The Magazine August 2013 - Page 12

But the revelation of the NSA’s vast data-collection programs by a crusading contract worker, Edward Snowden, has made it clear that the rise of technology is shattering even the illusion of privacy. Almost overnight, and with too little reflection, the U.S. and other developed nations have stacked the deck in favor of the watchers. A surveillance society is taking root. Video cameras peer constantly from lamp poles and storefronts. Satellites and drones float hawkeyed through the skies. Smartphones relay a dizzying barrage of information about their owners to sentinel towers dotting cities and punctuating pasture-land. License-plate cameras and fast-pass lanes track the movements of cars, which are themselves keeping a detailed record of their speed and location. Meanwhile, on the information superhighway, every stop by every traveler is noted and stored by Internet service providers like Google, Verizon and Comcast. Retailers scan, remember and analyze each purchase by every consumer. Smart TVs know what we’re watching—soon they will have eyes to watch us watching them—and smart meters know if we’ve turned out the lights.

And the few remaining technical barriers to still more surveillance are falling before the awesome force of 1s and 0s, the binary digital magic that is the fuel of revolutionary change. Until recently, there were hard physical limits on the number of pictures that could be developed, videotapes that could be stored, phone–company records that could be typed or photocopied or packed into boxes—let alone analyzed. Now the very idea of limits is melting away. In 1980 (not that long ago; Barack Obama was in college), IBM introduced its Model 3380 disk drive, the first device capable of storing more than a gigabyte of data. It was roughly the size and weight of a refrigerator and cost an inflation adjusted $100,000. Today a flash drive costing one-thousandth as much can store 50 times the data and fit on a key ring. The amount of data that can be stored is nearly infinite. In a prescient series of blog posts several years ago, Princeton computer-science professor Edward Felten explained that this tremendous growth in storage capacity would inevitably spur intelligence agencies to collect all available data—everything—simply because it’s cheaper and easier than trying to figure out what to take and what to ignore. “If storage is free but analysts’ time is costly, then the cost-minimizing strategy is to record everything and sort it out later,” Felten noted.

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