seen the way the USA handles things. Insecurity is inherent in the union. Since 9-11 you don’t even trust your partner let alone your neighbour. The amount of loss of freedom in both USA and Europe is getting beyond a joke. Walk a mile in any major city and you will have been filmed 100 times at the least. If the majority of internet use is for entertainment and an exchange of ideas or images etc, leave it alone. I don’t like the idea that some faceless quango is looking at what I do in my free time and its stealing my life bit by bit. We are talking about less than 0.05% of the users of the internet using it for illicit purposes, planning things that the security services most likely already know about. You need to remember here in the UK we have dealt with terrorists for over four decades and that by anyone’s standards is a long time and a lot of accumulated experience. Are we paranoid enough to want to know everything about every one of the 62 million inhabitants? Personally no, I couldn’t give a rats rear about anyone else and what they do. But I am in no position to do anything about those who want to harm me, I don’t doubt there is an agency that does so if they just look out for them and leave me free to learn from the internet and enjoy the vast library of information without trying to tie me to terrorists, weirdos and fruit-loops and especially note my sexual preferences and quirks I’ll be fine with a minimum of surveillance, but in all honesty this must have been going on for such a long time its taken whistle-blowers to make it public

  16. 16

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  17. 17

    John99 said on August 11th, 2013 at 10:43 am:

    It seems we may have good reason for being paranoid that some agencies may collect far more data than expected. I stumbled across this article that explains that possibly we should not put so much trust as we do in simple straightforward HTTPS.
    Perfect Forward Secrecy can block the NSA from secure web pages, but no one uses it
    By Michael Horowitz June 21, 2013 4:49 PM EDT

    If I undersatnd the article correctly the weak link in the chain is continully using the same private key for encryption. If that is ever compromised many communications over a large time period become decryptable. There are however currently methods tomitigate this risk.

  18. 18

    William Jack said on August 26th, 2013 at 6:34 am:

    We really need better encryption on browsers. The current 256bit encryption is not sufficient to stop intrusion using supercomputers. Perhaps Mozilla could partner with an outfit like to include a 2048 bit version of SSL in order that email interception becomes too difficult to be practical. Once Mozilla adds this feature the other browsers will quickly update to the new standard.

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