Tech UPTechnologyGreg Whitake:

Greg Whitake:

Could be a detective. Not only because of his appearance, his height, his stealthy way of appearing in the Madrid hotel lounge where the conversation takes place, his incisive way of looking … but because he is one of the best-informed men in the world about digital technologies. , data encryption systems, spy networks, privacy control and intelligence services. In his latest book (The end of privacy, edited by Paidós) warns us that the total surveillance of citizens, the fictional nightmare of Big Brother, is becoming a reality thanks to new technologies. But, paradoxically, he does not feel threatened by it.

As a citizen of the digital world, do you consider yourself under surveillance?
-Each person who has contact with digital technology, from sending a message to conducting international business, can be controlled. It may not be, but it could be.

I mean, all citizens of the developed world, at least?
-It’s possible. Every operation that we carry out with an electronic medium, for example, a credit card, leaves its mark. And those tracks can be traced, stored, cataloged …

And who is interested in doing it?
-Well, it is true that in the 21st century it is not likely that a Big Brother will emerge who observes our movements from a control room, but without a doubt there are already thousands of small agents interested in some portion of that data that we leave: governments, security social, commercial companies, advertisers, tax inspectors … The pieces of our digital puzzle are scattered in many hands, Big Brother has become thousands of little brothers.

And is it good or bad?
-In essence it doesn’t have to be bad. Digital technology also allows us to control the one who controls us, to watch over our watchers.

-I will give you an example. When Intel tried to introduce into its processors a system to track the movements of every PC sold in the world, the news spread like wildfire on the Internet and created a global state of pressure that forced the company to redo its plans. It is a clear case that the vigilante can also be watched.

Does it make sense then, in this scenario, to try to defend privacy?
-The model of privacy that dominates in the Western world, where the intimate is considered a border that cannot be crossed by others, has no future. It is a fantasy because we are not isolated individuals, we are part of a technified society. So the defense of privacy no longer really makes sense.

But there are always new territories that can be considered intimate and new ways to invade our privacy. For example, are electronic messages in the workplace inviolable or can they be read by company managers?
-Well, obviously, the control of the contents of a private email is absolutely unacceptable. But if a company pays for the computer, the connection and the salary of its employees, it seems logical that it wants to make sure that legitimate use is made of the tools that it makes available. As long as the rules of the game are clear from the beginning, I will not fault certain types of controls being established in my office. In many countries, however, there is an almost paranoid claim to elevate the privacy of all human actions. There are many data in my life that interest the social group in which I live that they are no longer intimate, and trying to protect them is wanting to go against development.

For instance?
-When a public official comes to our house to carry out the census and asks us about our income, the number of furniture we have at home or the brand of our car, we should have no qualms about helping him. However, every time this is done in the United States (I do not know if the same is happening in Spain), many people fly into a rage and privacy protection campaigns are organized. It’s stupid!

-Well, first, because these data are necessary for the common good. And second, because new technologies allow governments to know this information without having to ask us. It is impossible not to leave footprints in the digital world.

Do you mean that there is no completely intimate way of communicating with others?
-Well, I wouldn’t say that much. Traditionally the fight for private communications comes down to a battle between encryption power and decryption power. In the current state of technology, I think encryption has more weapons going for it. If someone really wants to make a transaction or send a totally inviolable digital message, they have the encryption tools to do it. Not even the most powerful information agencies in the world could read it. They may go their way, but they won’t read it.

That is a bargain for terrorists, drug traffickers and other groups that want to communicate in hiding …
– Without a doubt, that’s why governments are so concerned about these technologies. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Act allows the police, if they observe a suspicious exchange of encrypted information, to arrest the sender and the receiver and demand the secret keys to decode it. No other government has tried to do this, but there are controversial initiatives such as the US Carnivore program or the proposed Echelon spy ring between the UK, Canada and the US.

When governments like the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom join forces to control the citizen, what can he do except allow himself to be watched?
-If you are really concerned about your privacy you can use powerful encryption. But the problem is that technology can be used for better or for worse. Echelon could be very useful for counterterrorism purposes. I am aware that some information obtained by these means about ETA’s activities has been made available to the Spanish Government. I imagine that most Spaniards will think that Echelon’s technology is good.

But that data can be used for less laudable purposes. For example, favoring companies in the countries that control the network over those of other competing countries.
-That is also discussed, yes. But I don’t think it is likely. Once again the problem is who watches the watchman. Large-scale espionage and control technologies were already in use during the Cold War. But nobody knew. The difference is that now everyone is informed about the existence of these activities and public opinion can exert pressure to control the controller.

Well, in the digital world, intimacy is diluted. What happens in the world of genes? Is my DNA private?
-It is one of the most important questions that we will have to answer in the future. With the complete sequence of the human genome translated, new questions about our privacy arise. Perhaps there is some exaggeration about the amount of information that today we can obtain from DNA. But, in any case, we are beginning to be in a situation that requires taking measures and regulatory decisions about the use of this material and its actual and potential applications.
Anyway, in my opinion genetic information is not exactly private. Its knowledge by third parties can be of great value for public health purposes. We must get used to giving up part of the data that we previously considered intimate in exchange for a greater good.

In any case, every time a technology appears, new fears arise. This has been the case throughout the history of science. Doesn’t that seem a bit irrational?
-The fears are rational, but we must not fall into paranoia. New technologies, like old ones, are presented with two different faces. On one side they offer us more power, they allow us to do things we have never dreamed of. But each of its benefits also carries a danger. The important thing is to know these dangers and, above all, not to think that technologies are a good in themselves, but that they depend on the way in which society uses them, controls them and administers their services.

And do you think we are now well aware of the dangers of digital technology?
-The difference with other technologies is that digital has not meant a gradual change, but rather means a giant leap in the evolution of human tools, and it has caught us by surprise. For example, all the political management of the world has been organized on the basis of the States, all the legislative power depends on the constituency within borders. But the problems offered by the new technologies cannot be controlled with the tools of a compartmentalized and territorial world. The traditional way of doing politics, of legislating, of militarily defending a country is useless in the new digital landscape. If all the states were to agree, they could recreate on a global scale the same control mechanisms that they already have on a local scale and perhaps then the fears, unfounded or not, towards digital technology would disappear.

Jorge Mayor

This interview was published in March 2002, in number 250 of VERY Interesting.

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