Skip to main content

Big Brother spying is reaching scary levels

By Casey Oppenheim
updated 9:50 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The world's leading tech companies asked President Obama to reform privacy laws
  • Casey Oppenheim: The scale of Big Brother spying is beyond our imagination
  • He says even those who have nothing to hide want to regain some control of their privacy
  • Oppenheim: In this atmosphere of anxiety, more people are trying to find privacy solutions

Editor's note: Casey Oppenheim is the co-founder and co-CEO of Disconnect, a company that develops privacy and security software to help people better manage the data they share online. Follow him on Twitter: @caseyoppenheim

(CNN) -- On Monday, the world's leading technology companies, including Google and Microsoft, published an open letter to President Obama and Congress demanding reform of U.S. privacy laws to restore the public's "trust in the Internet."

This comes after what seems like an endless series of revelations about government surveillance from the secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Let's start with the latest: American and British spies have gone into online fantasy games to snoop on players, and to see if any militants are communicating with each other dressed as elves or gnomes. Last week, the Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency is "collecting billions of records a day to track the location of mobile phone users around the world." And we learned recently that the NSA hacked fiber-optic cables and infected 50,000 networks with malware.

Casey Oppenheim
Casey Oppenheim

Big Brother spying is happening at a scale we could never have imagined.

This new awareness has prompted people -- even those with nothing to hide and who support broad surveillance for national security reasons -- to try to regain some control over their online privacy.

According to a fall Pew report, 86% of people "have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints." Another study concluded that 64% of Internet users concerned about privacy have taken action to protect themselves in direct response to the NSA PRISM program. Revelations of NSA spying even contributed to President Obama's approval rating sinking to a new low.

Americans are very worried that they've lost control of their personal data. In this atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust, people are adopting privacy solutions in unprecedented numbers.

Tech giants target NSA

For example, Silent Circle, a global encrypted communications company that provides secure phone and text solutions, has experienced explosive 400% growth. My company, Disconnect, anonymized more than three million search queries in the first 30 days after launch. And sites like Prism Break are becoming popular destinations to learn about ways to protect your online privacy.

It's hard not to feel that we've lost too much control when secret laws and new technologies empower governments and a handful of giant companies to secretly track, analyze and record virtually every detail about any of our lives (even leaders of world superpowers). Without suspicion, it appears that untold millions of us have or will be subject to unconstitutional searches and seizures of our most personal information. No wonder many people believe that the NSA's actions violate our privacy.

What's even scarier is that government spy programs are rapidly expanding. For example, significant progress is being made to improve the use and capabilities of video surveillance. Law enforcement agencies are partnering with technology firms to create video surveillance systems capable of facial recognition, scanning license plates and detecting radiation levels emitted by cars.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited a joint NYPD-Microsoft project and suggested that within five years there will be 24/7 video surveillance of the entire city. On Big Brother, Bloomberg said, "Get used to it!"

The government is also upgrading its ability to process and store the enormous amount of data it is acquiring. During the summer when Snowden's disclosures were sending shock waves around the world, U.S. taxpayers paid for a brand new $1.2 billion data farm that will serve as the NSA's external hard drive, designed specifically to improve "data acquisition, storage and processing effort."

Meanwhile, consumer trust that companies can or will protect their personal information has been dealt a major blow as evidence emerged that the NSA collects information "at will" from Google's and Yahoo's data hubs without those companies' knowledge and that nine leading Internet companies provided the government access directly to user information as part of the PRISM program.

So it comes as no surprise that 58% of people don't trust Internet companies to protect privacy. Tech leaders have even publicly acknowledged that news about PRISM has hurt their brand trust to a far greater extent than any previous uproar over privacy violations.

We can't assume any company can protect us from government snooping. So until existing laws change, we have to focus on controlling what we can. It's possible that over time, consumers will increasingly avoid or limit sharing personal information. Companies that collect huge silos of personal data may be viewed as unattractive -- as sources of intel the government can easily and secretly tap into.

Ironically, the companies known as the biggest online privacy offenders who've created business models that rely on monetizing user data are now calling for limits on surveillance. Though, really, what these companies seek has nothing to do with making their collection and use of our data more transparent.

Still, their point is well taken. The government must change surveillance laws to avoid destroying our trust and the current Internet economy.

Those familiar with the entire cache of Snowden's leaked documents insist that the most shocking and significant revelations are yet to come. And there's a lot we'll never know. According to the U.S. government, Snowden, a low-level contract engineer, had very limited access and no knowledge about the "crown jewels" of the NSA's surveillance program.

What could those "crown jewels" be? Aren't you terrified to find out?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Casey Oppenheim.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT