The young muslim

“BIG BROTHER” and …you! /Prof. Ahmed Guessoum

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In 1983, Steve Jobs gave an Apple keynote address in which he was to present the Macintosh. He made the following statement: “[…] It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers initially welcoming IBM with open arms now fear an IBM dominated and controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?” [1]

 

Steve Jobs then showed acommercial where a young athletic woman, representing the coming of the Macintosh,“is chased by four police officers (presumably agents of the ‘Thought Police’)… She races towards a large screen with the image of a Big Brother-like figure giving a speech to an army of soulless drones”. Getting to the screen, she throwsahammer towards it and smashes the screen, right at the moment as “Big Brother” announces, “we shall prevail!”[2].

 

The commercial was broadcast on the 22nd of January 1984. This ad, which Apple produced for the Mackintosh launch occasion,has since beenconsidered as a piece of art in marketing;itwas replayed in 2004, with slight modifications, to celebrate the ad’s 20th anniversary and to introduce the iPod. This time, “Big Brother” (the villain) was understood as being Microsoft rather than IBM.Within two decades, we moved from the fear of the supremacy over the computer industry that Steve Jobs warned about in 1984 to the fear of supremacy over the software industry which he saw as a serious threat to everyone’s privacy in 2004.

 

2013

Almost thirty years later, former CIA officer Edward Snowden made a sensation by releasing to The Guardian (UK) and The Washington Post (USA) top classified documents about the scale of co-operation between major silicon valley companies (including Microsoft, Skype, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo) and intelligence agencies, the National Security Agency (NSA), the FBI, and the CIA, over the last three years[3] . This has been described as “one of the biggest leaks in US history, exposing a top-secret NSA surveillance program to the media”. It disclosed the involvement of toptech companies in intelligence gathering through the PRISM spy tool[4]. (PRISM is the actual name of the surveillance program run by the NSA.) Further leaks by Snowden have linked other foreign intelligence agencies (e.g. GCHQ[5],the British counterpart of the NSA, and BND[6], Germany’s foreign intelligence agency) to this program in terms of collaboration between them and the NSA through sharing of data. This story is still unfolding and is on the daily news; Snowden stayed in the transit zone of Moscow’s airport for over a month and has applied for asylum in Russia[7].

 

The Guardian has further published leaks by Snowden about Microsoft’s cooperation with the intelligence agencies[8] to circumvent the encryption used within its Outlook mailing program as well as some of its other software (Windows, Skype which Microsoft bought about a year and a half ago, i.e. after Skype also got linked to the PRISM program).

 

In simple words, what this means is that any communication via emails, social networks, mobiles, video calls, etc., can now be intercepted and analysed, and the NSA has been actively collecting and analysing such data. Whatever email you send, website you visit, e-service you acquire, video call you make, or even place you go to (supposing your mobile is on, of course), the details of all these can be stored on servers somewhere on this planet and potentially analysed!  Although, the claim is that only metadata is used (i.e. data about the names of users, their locations, times and titles of communications, etc.), a tremendous amount of information can be inferred from this. As a matter of fact, it is perfectly known that given the techniques developed in Computer Science, and Artificial Intelligence more specifically, a lot of knowledge can be inferred from the structured (as well as unstructured) data that the internet and information companies collect and store on their thousands of servers.

 

One important task in what is called Data Mining, an area of Artificial Intelligence concerned with the learning of relationships and associations between the raw (structured or even unstructured) data, is called profiling. Through various techniques and programs, one can learn the habits of a person; his/her acquaintances; people with whom he/she shares preferences;one’s actual mobility (i.e. the different places one goes to); literary, scientific, political, and sports likings (and others). Obviously, such programs allow agencies like the NSA to search for specific people who tend to use certain words or proper names in their vocabularies (in emails, video calls, etc.) or communicate with specific people that are under surveillance. All this is done instantly, through powerful programs that run on powerful infrastructures (thousands of servers, supercomputers, grids, etc.). Data Mining makes it possible to process large amounts of data. The Guardian reported the processing through the PRISM programme of “3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013”[9].

 

Dr. Richard Stallman, the Founder of the GNU Project[10] and the Free Software Foundation was even more frightening about the whole development, pointing out that even our mobiles can be remotely converted into listening devices. In other words, a security agency (or whoever is in control of the communication operations) could spy on you through your own mobile without you knowing that your conversation at home or at work, or wherever you are, is being listened to, without you using your mobile! He furthermore said that the Xbox camera could be remotely usedto show who are in the room, what they are doing, etc. He went on to say that all countries have been “increasing surveillance through digital technology to a level unprecedented in human race’s history”. States and some companies can know a lot about any person, which obliterates any sense of privacy. Dr. Stallman argued that companies like Microsoft and Apple use proprietary software and can put back doors into them in such a way that they get a lot of information or gain access to a person’s computer and digital devices without his knowledge and consent. (Such activities were denied by Microsoft in a letter sent to The Guardian after Snowden’s leaks[The Guardian, 12/07/2013])Dr. Stallman was also very direct calling Facebook “a monstrous surveillance system” and he described all “social media as nasty”. [Video interview withDr. Stallman on TV-Novosti, www.rt.com, 10/06/2013].

