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Commentary – Technology, Not Law, Limits Mass Surveillance

Technology, Not Law, Limits Mass Surveillance, by Ashkan Soltani – MIT Technology Review July 2013

“Recent revelations about the extent of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency come as no surprise to those with a technical background in the workings of digital communications. The leaked documents show how the NSA has taken advantage of the increased use of digital communications and cloud services, coupled with outdated privacy laws, to expand and streamline their surveillance programs. This is a predictable response to the shrinking cost and growing efficiency of surveillance brought about by new technology. The extent to which technology has reduced the time and cost necessary to conduct surveillance should play an important role in our national discussion of this issue. The American public previously, maybe unknowingly, relied on technical and financial barriers to protect them from large-scale surveillance by the government. These implicit protections have quickly eroded in recent years as technology industry advances have reached intelligence agencies, and digital communications technology has spread through society. As a result, we now have to replace these “naturally occurring” boundaries and refactor the law to protect our privacy. The ways in which we interact has drastically changed over the past decade. The majority of our communications are now delivered and stored by third-party services and cloud providers. E-mail, documents, phone calls, and chats all go through Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Skype, or wireless carriers like Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint. And while distributed in nature, the physical infrastructure underlying the World Wide Web relies on key chokepoints which the government can, and is, monitoring. This makes surveillance much easier because the NSA only needs to establish relationships with a few critical companies to capture the majority of the market they want to observe with few legal restrictions. The NSA has the capability to observe hundreds of millions of people communicating using these services with relatively little effort and cost.”

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