In the late 1990’s, I was working on a paper in a computer ethics class on one of the hot topics of the day which was the implementation of Carnivore (later Digital Collection System 1000 or simply, DCS1000) by the FBI. Basically, these were strategically placed packet sniffers used for the collection of email and other data. The FBI would gain permission to place this system at an Internet Service Providers location and start intercepting data. As a young and naive computer scientist, I was up in arms that my personal security was being compromised by my own government. In this pre-9/11 era, the FBI was attempting to explain such shenanigans as protection against the organized crime syndicates of New York. Certainly a hard sell to say the least.
Unless you are transporting goods from Morocco to Egypt on a camel train in the northern Sahara, you are aware that a new system for domestic spying has come to light with a much broader functionality than Carnivore. Fortunately, the NSA has seemed to pick a better name than the FBI years before. Prism brings to mind a friendly Dark Side of the Moon album cover and succeeds in giving me a warm fuzzy feeling, where carnivore brought to mind T-rex with his stubby arms flailing in the Jurassic era wind getting ready to devour me. However, even with the NSA’s benign name, it is hard to overlook the magnitude that has revealed itself over the past couple of weeks. Initially, I was shocked. Surprised as I was more than a decade ago when I saw my privacy dissolving before me. However, keeping in mind that privacy will generally degrade/improve cyclicly based on available technologies I would certainly think that this is a ripe time for the clever software engineer.
In this game of cat and mouse, I would argue that this process actually encourages innovation and advancement. For example, I remember when radar detectors initially gained popularity in the 70’s. The police would begin to use a technology to detect speeders, and the detector would attempt to thwart that technology. New radar technologies are developed, and very soon after, the counter technologies are developed. This is true in all aspects of technology and will almost certainly hold true as the details of the Prism project begin to appear. Users that feel they can no longer trust Skype or Google because of their passive involvement in the project, will certainly begin to flock to other companies that are focused on providing security and, if necessary, go to the companies located outside of the U.S. to gain security.
So what should we expect to see from the Prism debacle?
Advancement of open source projects
- The string of companies that have now admitted to being complacent to the implementation of the Prism project is staggering and I would hope that this will create a huge opportunity for new companies at home and abroad that can work to create new, insanely secure applications that can operate outside of various global spy agencies or least secure enough so that only the intended recipients can read, watch, view, etc. the intended media.
More advanced cryptography
- Modern cryptography is a mind exploding topic and not one for the light at heart. I remember slugging my way through Bruce Schneier‘s holy tome ‘Applied Cryptography’ and thinking that this guy is really, really, smart. For the folks that love modern crypto, I would think the Prism project would be an impetus to the development of a newer and stronger cryptography that will protect individual and organization privacy even more competently than in the past.
New global market niche for companies that protect users security
- In our current situation, all we can be sure of is that the Prism system will not go away. Just as no other system of spying or monitoring will go away until it is no longer needed or useful. Or until the counter technologies become so prevalent that a new system for spying needs to be developed and implemented. One thing is sure, whether you want to tap a business opportunity that supports Government surveillance activities, or if you feel more compelled to work on protecting citizen’s privacy, it is a ripe time for the clever software developer and identifying a niche in this area could be very lucrative.
And so, I return to my efforts of building a better radar detector.
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