by Austin Bay
December 24, 2013
Personal privacy has all but dead and gone, and we're the worse for it, in my opinion. Privacy's long goodbye began with Gutenburg. Though the invention of the printing press eventually gave us the gift of mass literacy, it also made gossip permanent. The camera gave paparazzi an anti-privacy weapon worth a thousand words. The telegraph and then the telephone gave gossips instant intercontinental reach. Innuendo moved at the speed of light.
Privacy's shadowy twin, institutional and state secrecy, hasn't expired either, but for better or for worse, secrecy may be on life support. Gutenburg and the telephone contributed to secrecy's decline, but in the last two decades, innovative hackers have demonstrated that two post-World War 2 technological phenomena, digital computers and the internet, have made keeping secrets next to impossible.
In 2013, clever cyber thieves and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden demonstrated that the half-life of precious secrets, even those protected by barbed wire and robust software is measured in months, if not minutes.
Wiretapping is such a 20th century term. Phone hacking has supplanted it. In Great Britain, a private investigator now faces phone hacking charges for intercepting private calls made by British royalty. Last week, British prosecutors introduced evidence that in 2006 a private detective working for the now-defunct News of the World tabloid, pinched juicy voicemails left for Kate Middleton by her then-boyfriend (now-husband) Prince William. Another News of the World reporter may have phone-hacked Buckingham Palace.
The argument that British royals only exist for purpose of scandalous entertainment has merit. But think for a moment. If the British government can't protect the Windsors' cell phones, no one's conversations are private.
I'm afraid they aren't. In fact, audio hacking may be the lesser of two embarrassments. The FBI recently admitted that it can remotely activate a computer's built-in camera. The Feebs assure us they only trigger the candid camera if you're a mobster and they've a warrant (!). Once upon a time, the morning newspaper provided news lovers with ideal latrine and lavatory reading. Wi-fi made laptop computers latrine-compatible. After the FBI's revelation, latrines may witness a newsprint revival.
Investment firms spend hundreds of millions of dollars to protect client accounts. Identity theft is a major concern for banks. Thieves acquiring legitimate account numbers, passwords and personal data can rob secure systems. That's why elite cyber crooks try to crack the treasure troves: the customer credit records of large corporations. Last week Target Corp. revealed that hackers may have stolen the credit data of some 40 million customers. Data include customer names and credit card numbers. According to a major computer security firm, Target became aware of the data breach when credit card companies began reporting suspicious charges.
The attack will cost Target millions to fix and much more in lost sales. Target officials said their company had a robust cyber security program, one comparable to other major retailers. In a wire service report, a security expert observed that the Target breach could well involve inside knowledge.
If that sounds conspiratorial, it is, but the inside job is a classic means of cracking a bank vault. Software doesn't stop an inside job, either. Which serves as a segue to Edward Snowden's exposure of NSA electronic surveillance and digital intelligence gathering programs.
The NSA is, or was prior to Snowden, the world's premier hacking, tapping, decryption, encryption and electronic intelligence analysis agency. But the NSA is an American war fighting agency, and in the electronic and virtual worlds, hacking is to the NSA what air interdiction is to the USAF -- just one of its dirty jobs. Snowden's justification, however, is that the NSA has become a threat to American liberties.
This month, a federal judge ruled that the NSA program, which keeps records of phone calls, including domestic calls in the U.S., is too broad. Snowden crowed the ruling vindicated his exposure of NSA secrets.
All secrets are not equal. As Winston Churchill argued, life and death defense secrets are so precious they deserve a bodyguard of lies. Expose those secrets and, well, all of us may be on life support, or at least the survivors.