Can physics protect us from Big Brother’s snooping?

Nobel Prize-winner Brian Schmidt and director of Beyond Institute Paul Davies say quantum computing holds the key to rolling back the surveillance culture.

Protesters in Washington demonstrate against secret US government monitoring programs. – reuters

At the dawn of the digital era, it was fashionable to suggest the information revolution would usher in a golden age of human freedom. Linked via the internet, people worldwide would communicate instantly, transcending national boundaries and bypassing government interference. Free expression of opinion, commentary and ideas would flow untrammelled across the globe. Search engines would transform education, accessible data storage would enable everything of interest to be kept in a readily retrievable format, and the surge in the use of mobile devices foreshadowed a world of instant and continual connectivity. Eventually, even the poor and disadvantaged would get connected.

Sadly this utopian vision is threatened with derailment. The bright promise of freedom and empowerment through limitless information flow has a dark side, where human freedom is under threat from governments, corporations, and even fellow citizens who have at their finger tips vast quantities of information on any person they choose. The revelations of US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden and the many stunning aftershocks have exposed a vast and intricate network of surveillance on ordinary citizens. Much of this is with government connivance, but some involves agencies gathering data for its own sake. Under the pretext of an ill-defined “War on Terror”, democratic governments have, in the space of a decade, intruded into the hard-won rights and freedoms that previous generations fought hard to establish. And all with scarcely a murmur of dissent from a supine and over-trusting population.

As politicians scramble to hose down the damage of the surveillance disclosures and contain the uproar, most of the commentary has focused on strengthening regulatory procedures. Reassurance is being sought through legal constraints, accountability and oversight. This may give some comfort to the aggrieved, but it is largely symbolic, and represents an unwelcome distraction from the real issue. The biggest threat to traditional human freedoms and rights comes not from over-zealous governments but from the technology itself.

Over the past decade there have been huge advances on two broad fronts. The first is in the processing and storage of data for dwindling cost. The astonishing ability for “big data” gathered from many different sources to be integrated and searched in a flash means personal privacy is no longer protected by the traditional safety in numbers. Any particular phone call you make, credit card transaction you enact, email message you send or web search you initiate, even though it is intermingled with countless millions of others, can be projected out and combined at more or less the click of a mouse. Even the simple act of walking down the street with a smart mobile device leaves a permanent record of your movements and contributes to a burgeoning database about you that can readily be analysed for patterns of activity for the rest of your life and beyond.

Because it costs almost nothing to store multiple copies of data, there is little point in anybody who possesses it permanently deleting it. And even if there were laws stipulating how long this information may be kept, they are impossible to police. You cannot possibly know if all copies of your web searches, for example, have been irretrievably deleted. Realistically, you have to assume that almost everything about you that is “out there” in cyberspace is there to stay. You have no way of knowing who may be snooping – commercial or criminal organisations, domestic or foreign governments – aggregating information (legally or illegally obtained) without your knowledge. Neither you nor they know how they may use that information in the future. But their possession of it gives them asymmetric power over you.

New technology has the potential to make a good government go bad.

You don’t have to be engaging in suspicious activity. America’s NSA, for example, vacuums up everything it can get simply because it can. Other spy agencies do what they can too, including Australia’s, linked to the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand via the so-called Five Eyes arrangement. And all of this indelible information garnered about you is searchable, forever.

Most people believe that if we are not doing anything wrong then we have nothing to hide. Such thinking is, however, hostage to the fortune of not just the present but the future as well. The “war on terror” has shown how even in liberal democracies, governments can quickly change and restrict freedoms we once took for granted. Some less-than-democratic governments have shown how easy it is to silence dissenters by trumping up technical breaches of the law, such as tax evasion or banking irregularities. So long as the justice system retains its independence, abuse of big data has a major safeguard. But another terrorist outrage on the scale of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US could precipitate a widespread clampdown on dissent and criticism via a sweeping extension of “emergency laws” – laws of the type already used to justify kidnapping, torture and detention without charge. The power of new technology has the potential to make a good government go bad.

National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Maryland. – reuters

The second major technical advance is in the realm of sensors. In the UK, surveillance cameras have sprouted on almost every street, and Australia is following suit. The public accepts it as a way to reduce crime. But conspicuous surveillance cameras are only the tip of a vast data-gathering iceberg. Sensors can be made almost invisibly small, as those with devices containing tiny webcams know well. Futurists predict that we will soon live in a smart environment saturated with sensors of all varieties, networked together and linked to high-performance computers to sift and analyse our every move. When combined with voice recognition and face recognition technology, touch screens that note your fingerprints, and near-zero cost DNA sequencing that could be applied to anything you touch, we can glimpse the potential for a Big Brother world on a monstrous scale. It is made all the worse because you are not overtly aware you are being watched and tracked, and your activities logged. The recent scandal of the NSA secretly stealing data from the cable links of Google and Yahoo amply demonstrates the lengths to which spy agencies will go to amass data on ordinary citizens.

If we can’t trust governments not to abuse personal data, can technology offer a defence? Software companies are locked in an arms race to upgrade encryption methods to make it essentially impossible, even for the NSA, to decrypt your data. But every system has its vulnerabilities – your password is one such chink in the armour – and future advances will almost certainly result in seemingly safe data being compromised.

Big Ben meets Big Brother – ISTOCK

While the laws of man can be broken by snoopers, the laws of nature cannot. One line of research holds out the promise of absolute privacy: quantum cryptography. A fundamental tenet of quantum mechanics is that the act of measuring a quantum system – be it an atom, electron, photon or something more complicated – irreversibly destroys some basic properties of the measured system. Any attempt to intercept and inspect information encoded in a quantum system will “collapse” the quantum state so that it becomes impossible to reconstruct the information reliably. It will also give the game away. The legitimate recipient will detect that there has been an unauthorised interception.

Quantum cryptography is still in its infancy, and requires cutting-edge technology, but the field has advanced enough to provide a proof of concept: the protocol certainly works. It seems likely that it will be widely used in the future for highly sensitive communications. Unfortunately, while quantum mechanics can protect data from being intercepted during transmission, it can’t yet be used to protect the data once it is stored in a computer, where it will be vulnerable to hacking just as it is now.

Although government agencies are in the firing line over data abuse, it is clear we are moving rapidly towards a world in which people voluntarily link themselves to the wider community by disclosing personal information on a scale unimaginable to past generations. Widespread use of social media suggests that the younger generation is relaxed about having all they do, and even think, made public. The impact this will have in the future on their careers, family relationships, travel and issues such as medical insurance remains to be seen: the data won’t go away. The furore over government snooping is really just the opening gambit in what promises to be the total transformation of the nature of our society.

Brian Schmidt is an astrophysicist and Nobel Prize laureate.
Contrib pauldavies.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Paul Davies is Regents' Professor and Director of the Beyond Centre for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. He is also a prolific author, and Cosmos columnist.
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