Last week, my attention was caught by a headline on the online version of the British newspaper The Independent, which read ‘iPhone has secret software that can be remotely activated to spy on people, says Snowden’ (Wednesday 21 January 2015). I said to myself ‘that’s nothing new’ because I had posted about a year and a half ago a link on this blog to a documentary that shows how this is done. Given that the article did not have much flesh to it (it is hardly more than an expanded quote of Mr Snowden’s Russian lawyer: ‘Edward never uses an iPhone, he’s got a simple phone’), I decided to visit Russia Today (which I discovered in June 2013 whilst I was looking up info on NSA after the first revelations of Mr Snowden had been published by The Guardian and The Washington Post) to see whether there would be more information. The article I found (‘Snowden shuns iPhones for security reasons – lawyer’, 20 January) was as disappointing; however, the article links to an older article with a much sexier title ‘NSA can easily bug your switched-off iPhone: Here’s how you can stop them’.

Personally, I do not really care about the snooping of our smartphones (even though the erroneous conclusions that could be drawn for instance from the geolocation metadata of a freelancer working from home are not too much to my liking), partly because I do not use my smartphone (a Nokia) much, partly because I believe that the mere fact of being connected to the Internet allows for IT software and hardware corporations, government agencies or even hackers to pry into the files, data, metadata stored on my personal computer…

In fact, I am convinced of this. In 2005, I had read in a book on IT networks for personal computers (written in French) the claim that the French government was storing all computer- or server-enabled data (Internet-mediated data, telephone calls, text messages). I found this claim to be surprising, but I did not really give any second thoughts about it. Of course, then came Snowden’s exposure of NSA mass surveillance in June 2013 but, as far as I know, nothing was said about it going back as far as 2004.This summer whilst going through some old paper copies of the Financial Times that I had forgotten in my cellar, I came across some interesting ‘revelations’ in the aftermath of the London bombings of July 2005, for instance: ‘Mr Clarke will use the UK’s presidency of the EU to push ahead with a highly controversial initiative for common rules across the EU on storing telecoms and internet data. The measure to keep the information was called for by the UK, France, Ireland and Sweden after the Madrid attacks, when some suspects were swiftly identified using phone records.’(Sarah Laitner and Hugh Williamson, ‘EU terrorism fight focuses on intelligence sharing’, Financial Times, 12 July 2005). So nothing new, Mr Snowden. It is simply that humans have short memories (unlike computers)*…

Whatever the justification for monitoring and recording telephone calls, Internet data, text messages, what I find more worrying is the trend started by the Internet giants to gather as much data as possible about individuals, mine that very data for consumer patterns and then sell this information to third parties. In particular, I am concerned about the consequences this trend could have longer term as I fear that it could be used to undertake ‘predictive profiling’ (some call it ‘human socio-cultural behaviour modelling’). Surely, this will then have an impact on people in terms of their studies, their employment, their securing or not of loans and accommodation, etc. More nightmare or dystopian scenarios would envisage people going to jail or to the executioner’s block on totally unjustified grounds (i.e. based upon this ‘predictive profiling’). I guess that only time will tell whether or not such fears were justified. But even then, this somehow would not be really ‘new’ in that dystopian science fiction authors have already imagined the worse.

* In my stack of old papers, I even came across an earlier reference in the FT, dated 17 May 2004, entitled ‘Data call gets a poor reception’ by Bob Sherwood, which is no longer online (is it because it is older than 10 years?).

Links to previous posts on the topic of state surveillance on this blog: