The Age of Monitoring

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This has been called the information age, which by definition means that it is also an age of surveillance. Never in human history have people been more connected than they are today — nor have they been more thoroughly monitored. Over the past year, the disclosures spurred by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have drawn public attention to the stunning surveillance capabilities of the American intelligence community. Are these tools a vital weapon against criminals and terrorists — or a threat to privacy and freedom?

At the 2014 Cato Institute Surveillance Conference, under the direction of senior fellow Julian Sanchez, a diverse array of journalists, privacy advocates, lawyers, technologists, and intelligence officials came together in an attempt to reconcile the tension between privacy and security. As Sanchez noted in his opening remarks, information has become a central means for protecting ourselves from a multiplicity of threats. "At the same time, the architecture of monitoring … that we are constructing in order to make ourselves safer threatens to undermine the preconditions of liberal democracy."

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) opened the day with a keynote address, discussing his attempt to cut off funding to two government backdoor searches and ensure that information gathered for national security purposes would not be used by law enforcement in routine investigations. The Massie-Lofgren amendment, which passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, was nevertheless later stripped from the funding bill to which it was attached. At the conference, Massie called the fight in Congress to rein in these abuses "very frustrating." "The leadership and all the chairmen of the committees of respective jurisdictions do not want to reform the intelligence community's activities," he said. Nevertheless, he vowed to continue to work across party lines to protect the freedoms that lie at the foundation of a liberal democracy.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, sat down with the Washington Post's Craig Timberg for a wide-ranging one-on-one conversation. Schmidt — referred to earlier in the day by Sanchez as "the NSA's best 'frenemy'" — clarified his company's unique relationship with the spy agency and reviewed the previous 18 months since the Snowden revelations came to light. In general, he said, the reputation of the American technology industry has been damaged, in particular throughout Europe. Yet the fallout from the leaks hasn't been all bad. "It's also caused us to tighten every procedure within our system," he said. He explained that Google has responded by thoroughly encrypting their internal systems. "It's generally viewed that this level of encryption is unbreakable in our lifetime by any sets of human beings in any way." As a result, he said, users are a lot safer.

Other panelists throughout the day included Alex Joel and Robert S. Litt, civil liberties officer and general counsel with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, respectively, offering a broad range of views.

The conference ended with an engaging surprise interview over Skype with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In a remote discussion with Sanchez and ProPublica's Julia Angwin, Snowden said that he was "broadly satisfied" with the reaction to his disclosures. "We have seen a change in public opinion, in public awareness. We have seen an increased openness and innovative spirit in government — not by choice, but by necessity," he said. But "the real change that's happening is actually occurring outside of the courts, outside of Congress, outside of the executive agencies entirely." The real change, Snowden said, can be found in "the fabric of the internet," as a result of engineers, technologists, and academics worldwide coming together to secure their own technologies and counteract the unprecedented growth of government surveillance. In a poll by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, they found that of those aware of Edward Snowden, 39 percent have taken steps to protect their online security — which, as Snowden pointed out, amounts to over 700 million people worldwide.

Throughout the day, various experts noted that the growth of government surveillance is by no means restricted to spies. Even ordinary law enforcement agencies increasingly employ sophisticated tracking technologies, from face recognition software to "Stingray" devices that can locate suspects by sniffing out their cellular phone signals. "It's often hard to keep track of how tracked we are," Sanchez concluded. As such, it's important to think very carefully about how this unprecedented aggregation of information can be made compatible with a free society.