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Privacy & the internetOn internet privacy, be very afraid

Published 28 August 2017

In the internet era, consumers seem increasingly resigned to giving up fundamental aspects of their privacy for convenience in using their phones and computers, and have grudgingly accepted that being monitored by corporations and even governments is just a fact of modern life. In fact, internet users in the United States have fewer privacy protections than those in other countries. In April, Congress voted to allow internet service providers to collect and sell their customers’ browsing data. Cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier talked about government and corporate surveillance, and about what concerned users can do to protect their privacy. “Surveillance is the business model of the internet,” he says.

In the internet era, consumers seem increasingly resigned to giving up fundamental aspects of their privacy for convenience in using their phones and computers, and have grudgingly accepted that being monitored by corporations and even governments is just a fact of modern life.

In fact, internet users in the United States have fewer privacy protections than those in other countries. In April, Congress voted to allow internet service providers to collect and sell their customers’ browsing data. By contrast, the European Union hit Google this summer with a $2.7 billion antitrust fine.

To assess the internet landscape, the Harvard Gazette’s Liz Mineo interviewed cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Schneier talked about government and corporate surveillance, and about what concerned users can do to protect their privacy.

Gazette: After whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance operation in 2013, how much has the government landscape in this field changed?
Schneier:
Snowden’s revelations made people aware of what was happening, but little changed as a result. The USA Freedom Act resulted in some minor changes in one particular government data-collection program. The NSA’s data collection hasn’t changed; the laws limiting what the NSA can do haven’t changed; the technology that permits them to do it hasn’t changed. It’s pretty much the same.

Gazette: Should consumers be alarmed by this?
Schneier: People should be alarmed, both as consumers and as citizens. But today, what we care about is very dependent on what is in the news at the moment, and right now surveillance is not in the news. It was not an issue in the 2016 election, and by and large isn’t something that legislators are willing to make a stand on. Snowden told his story, Congress passed a new law in response, and people moved on.

Gazette: What about corporate surveillance? How pervasive is it?
Schneier: Surveillance is the business model of the internet. Everyone is under constant surveillance by many companies, ranging from social networks like Facebook to cellphone providers. This data is collected, compiled, analyzed, and used to try to sell us stuff. Personalized advertising is how these companies make money, and is why so much of the internet is free to users. We’re the product, not the customer.