“Om: So you believe that technologists have to keep coming up with new ways to push back against all the intrusions into privacy?
Zimmermann: What I said about Moore’s Law being a threat to privacy and it being a blind force of nature — well right now Moore’s Law is being accelerated in a specific direction by policy pressures. The policy pressure of creating more surveillance as response to the 9/11 attacks. We might be ably to change some of that, but the natural tendency of data and Moore’s Law is that data wants to be free. The natural flow of technology tends to move in the direction of making surveillance easier.
We have to work harder to push back on policies that 9/11 brought us. It is time to re-examine the Patriot Act and re-examine everything. We need engineers and technologists to guide technology in the right direction and not optimize for surveillance. I would like to see a pushback, both on the technology and policy fronts. The engineers tend to be more aware of these problems and they need to be politically aware of the dangers of developing tools of surveillance.
Om: When privacy is put in context of national and individual security and terrorism, it is pretty easy to turn a blind eye to a whole lot of things. Yes, a similar challenge exists on a more day-to-day basis, when we have companies like Google and Facebook and others collecting a lot of ambient information about us, making deductions and pattern recognition and then forcing us to spend money in a certain way.
What about ambient data that will come from sensors in our phones and cars that will soon become judge and jury for our car insurance rates? I think we are a very nebulous state of what I like to call a data-influenced society and a lot of that is much more worrisome than NSA. What are you thoughts?
Zimmermann: I agree it is not just a matter of surveillance. Big data intentionally creates a concentration of data and has a corrupting influence. It really concentrates the power in the hands of whoever holds that data — governments, companies. The PC revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s and the later early Internet (of the 1990s) seemed to hold so much promise and empowered the individual. Now with big data there is a shift of power in the other direction as it concentrates power in fewer hands.
Of course, one can get cynical about all this but one has to fight that urge. A lot of people are getting more cynical because we are living in a surveillance state. Cynicism is the fertile soil where corruption can grow. Cynicism has a paralyzing effect and I think we need to resist that temptation of cynicism and hold on to our ideals in order to bring about change and push back.”