The week of March 20, 2016

Watching the watchers

By Jesse Hicks

In this week’s issue of the Kernel, we’re taking a look at the watchers and the watched, asking how technology has made spying and counterspying into a game almost anyone can play. What kind of world is that leading us toward, and how can we make sure it’s one in which we want to live?

First, Virginia Pelley looks at anti-snitching Facebook groups, where members share the identities of confidential informants recruited by law enforcement. As long as there are no threats, and the information hasn’t been gotten illegally, their posts are likely protected by the First Amendment. But the implicit threat of retaliation seems obvious, even while the groups, some say, bring attention to a crucially overlooked aspect of the justice system that receives woefully little oversight. Does outting confidential informants online increase the risk of possible retaliation, or does it bring needed transparency to the legal system?

The Russian surveillance system is anything but transparent. As Jonathan Keane explains, it hoovers up virtually all communication within the country, and telecommunications and Internet service providers have no choice but to share their data with the government. That’s been the case for decades; many Russians have grown used to it. But a few activists are trying a unique tacts to pry open the system and hold the authorities accountable. They’re suing to make the government pay for the installation and maintenance of its “black boxes,” in hopes that doing so will eventually help drag the surveillance regime out into the sunlight.

Finally, J.M. Porup asks whether the Internet of Things can ever be secure enough to be embedded in everything. We’ve already seen that the first wave of consumer IoT devices do not make security a priority. If that doesn’t change, he argues, we’re creating a world in which everything will be connected to everything—and it will all be hackable, not just by the NSA’s master spies but by the bored teenager down the street. Worse, if we’re already living in a world of near-constant surveillance, the “smart devices” we’re building will make it much easier not just to watch us, but to sabotage our lives. It’s already a growing problem; worse, there may be no solution.

Enjoy the issue.

Photos via Miles Gehm/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Roman Krükel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed