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Snowden tells CES crowd fighting encryption is the wrong fight

by Steve Blum • , , ,

“I’ve read the emails of terrorists, I know what they’re doing, I know how they work”, Edward Snowden told a rapt audience in a CES booth yesterday. “Terrorists are already using encryption. Everybody in the world is using encryption”.

He was being interviewed by serial entrepreneur Peter Diamondus – X-Prize, Singularity and, yesterday, Human Longevity, Inc. – via a BeamPro telepresence robot made by Palo Alto-based Suitabletech. It was a promotionally convenient necessity since Snowden is a fugitive, living in exile in Russia after blowing the whistle on the National Security Agency’s massive data trawling operation.

Snowden has no regrets about what he did, saying “I volunteered to go to prison”. Still, he’s in no hurry to get there and believes that the law enforcement agencies chasing him are on the wrong track. “I don’t think it’s right to act as deterrent against people trying to do the right thing”, he said.

Restricting or weakening legal encryption technologies wouldn’t deter terrorists and criminals – they wouldn’t restrict themselves to legal means – and in any event they also use open communications techniques. French police were able to gather a tremendous amount of information about the recent Paris attacks from unencrypted data on mobile phones used by the killers, enough to track down the people who organised the mass murders, he said.

Giving law enforcement officials a back door to everyone’s private information is an even worse answer, he believes.

“They think they need to restrict our freedom to keep us safe”, Snowden said. But the only existential threat comes from measures we take against ourselves. It’s “the only way to lose an open society”.

“Are we ever going to correct our government?” he asked. “It’s not a fight, it’s an ongoing struggle, it’s a process”.

Latest Snowden revelations will push Internet infrastructure and traffic away from U.S.

If there was ever any doubt that there’s no privacy on the Internet, the latest nuggets from Edward Snowden’s trove of documents detailing U.S. electronic spying efforts should remove it. Stories on the ProPublica.org website and in the New York Times show how telecommunications companies have cooperated with the National Security Agency to trawl emails that pass through their systems, regardless of where the messages originate or where they are destined. According to the ProPublica story, AT&T was singled out in the documents for its “extreme willingness to help” the NSA…

In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed NSA documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the NSA said amounted to a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the [AT&T-run surveillance] program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The original documents are posted alongside the ProPublica story, and make for interesting reading. Slide presentations show how an email sent to Brazil from Iran will naturally pass through a commercial server in the U.S., due to “international choke points”, “least cost routing” and other perfectly ordinary technical characteristics of the Internet.

It’s not just compliant telecoms companies that give the NSA this immense trawling capability. It also results from the fundamental architecture of the Internet, which is largely centered in and managed by the U.S.

Expect far greater international pressure to change this status quo as a result of these revelations. Even friendly countries will want alternative data paths that don’t pass through U.S. hands.

Rich countries bid up the price of Internet freedom

Assume perfect information.

The richer the country, the greater the impact and accessibility of the web, but the more intrusive governments become. The annual Web Index, compiled by the World Wide Web foundation, shows a strong correlation between high GDP and high scores on the attributes it measures. Even amid warnings from Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web and the man behind the foundation, that “a growing tide of
surveillance and censorship now threatens the future of democracy”, it’s people in rich countries that are better able to improve their lives and affect the course of government via the Internet. That’s not necessarily true, though, of online freedom.

The rankings include surveillance and censorship together in a “freedom and openness” category. Although those are two different things, the effect can be the same and it’s rich countries where the latter is the greater threat, according to the report

While developing countries, as discussed below, are most likely to resort to blocking and filtering to control online communication, thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that the developed world is far more likely to spy on such communications. It has been suggested that the knowledge that someone is tracking what you say and do online may be more likely to produce self-censorship than overt banning of certain websites.

Despite scoring high in general terms, the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and South Korea are well down the list when it comes to the Index’s freedom and openness criteria. Tops in that category are Norway, Finland, Iceland, Holland and France, in that order. At the bottom are Qatar, Yemen, China and Vietnam, with Saudi Arabia coming 81st and dead last in online freedom.

New Zealand does well on all counts, ranking 5th overall and 8th in freedom and openness. It’s also reckoned as the second greatest overachiever, with its 5th place Web Index score outpacing its 23rd place GDP standing by 18 slots. Only the Philippines – 38th on the Web Index and 59th in GDP for a 21 point gap – does better.

A poor country is less likely to abuse surveillance technology because it lacks the resources. But absent legal, social and political constraints, the WWW Foundation’s report shows that rich countries will.