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NSA Spying is Only the Beginning

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Prohibiting the NSA from spying on Americans is pointless, a Band-Aid for a larger problem. To wit, it was illegal to spy on Americans before the scandal, and making it doubly illegal will accomplish nothing. We won't find safety in the arms of the very government officials that betrayed our trust to begin with, and as free men and women, we need to find another way.

The core of the problem is privacy, and the lack thereof created by technology. A US government ban still leaves us open to any other government or organization that has the ever-decreasing amount of money necessary to build a similar spy network.

Souljaboy.pngProcessing power gets about half as cheap every 18 months, so in 20 years, the $1.5 billion NSA data center will only cost $180,000, making it available to essentially every tin-horn dictator and small-cap internet company on earth. In 30 years, the same processing power ought to only cost $1500. If we are to remain private, and therefore remain free, we need to find another way, because this power can eventually belong to everyone, even Souljaboy.

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If we pass a law, people may rest easy, imagining their communications are once again private (assuming that they ever were). But let's get real. The possibility of omniscience, awareness of everyone's thoughts and desires, every communication and transaction, the totalitarian dictator's dream and every powersexual's fantasy, is becoming real. As technology advances it only becomes cheaper, faster and easier.

What we need is a robust system.

A robust system has provisions for failure. Robust systems develop under stress, under extreme conditions.  In terms of privacy, the conditions existing today could be no more extreme. Multi-billion dollar budgets and brilliant minds are chipping away at every safeguard that we would like to think is protecting us, while brilliant minds fight back with ultra-encryption, proxy servers and spoofed IP addresses. Interesting as it may be, herein lies the problem.

On a tactical level, computer security is viewed as a computer issue. While an endless arms race of technological attack and defense is being waged, ultimately no decisive advantage can be gained by either side.

On a strategic level, it is a human issue. Decisive advantage is structural.

My father repeated these wise words to me, "Only risk what you are willing to lose." Perhaps it is clear then, we can only keep online that which we are willing to lose. With Facebook, online bank accounts, smartphones and RFID credit cards, we set ourselves up for compromise. Often, compromise is not a big deal, but in the extreme case where privacy is totally essential, in cases of life or death, compartmentalization is key. Security, rather than having a single point of failure, must be made robust.

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Oceangoing ships have water-tight compartments.  When the hull is compromised, only the punctured compartments can fill with water, allowing to stay afloat in all but the most severe cases. Without a single point of failure, the design is robust. Likewise, communication, banking and one's private life all need to be compartmentalized as well, if privacy is to be possible at all in the near future.

A complete conversation, via one form of communication, can be compromised most easily. If privacy is truly essential, the information must be broken up into non-critical pieces and transferred via multiple methods. A message transmitted half by letters disguised as junk mail and half by in-person meetings is nearly impossible to track, record and use in an all-digital system. Trade convenience for security, and security for convenience.

Banking, instead of being "convenient", must also be split up. Sure, keep some money in one account that you use all the time. Cashflow through a chief account can be high, while the total quantity of money can be kept as low as possible, keeping losses to a minimum. Holding in multiple bank accounts is the natural extension, while banking with multiple banks is next. Holding cash is another layer of security, while holding real assets like gold or canned tuna is the most secure, least convenient method.

Social media and real personal information should be compartmentalized as well. Fake birthdays, fake names and fake history can quickly cull legitimate communication from the real, even helping identify points of failure. For instance, I know for a fact that all the companies sending mail to "Richard Arcturus Moyer" got my information from US News & World Report. Don't put all your eggs in one  basket, and plant bits of false information to cull would-be fraudsters from legitimate communications and contacts.

In a totally connected, electronic world, the only safe data is the data that is not electronic at all. Even in a world dominated by tiny computers embedded into everything, there is still a place for a pen and paper. Instead of believing we can stop the march of progress with a simple law, we must learn to adapt to the world as we change it, because the NSA is only the beginning. They are the first and the best so far, but you ain't seen nothing yet.

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Richard is an engineer by day, and a political activist by night, fighting would-be totalitarians and government busybodies everywhere.

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