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Schneier: Weighing the costs of mass surveillance

Bruce Schneier, CTO of Resilient Systems, says that when people discuss whether losing privacy through government mass surveillance is a problem, "You tend to get a couple of trite answers. You get security versus privacy as a tradeoff on the one hand. You get, 'I have nothing to hide, therefore I have nothing to fear,' on the other."

Schneier, a well-known security expert, said he didn't see either approach as satisfactory. For example, where the "nothing to hide" argument is concerned, Schneier argued that "the conceit of that is that privacy is the refuge of the scoundrel; that the only reason you want privacy is [because] you have something to hide. … But if you think about how we use privacy, it's not about that. Privacy is about having the power to decide how we present ourselves to the world. You're not wearing clothes because you have something to hide, you're wearing clothes because it's nobody's business what you look like naked. You don't not publish your tax returns because they're somehow immoral, you don't because it's your tax return and it's nobody else's business. When we're under constant surveillance, we're stripped of the power to present who we are to the world; we're stripped of the ability to think differently out of the public eye."

Schneier talked about his recent book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, which addresses mass surveillance and the problems Schneier sees with it. "My goal is not to say 'privacy above everything,' my goal is to have a more rational discussion."

When asked about whether change in views and regulation of mass surveillance was likely, Schneier said he was "short-term pessimistic and long-term optimistic."

"Major social change is weird," he noted. "It goes from impossible to inevitable with no intervening middle ground. Think about gay marriage. Five years ago it would never happen. Now it's just a matter of time before the Supreme Court rules and it's kind of over.

"Privacy is like that. I think we're right now in that impossible stage and it will flip to inevitable sometime. It can't be that we've had the last years of living in a non-totalitarian state, a non-surveillance state; that the great experiment in democracy is over."

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How has NSA surveillance affected your view of privacy policies and government mass surveillance?
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I'm still in the 'I have nothing to hide, therefore I have nothing to fear' camp. I understand that it's a hot topic, but I just can't bring myself to care all that much. I always have been, and will remain, too unimportant for the NSA to particularly care about me. I'm having trouble picturing how government mass surveillance could negatively affect the average individual.
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I would think it was precisely because the NSA doesn't care what happens to you that you might not want them automatically sorting you into one or another pile based on surveillance that's so cheap it approaches being free.

I think one's level of concern largely has to do with how easily you imagine your government become repressive and treating citizens unequally and unfairly. Since you don't even have to look outside U.S. history to find some fairly egregious examples, I guess I fall into the camp that says "never give a government that chance."
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