As if concerned that people will forget about the dangers of the age we live in, Edward Snowden, formerly an employee of a U.S. defense contractor, likes to stoke the fire every so often and keep the mill turning. One of his new revelations alleges that U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies hacked the internal systems of computer chip manufacturing giant Gemalto to obtain cell phone encryption keys. This would allow them to tap several billion cell phones across 85 countries, including China.
Gemalto’s statement regarding Snowden’s information was that the firm was unaware of any such occurrence and that it would investigate further before undertaking remedial action. This was an appropriate response, both respecting the credibility of the Snowden leaks and also forestalling any suspicion that the company collaborated with U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies. Gemalto is as much a potential victim as cell phone users around the globe.
However, apart from Gemalto, Snowden’s revelation has not elicited much of a response. It seemingly would stand to reason that the tapping of several billion cell phones would make all the world’s cell phone users victims, and should therefore spark a huge public outcry. So why are people being so uncharacteristically calm?
Is it that they have grown sufficiently accustomed to the dangers of the mobile era?
People have come to understand that ubiquitous cloud technology can compromise privacy, and that even cell phone payments may contain vulnerabilities. State officials from Germany, France and other countries have been victims of wiretapping. These facts combined form an approximate picture of security in the mobile information age, and most have come to realize that while cell phones are insecure, they can most often be used without incident. The strength of this general impression has quietly softened the impact of Snowden’s leaks and made them into just another summary of the mobile era, with little of the “freshness” of before.
Moreover, despite the number of people potentially affected, compared with Snowden’s past leaks, U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies stealing cellular encryption keys will likely rouse less political opposition. While every cell phone user may be a victim, putting them all at odds with said intelligence agencies, who will represent those users in stepping forward to champion their rights to privacy? Legally, there is no international treaty that addresses wiretapping, and we cannot pass judgment as to what monitoring is reasonable and what is not. Even if we could make such a ruling, we would be unable to find a suitable and universally acceptable representative to interact with U.S. and U.K. intelligence. This is one of the unique characteristics of the mobile era: There is energy in abundance, but no way of setting suitable boundaries that we can all respect.
It should also be noted that although the information from Snowden fits in nicely with what people already know and imagine, further evidence supporting the accusation will be difficult to procure. Difficult, that is, unless a second Snowden emerges from one of the intelligence agencies involved in the tapping scheme. However, even if such a figure appears, the question remains: Who will verify the information? The truth is that within Snowden’s leaks, the provable and unprovable is always intermixed. The most recent “shocking secret” attributed to Snowden, for example, is that the U.S. government is a puppet dancing to unseen strings held by unseen aliens. Such statements only increase the controversy surrounding Snowden.
But despite the fact that Snowden’s various earth-shattering leaks cannot be proven, and may even contain false information, one thing is true: The mobile information age has not increased security guarantees for individual privacy, but rather, [have done] the opposite. Concrete specifics aside, from this perspective, Snowden’s new leaks taken as commentary contain truth enough.