What most people don’t know about the Snowden revelations is that they were mostly old hacker tricks. They were souped up with lots of money, of course, and enjoyed the help of insiders at tech companies, but they were nonetheless hacker tricks. If you noticed the dates on his slides, they were mainly from several years ago: 2007, 2008, and so on.
So the Snowden revelations, welcome as they were, concerned mostly old techniques. And the NSA, the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the rest (including their allies in the tech business) have not been sitting still in the meantime.
I know this because I manage one of the leading companies in the data privacy business. We deal with these issues on a daily basis.
Before Snowden, I spent a lot of time traveling around the world, making speeches, telling people what the NSA, FBI, CIA, Google, Facebook, and the rest of the gang were doing. Most of the people I spoke to believed I was sincere, but a lot of them thought I was going a bit overboard, trying to sell my product.
After Snowden, that changed of course, but now we face a new issue: it’s still a lot worse than people understand.
The Secret Facebook Experiment
In January of 2012—approaching three years ago—Facebook ran a secret experiment on 689,000 of its users. The purpose of that experiment was to see if the company could change those peoples’ moods by altering their news feeds. And it worked. The results of the experiment concluded that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.”
By the way, the US Army was one of the groups which funded the experiment. Interesting bedfellows, no?
That government agents are influencing people online has been known for some time (see here and here), though most people have never been informed of those facts. Most, in fact, have never even heard about the publicly stated wishes of Cass Sunstein. These things are not really secrets… they’re just never included in the big news feeds.
The Facebook experiment—while only one of what are certainly many such events—is important because it shows the direction in which things are moving… leading straight to individualized manipulation.
Mass surveillance is only the first step in a larger process. Once you have all of that information, what are you going to do with it? Leaving it sit really isn’t an attractive option for either the tech companies or the military-intelligence complex. The most obvious use of that information is to manipulate people.
Please don’t allow yourself to think that spies and advertisers would hold back from manipulating people; we all know better than that.
Why They’re Manipulating Us
There are compelling reasons why the data thieves must manipulate us:
The tech companies:
Internet users worldwide are addicted to the free service model. Say “free” and they’ll line up; ask for pay and they’ll walk away.
So how are tech companies supposed to pay their employees, if their customers won’t pay? Well, they found a slick answer to that problem: monetize the users’ lives… turn their private information into money.
When you use a free service, you’re giving the company no choice but to steal your data (and the more intimate, the more valuable), then to sell it. When you use a free service, you are the product. (If you don’t pay, you’re certainly not the customer!)
The various spy agencies will always grab and use your information for one overriding reason: they’re afraid that if they don’t, someone else will.
The NSA is hardly the only data-theft gang around. They may be the biggest and best funded, but the others follow behind, learn their tricks, and play the same games. So if the US Intel boys want to keep their edge, they have to use everything they can.
How They Manipulate
You’ve been seeing primitive manipulations for some time. For example, when you do an online search on “skis,” you’ll instantly get ads for discount travel to ski resorts that are near you or that you’ve previously expressed an interest in.
That was kindergarten level. What comes next is proactive rather than reactive, and it’s much, much worse. The data thieves are now creating custom environments for each user.
Right now, what you see on Facebook/Google/YouTube/etc. is not the same screen your neighbor sees.
And the really scary thing about this is not that Google, Facebook, the government, and others are manipulating you, but that the entire process is automated—that computers are learning to manipulate you by interacting with you!
The tech companies, of course, are cashing in on this by selling the right to manipulate you to the highest bidder. Their new “big data” systems are even supercharging the process. The more experience Facebook has with you, the more it learns what will or will not affect you—just like it learned about the 689,000 people it tested in 2012.
So if Google, Facebook, and the rest are to continue providing free services, and if they want to make more money, they have to manipulate you better. And, of course, they will… they’re working on it every day.
I’m sorry if this seems too wild to be real, but please remember that most people couldn’t accept the truth of mass surveillance until they saw Snowden’s slides. What heroes like William Binney and Mark Klein were telling people in 2004 was true, but most people didn’t want to believe it. That only changed when they saw the NSA’s slides in 2013.
The same thing is happening now. Mass manipulation is here and is growing. We need to do better now than we did between 2004 and 2013.
Where This Is Going
This is going precisely where it’s already headed:
Facebook, Google, and the others will do what they’ve always done—find better ways to make money with your personal information. Running a free service doesn’t give them many options, does it?
The spooks will do what spooks always do: get secrets and manipulate them to their advantage. Morality has almost no place at all in espionage. If they can manipulate, they will manipulate.
So, as troubling as it may seem, there is little question that we’re moving into a situation where many people will be living large parts of their lives in a virtual world… a world built specifically for their personalities.
The right to manipulate that world will be sold to the highest bidder or turned over to government agencies, just like Google and the rest deliver your personal information to them now.
And as I say, this is happening already. It’s not yet mature, but it’s getting there quickly.
Think of it this way: if I know what motivates you, I can change your environment based on that knowledge, and I can induce you to act in ways that I prefer. And computers make it easy.
Facebook, almost three years ago, found that it could change people’s moods. You can be very sure that it’s been refining those techniques ever since.
As for the Intel gangs, here are two tactics that GCHQ is already using in its Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group program:
(1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the Internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and
(2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.
These are GCHQ’s own words, by the way, taken directly from its training slides.
Are We Doomed?
We’re only doomed if we sit passively and do nothing… precisely what these groups expect us to do. And if we do sit idly by, the results will be the same as they usually are:
Passivity + Time = Destruction
If you want to retain your own mind and your own moods in the new world of 24/7 Internet manipulation, you can still do it, but only if you act. If you merely sit, you’ll be played; the only variables are how much and when.
To protect yourself, you’ll have to make your information unavailable to the manipulators. To put it simply, you’ll have to throw sand in the abusers’ eyes. You must prevent them from knowing what websites you visit, who you communicate with, and what you say.
There are two ways to do this:
- Get (and use) encryption and privacy programs.
- Pay professionals to do it for you.
If you want to do it yourself, here’s a PDF that will show you how.
If you want to pay professionals do it for you, make sure that they have their own “private key infrastructure” and “multiple hops.”
What We’ve Seen
We all saw Snowden’s slides. What we have not seen is any positive changes following them. The NSA crew is still doing the same thing every day. Google, Facebook, and the rest are doing the same things every day.
At most, we’ve seen tech companies trying to maintain their public images and spymasters trying to convince Joe American that he should be very, very afraid, and should endorse them to spy even more.
And if there have been no reforms, why should we expect the data thieves to get anything but worse?
A Free-Man’s Take is written by adventure capitalist, author, and freedom advocate Paul Rosenberg. You can get much more from Paul in his unique monthly newsletter, Free-Man’s Perspective.