Belmont Club

The Surveillance Century: Who Should Own Your Data?

The Surveillance Century: Who Should Own Your Data?
(By Matt Crypto, Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

One of the most useful defenses against surveillance is countersurveillance, “the process of detecting surveillance devices, including covert listening devices, visual surveillance devices as well as countersurveillance software to thwart unwanted” monitoring by someone else. The best way to prevent spying on people is to spy on the spies and spot them first.


Ever since Microsoft won the national defense cloud computing contract they’ve had an implicit brief to watch all the major hacking threats to that system. The “Big Four” are apparently China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Though most of the media attention has been focused on Russia, even the smaller players pose a threat. “A hacking group that appears to be linked to the Iranian government attempted to break into U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign but were unsuccessful,” sources familiar with the operation told Reuters. To stop them, Microsoft has to spot them first. They’ve been outposting millions of computers to detect the first faint probes of the enemy.

Microsoft’s products already had Windows Error Report systems built in to try to understand general bugs and malfunctions by means of telemetry, or collecting data from any of the company’s hardware or software in use. But it was Lambert and the security teams who turned the telemetry systems into powerful security tools, transforming what was once a slow and arduous task. Previously, security teams often had to physically go around the world, find specific targeted machines, copy their hard drives, and dive into the incidents slowly. Now those machines simply reach out to Microsoft. Virtually every crash and unexpected behavior is reported to the company, which sorts through the mass of data and, often, finds malware before anyone else…

“Microsoft sees stuff that just nobody else does,” says Williams, who founded the cybersecurity firm Rendition Infosec.


You may object that this and many other forms of security come at the expense of individual privacy, but this has been going on for a long time. Back in 2013, the Washington Post reported that “both the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are said to have been secretly mining data directly from the servers of at least nine top U.S.-based technology companies… this was all done since 2007 under a highly-classified program dubbed ‘PRISM.‘”

Almost everyone, it seems, both attacker and defender, has been reading the public data. Yet the issue of data ownership and privacy has been largely confined to the political fringes. Among the Democrats, only Andrew Yang, who has a scant chance of winning his party’s nomination, has a plan that sees individual property rights as part of the solution. Yang wrote:

Each of us generates a significant amount of data each day during the normal course of our activities. Our phones and computers track our movement and actions, while our browsers and websites track our online activities. As we’ve seen, some of the largest tech companies can know more about us and our lives than our families and those closest to us.

As of now, that data is owned by the people who collect it, and they’re allowed to do anything they want with it. They’ve sold it, used it to target us with advertisements, and have analyzed the vast quantity of data to draw conclusions on whole populations, allowing them to monetize it.

This needs to stop. Data generated by each individual needs to be owned by them, with certain rights conveyed that will allow them to know how it’s used and protect it. These rights include: Consent should be informed and active – companies are responsible for ensuring that they collect a positive opt-in from each user before collecting any data, and this opt-in should be accompanied by a clear and easy-to-understand statement about what data is being collected, and how it is going to be used. You can waive these rights and opt in to sharing your data if you wish for the companies’ benefit and your own convenience – but then you should receive a share of the economic value generated from your data.


Yang is an outlier in more ways than one. The Democrats’ institutional inclination is to put government forward as a custodian of data to protect their “rights.” That may lead to an American version of Europe’s General Protection Data Regulation which, while paying lip service to individual data ownership, actually ensures that nobody knows whose it is. The answer to who owns the data under GPDR turns out to be operationally complicated.

“Therefore, the REAL answer to who owns data is actually ‘neither’ the controller or the processor. It’s the ‘data subject,’ or individual, who owns the data. This emerging reality is going to cause a tectonic shift in the way both processors and controllers need to think about how data is managed from this point forward. Data is now transactional and marketing companies must react accordingly so that individuals have the control they demand and deserve.”

Still, there’s no consensus.

Which probably means that despite the rhetoric, the public’s data will be allocated as European bureaucrats see. That could easily happen in America too, where all too many politicians see regulation as the antidote to the excesses of everybody.

Yang isn’t the first Democratic candidate to suggest comprehensive changes to U.S. data privacy laws. Last year and again this year, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, introduced the Social Media Privacy and Consumer Rights Act, which would provide added transparency and controls for how data is collected and used by companies and how consumers would be informed of any data breaches. And in March, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, rolled out her own plan to regulate tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple. …

“You have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies,” Zuckerberg said in a meeting with Facebook employees in July, according to The Verge. “… if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. … But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”


Who’s going to win in the fight between the big tech companies and the government is still unclear. But does it matter or are we living, as far as privacy is concerned, in an Alien vs Predator world?

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