The Surveillance-Free Day (Part III)

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Photo: Kevin Roose

This is the last chapter in Kevin's series about trying to live without a digital trace for 24 hours. See Part I and Part II, both published last week.

Bob Dylan once sang, "To live outside the law, you must be honest." I've been trying to live outside the government's surveillance network for an entire day — by using VPN tunnels, encrypted e-mail, and an infrared LED hat that protects me from the gaze of security cameras — and, so far, I don't feel honest. I feel like a man on the lam, in fact. After a morning and afternoon spent delving into the latest in anti-surveillance technology, I've felt myself becoming more paranoid about the world around me. Every stranger is a potential government agent; every iPhone a potential NSA intercept.

How have I done so far, in terms of avoiding surveillance? It’s hard to know. I’d have to have top-secret clearance to get an exact accounting of exactly how much information I divulged today. If I had to guess, I’d say I probably eliminated 80 percent of my information footprint. I feel more anonymous than I did yesterday. But it’s also entirely possible that all the steps I took to disappear from the government’s eye — all the Wickr texts, anonymous Tor browsing, and Bitcoin payments — actually made me more visible.

This is the catch-22 of the modern surveillance state — try to leave it and you just end up closer to its center. We now know, thanks to another document leaked by Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been running a top-secret program called XKeyscore, which allows the agency to mine gigantic databases of e-mails, browser histories, and other personal data. Two of the things that might tip an agent off to suspicious activity, according to the XKeyscore presentation, are “someone who is using encryption” and “someone searching the web for suspicious stuff.” In other words, me.

Photo: Kevin Roose

Deep down, though, I know that I’m not high enough on the NSA’s priority list. I’m too boring — too white, male, and unobjectionable. More than once today, someone has pointed out to me that this experiment might be going much differently if I’d been a Muslim with family in the Middle East, an investigative journalist receiving CIA leaks, or an active hacker. There are people upon whom the security state’s eye falls harder than average, and I’m not one of them.

“There is a reality that people like you and me, who are part of polite, law-abiding society, don’t have a lot to be afraid of,” Jon Callas, co-founder of Silent Circle, an encrypted communications provider and one of my security advisers for the day, told me. “We’re not the people they’re looking for.”

After dinner, I take a taxi to a friend’s house in Oakland, which happens to be a new frontier in the privacy wars. Earlier this month, Oakland officials moved forward with a plan to install a Domain Awareness System, a $10 million project — paid for with federal dollars — that will link the city’s surveillance systems, both public and private, together in one giant, powerful network. It's a smaller version of the one launched last year in New York. Residents and civil-liberties groups in Oakland objected, on the grounds that the all-encompassing surveillance system would put too much power in the hands of local law-enforcement officials. But those fears are losing out to the desire to do something about the city’s crime problem.

One lesson of my day, I think, is that it’s impossible for a single person to evade surveillance completely — even if you live like an extreme paranoiac, as I did. There is simply too much data being collected, by too many hard-to-subvert systems.

My makeshift anti-security rig. Photo: Kevin Roose

If you’re the kind of person who thinks surveillance stops terrorists, makes neighborhoods safer, and represents a net benefit to society, this probably cheers you. If you don't like government spying, it means you have to rebel collectively. Since no one person can evade the surveillance state on his own, the only way to thwart snoops is to shrink their data pools as a whole — that is, pressure lawmakers to put a stop to programs like PRISM, XKeyscore, and the Domain Awareness Network, or at least allow private-sector companies like Facebook and Google to keep their information out of the programs.

“The normal, boring people, we have the ability to stand up and say, 'Hey, this isn’t right,'” Jon Callas told me.

When I get to my friends’ house, we sit on the couch for a drink. (Well, first I ask if I can tape over any cameras in their living room.) They’re a couple in their thirties, and she’s eight months pregnant. And as we sit and chat, it occurs to me that their child will grow up in a world of constant, ubiquitous data-collection and transmission. There will be no concept of personal privacy — not when everyone is walking around with Google Glass and every fragment of human interaction is captured by at least two different devices.

That’s a better world, in some ways. And it’s one I’m sure I’ll reconcile living in. But it sure is different from the one I grew up in — the one where you had reasonable control over the scale of your digital life, where there was such a thing as opting out.