This post is addressed to my friends and colleagues Prabir Purkayastha, Kiran Chandra and all the others participating in FreedomFest at Acharya Nagarjuna University today and Tomorrow!
Years ago I was visiting my old friend Cory Doctorow in London, and was lucky enough to catch a talk he gave during a CopyFight night in a local pub. He was speaking about an incident in the UK where the government lost a whole lot of personal data about UK residents, collected as part of a effort to create a large identity database.
Cory used a great analogy that has stuck with me, and is a useful way to think about information collection in general; Information is like Uranium.
Uranium, for the most part, is not dangerous at all. It’s a naturally occurring element, it exists everywhere, all around us, even inside of us, distributed far and wide in tiny amounts. There is no problem with uranium per se. Heck, for some plants uranium even appears to be a micronutrient, essential for healthy growth, like other vitamins and minerals.
However, when you have a lot of uranium in one place, when it’s collected in one place, concentrated and refined, when you have giant pile of refined uranium it becomes dangerous, very very dangerous. Doomsday scenario kind of dangerous. **KABOOM** kind of dangerous.
Information is the same, we share information all the time, even personal information, even through insecure channels like a casual conversation with a friend on a park bench, on the telephone, in the office with co-workers, and this is just fine. When information is defuse, casual, fleeting and everywhere it causes no harm. It is the main nutrient for human relationships and action.
However, when you have a lot of information, all in one place, concentrated and refined, tagged and categorized and cross referenced, it becomes very dangerous.
This is true for government databases, for social media platforms, communications systems, ecommerce platforms, even for Bitcoin exchanges. We’ve seen bad things happen many times with personal information being used for crime, surveillance, identity theft, fraud, etc. Over and over again we’ve seen information stockpiles putting peoples lives, finances, privacy and identity at risk.
Put a whole bunch of information in one big pile and sooner or later there will be tears
Yet, so many companies and institutions, so many projects and even individuals think nothing of collecting data indiscriminately, after all, it is argued, storage is cheap, and becoming cheaper, so why not just simply collect every bit of data you can grab. What the heck, even if you have no use for the data now, it might be useful later, why not just stockpile it and see what value can be squeezed out of whenever we get around to it. The data is perceived to have potential value, but not potential risk.
This is like arguing, what the heck, plastic bags are cheap, why don’t we just assemble all the Uranium we can get our hands on, snag it all, enrich it and concentrate it, and dump it in the basement, where’s the harm, sure, we may not have any use for enriched Uranium now, but who knows, it could be useful later!
Nobody would stockpile enriched Uranium in their basement just in case it might be valuable later, the risk would be considered too high. Similarly, no one should stockpile personal information without seriously considering the risks involved.
So, to all the amazing activists at FreedomFest, to the great community that I was lucky enough to meet some of in Hydrabad, when thinking about our campaigns against surveillance we must remember, that it’s not just a matter of kooky spies at places like the NSA illicitly collecting piles and piles of data thought deception and trickery, it is all of us, from the biggest abusers, companies like Google and Facebook, to our governments and institutions, to individual users, like all those Bitcoin users who thought that the right place to store a distributed crypto currency was in wallets hosted on giant centralized servers.
Stockpiles of information bear risks, often these risks far out way any “benefits,” since the same benefits can be achieved with secure distributed systems if we put our minds to it, except, or course the benefit to spies, crackers and criminals of having a whole bunch of juicy data all in one place.
So we need you at FreedomFest, our next generations of developers, of entrepreneurs, of activists, our future technologists, to take this knowledge and bring it to society broadly; Information is like Uranium, when it flows freely it is a nutrient, when it is contained and concentrated it is toxic, put too much of it in one place and eventually it goes **KABOOM** and people get hurt.