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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations are far more interesting than our own, but it’s no reason to be complacent.
“We’re basically turning citizens into human intel for the country. Welcome to the Surveillance State,” said software developer Andrew Stone. “All communications are being spied upon — phone, email, Skype, web browsing. Massive amounts of data are being collected.”
Stone isn’t your wild-eyed activist. He’s best known as developer of the popular mobile application Twittelator for the iPhone and iPad. His Albuquerque-based Stone Design Corp. has published more than 35 software titles for generations of Macintosh operating systems. Stone joined computing legend Steve Jobs after Jobs, forced out of Apple, started his own company, NeXT. Stone is still an independent developer for Apple.
Early in his career, Stone decided that his pursuit of software wouldn’t be “just tech for tech’s sake but to make life better,” and he’s passionate about that.
His inspiration for Twittelator, which helps users manage multiple Twitter accounts, was the report of the young Egyptian jailed during demonstrations in his country who tweeted his friends and got released.
That’s the right reason for technology. Stone is indignant when technology is used for the wrong reasons, which in his view is what the National Security Agency is doing now.
“Yahoo, Google, Facebook all have back doors that are being monitored,” he said during a meeting of New Mexico Press Women. “The guy who had the nerve to tell the truth is now in Russia, but (Director of National Intelligence) James Clapper lies to Congress and nothing happens to him.”
He sees a historic metaphor in the Panopticon, a circular structure conceived in 1791 that allowed guards to see inmates in their cells from a single point. The inmates assumed they were being watched all the time. The latest spy technology is just a version of the Panopticon.
It’s not entirely bad. The grocery store gives me coupons based on my past purchases. Police may detect crime before it happens. Doctors are starting to predict disease based on your DNA. On the other hand, the information net may allow the bank to deny your loan. Journalists can’t guarantee anonymity to sources, so sources dry up.
“All of our stuff is being watched,” he said. “It will have a chilling effect on free speech. Legal, peaceful citizen activism is being squashed.”
What to do? First, stop feeding the beast.
“We the citizens provide crowdsource information,” Stone said. “Stop tagging your friends. We’re doing it to ourselves.”
Second, inform yourself. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org) is a useful and effective source of information and action steps. The foundation has created the Surveillance Self-Defense site to provide information and tools to evaluate the threat and defend against it.
Second, fight fire with fire. You can use software like the free, open-source Tor Project (torproject.org) to protect your privacy.
“The worst thing is to think you’re safe and not being listened to, but you are,” Stone said.
His final piece of advice is ironic coming from somebody who’s highly successful in the world of computing: “Go analog. Take a walk. Visit your neighbors. Talk about it.”
Stone and some of his fellow programmers are rediscovering the value of face to face communications. After realizing that they were all too isolated, he began bringing them together every Thursday morning at a coffee shop to socialize and talk shop. The group, called the Cocoa Conspiracy, has also evolved into casual economic development, as people pitch ideas and seek input. Stone helps form teams and serves as in-house expert.
Stone said: “Stay human. It’s the one thing we can always do in the face of the machine.”