Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Only Hope for Privacy?

In his interview with TechCrunch in early 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously proclaimed that privacy is no longer the social norm. Well, not so fast, Mark. Some of us still think that privacy is important. But Mr. Zuckerberg has a point too. Protecting privacy is becoming increasingly difficult in the Facebook era.

It’s not just Facebook and the information that we voluntarily disclose. We are being increasingly tracked, often without knowing about it. From the websites we visit, our physical location via smartphone tracking, to the ubiquitous TV cameras on city streets - our moves are being recorded and the volume of information about us continues to grow.

So it appears, that our future will be - just like Mr. Zuckerberg predicted - devoid of any privacy. Every one of us will always be monitored by the modern incarnation of the Orwellian telescreen which will continue collecting huge quantities of information about us. Yet the growing volume of information may be our best hope for keeping some privacy after all. Let me explain.

From the film adaptation of Orwell's 1984
Powerful computers can be used by governments and corporations - the good guys and bad guys alike - to weed through all that information collected about you. Monitoring anyone particular is relatively easy but monitoring everyone to find someone or something particular is becoming increasingly difficult. There is just so much information! Finding anything is becoming a tough chore that requires some serious computing power. In other words, collecting a ton of information about you without the capacity to decode and analyse it is pointless.

In addition, the information is increasingly encrypted and comes in formats that are not easy to search and analyse. We all know that any encryption can - at least in theory - be decoded using a brute force attack. But we also know that the higher the level of encryption we apply, the harder it is to decode the data using brute force. This has been an ongoing cat-and-mouse game in which the larger and larger volume of data with increasingly stronger encryption demands more and more computing power to decode and analyse it.

Back in August  2011, I wrote about how the massive amount of recorded video surveillance was making it actually harder to apprehend the suspects after the Summer 2011 riots in London. Contrast that with the famous scene from the Philip Kaufman movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being where the secret police is indicting people based on a handful of photographs after the Prague Spring uprising of 1968. A couple of photos were relatively easy to analyse while terabytes of video have made it practically impossible.

Today, there are a few key choke points on the Internet, such as the intercontinental submarine cables, and it is feasible that a hostile foreign government could tap into them to capture and decode all the data. Back in 2010, China allegedly re-routed and hijacked a large portion of US Internet traffic. But to do anything meaningful with all that data, they’d need to build a really powerful supercomputer. By the time it’s built, that supercomputer will likely become obsolete - the volume of data is simply growing so quickly that the brute computing power is having a tough time keeping up.

So as it turns out, the growth of information volume could become an effective defense against spying and monitoring. Perhaps that works also on a smaller scale. One ‘bad picture’ on Facebook might cause you trouble for years to come, particularly if that’s the only picture of you there is. However, if it is one of 10,000 pictures of you, chances are the compromising one will not emerge during a cursory background check, provided that most of them are “good”.

This approach might even provide an effective defense strategy in an eDiscovery case, where the court subpoenas all information relevant to a given lawsuit. When complying with the subpoena results in a body of evidence comprised of 10 documents, the opposing party will have it easy to find what they need. If the court request, however, yields 10 million documents, the opposing party may need to reconsider whether or not they want to pay their lawyers $500 per hour to review all of that evidence.

Perhaps privacy does stand a chance afterall - when we drown the surveillance in a sea of data.

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