There has been a great deal of talk about the beginning of the fallout from the Prism / Verizon / surveillance scandal that has been breaking loose this weekend. There is a lot to sort out and it will probably be months and the fallout will cross a number of national borders before any sense is made out of what we are beginning to know.
Personally, I am taking the time to examine what I am doing online and the software that I am using. While I was not naive enough to believe in the past that what I was doing online was anonymous, it is completely another thing to know things like: “During 30 days in March 2013, Boundless Informant documents show the NSA collected nearly 3 billion pieces of intelligence within the US alone.”
I’ve been online a fair amount this weekend, reading news from around the world. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on twitter. People around the globe are outraged. I think they have the right to be.
But will this change things? Are average technology users going to care or change what they are doing online?
Possibly not. But I think that people who have the skills to do so, or are in positions of responsibility over networks, do need to think about the services that we use. I’ve seen a number of conversations online this weekend where people are beginning to re-examine the services and accounts that they have. I’ve seen people searching for alternatives to Dropbox and Google Docs. People dropping Evernote and changing to Firefox from Google Chrome.
Is this scandal bringing us to the end of an age in technology and education? Is it the end of the techno – utopia?
The Homebrew Computer Club was one of the first places where computer technology advanced and the potential for computers for regular people began to be examined. When this club met, the members worked on both hardware and software projects. In January 1976, Bill Gates wrote an “open letter to hobbyists” complaining about software patent infringement. Up to this point in computer technology history, most software would have been considered open source and people who had the skills to write software often did so and then traded it amongst themselves. Bill Gates and Paul Allen changed this model and the software industry was born. Billions of dollars of wealth were created and software became a complex, specialized, industry selling very expensive products.
This model of computing continued until around the year 2000 when the concept of web 2.0 came around. Soon after, the online services industry exploded along with a variety of new economic models. We were encouraged to sign up and connect with others. The numbers of people using social media sites increased exponentially. Accounts were free and we didn’t mind handing over our email addresses and relinquishing a tiny bit of our data in order to use a service. Companies tracked us with cookies to help us shop in ways that met our preferences and now it turns out, our own governments were trolling in enormous amounts of data and meta data at the same time.
Where does it end?
I’m not a paranoid, tin-foil hat wearing kind of guy. I consider myself to be the owner of a healthy dose of common sense. But I’m beginning to think that the era of the free lunch is coming to an end. We have for years given up bits and pieces of our data and information to have access to a smorgasbord of unbelievably shiny free online services that seemed capable of doing almost anything for us. Now we are learning the cost of that. It is like we have for years ate what we wanted when we wanted. Now, we’ve had a scare with our health and it is time to re-examine what we’ve been up to for all of that time. Of course, free online services are not going to disappear. The economics of cloud computing are simply too huge. But it is important to recognize that we do have choices. The free, open source software (FOSS) world has never been more healthy. Using online documents and tutorials, it isn’t that hard to set up your own website and control your own email. Shelling out a few dollars for webspace that is your own may be worth the price. This will mean the responsibility for software upgrades and backups will fall on us again. But in the end, this is a choice that we are going to have to make. As a CIO or a Technology Director, how are your going to answer parental and student concerns about data safety and transparency? How are you going to justify giving up the privacy of others to make your own job easier?
This isn’t a step backwards, but rather, I believe it is a step forward. It is a step where we recognize the health and value of our networks and the nodes within them. It is a step towards responsibility.