 

Now what is even more frightening and revealing about the US policy in this whole story is that the PRISM program is meant to be primarily targeting non-US citizens or people living outside the US. Indeed, the Guardian revealed that “the NSA claimed to have ‘direct access’ through the Prism program to the systems of many major internet companies, including Microsoft, Skype, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo. Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time. Targeting US citizens does require an individual warrant, but the NSA is able to collect Americans’ communications without a warrant if the target is a foreign national located overseas.”  [The Guardian, 12/07/2013].

 

It was in fact reported that the PRISM program has targeted citizens andbugged EU missions and embassies of friendly European countries – including the French, Italian and Greek embassies ;this includedpeople in countries where agencieshave co-operated with this program (UK, France, Germany, etc.). This has led the EU, especially through France’s Hollandeand Germany’s Merkel, to call for halting trade negotiations with the US over the EU-US pact until the US gives a guarantee that it stopped its surveillance of the EU[11].This forcedthe US to offer assurances that more study groups would be formed to look into how the surveillance has affected (“if at all”) citizens from the EU member states.

 

Clearly, Steve Jobs’ fear in 1984 and then in 2004 from computer-industry and software-industry supremacy, respectively, has now turned into a fear from global Information (Technology) supremacy altogether and the total loss of personal privacy. It is the most complete form of intrusion into people’s private life that one could ever imagine. The “Big Brother” metaphor used by George Orwell in his novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” seems to have come true to a frightening extent!

 

 

Are we bound to have “Big Brother” watching us?

Information and Communication Technology has undoubtedly changed our lives, making so many things much easier to perform, more efficient, and more convenient. The price to pay however is increasingly high. ICT seems to be developing in a direction which compromises humans’privacy. This is a very serious issue, one which needs to be considered and corrected.  This requires awareness of all the people, so that a common stance can be taken from the personal level all the way to the state level.

 

At the personal level, one needs to better understand all the technology that we have been using without thinking. We need to stop and ponder all the devices and programs we use. Dr. Stallman goes to the very extreme of stating that he uses no mobiles at all and calls for the boycott of Facebook and such social media. He says that because of whistleblowers like Julian Asange and Edward Snowden, “privacy has a better chance now than it has had for the last decade”. He obviously promotes the use of free (open source) software and, in particular, its use for the encryption on one’s own machine (not on some remote server!) of documents, emails, etc. He even says that we should be willing to give up some of the convenience which is provided by proprietary softwarefor the sake of preserving our own privacy.

 

Iwould like to add that cloud computing, the new trend which consists in paying for data storage and programs that are located remotely and belong to the “cloud”service providers, can be even more dangerous in terms of one’s privacy.This can indeed be“liberticide” (“destroyer of freedom”)!

 

At the state/national level, the people in charge should look at these issues very carefully and think of short, medium, and long term solutions to the problem of privacy of a country’s citizens. It goes without saying that any attack by a foreign entity on a citizen’s privacy is an attack on the security of the country itself. The state should help develop its own IT and internet service capabilities. It should also look more seriously into the use of open source vs. proprietary software and have a clear policy on this, especially with respect to public institutions (ministries, companies, universities, etc.). Though a different issue, theproblemof (illegally) copied software is a serious one andcan be extremely harmful to the machines that run it and the entire networkstheyare on. Such software can often contain “back doors”, Trojans, and similar security problems. Linked to this is the general lack of awareness of the danger that computer viruses and worms can cause to an institution.

 

Last but not least, it is needless to say that we need to boost the ICT development in the country, through proper infrastructures, networks, software development companies and start-ups, internet service providers, etc.  All these and other related issues must be seriously analysed, studied, and corrected as part of a global IT strategy for the country. Unfortunately, what used to be called “e-Algerie 2013” (back in 2008), has been renamed as “e-Algerie” (dropping the deadline of 2013).To date, we have unfortunately seen neither the development of “e” nor … “Algerie” itself!

 

 

 

Ahmed Guessoum is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Science and Technology HouariBoumediene (USTHB) in Algiers.



[1][ww.youtube.com/watch?v=lSiQA6KKyJo].

[4]TV-Novosti, www.rt.com, 10/06/2013, http://rt.com/usa/nsa-leak-snowden-live-updates-482/

[7] As this issue of Le JeuneMusulman is getting printed, BBC News online, 01/08/2013, reported that Edward Snowden has been granted a 1-year asylum in Russia, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23535524

[10]The GNU Project is a free softwaremass collaboration project, announced on 27 September 1983, by Richard Stallman at MIT. Its aim is to give computer users freedom and control in their use of their computers and computing devices, by collaboratively developing and providing software that is based on basic freedom rights such as access to and modification of the software, [Wikipedia]

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