Keeping your conversations private in the age of supervised machine learning and government snooping

Most of us would like to keep our conversations with other people private, even when we are not discussing anything secret. That the person behind you on the bus can hear you discussing last night’s football game with a friend is perhaps not something that would make you feel uneasy, but what if employees, or outsourced consultants, from a big tech firm are listening in? Or government agencies are recording your conversations and using data mining techniques to flag them for analyst review if you mention something that triggers a red flag? That would certainly be unpleasant to most of us. The problem is, this is no longer science fiction.

You are being watched.

Tech firms listening in

Tech firms are using machine learning to create good consumer products – like voice messaging that allows direct translation, or digital assistants that need to understand what you are asking of them. The problem is that such technologies cannot learn entirely by themselves, so your conversations are being recorded. And listened too.

Microsoft: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xweqbq/microsoft-contractors-listen-to-skype-calls

Google: https://www.theverge.com/2019/7/11/20690020/google-assistant-home-human-contractors-listening-recordings-vrt-nws

Amazon: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-10/is-anyone-listening-to-you-on-alexa-a-global-team-reviews-audio

Apple: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jul/26/apple-contractors-regularly-hear-confidential-details-on-siri-recordings

All of these systems are being listened in to in order to improve speech recognition, which is hard for machines. They need some help. The problem is that users have not generally been aware that they conversations or bedroom activities may be listened in to by contractors in some undisclosed location. It certainly doesn’t feel great.

That is probably not a big security problem for most people: it is unlikely that they can specifically target you as a person and listen in on everything you do. Technically, however, this could be possible. What if adversaries could bribe their way to listen in to the devices of decision makers? We already know that tech workers, especially contractors and those in the lower end of the pay scale, can be talked into taking a bribe (AT&T employee installing malware on company servers allowing unauthorized unlocking of phones (wired.com), Amazon investigating data leaks for bribe payments). If you can bribe employees to game the phone locking systems, you can probably manipulate them into subverting the machine learning QA systems too. Because of this, if you are a target of high-resource adversaries you probably should be skeptical about digital assistants and what you talk about around them.

Governments are snooping too

We kind of knew it already but not the extent of it. Then Snowden happened – confirming that governments are using massive surveillance program that will capture the communications of everyone and make it searchable. The NSA got heavily criticized for their invasive practices in the US but that did not stop such programs from being further developed, or the rest of the world to follow. Governments have powers to collect massive amounts of data and analyze it. Here’s a good summary of the current US state of phone record collection from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-cyber-surveillance/spy-agency-nsa-triples-collection-of-u-s-phone-records-official-report-idUSKBN1I52FR.

The rest of the world is likely not far behind, and governments are using laws to make collection lawful. The intent is the protection of democracy, freedom of speech, and the evergreen “stopping terrorists”. The only problem is that mass surveillance seems to be relatively inefficient at stopping terrorist attacks, and it has been found to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and participation in democracy, and even stops people from seeking information online because they feel somebody is watching them. Jonathan Shaw wrote an interesting comment on this on Harvard Magazine in 2017: https://harvardmagazine.com/2017/01/the-watchers.

When surveillance makes people think “I feel uneasy researching this topic – what if I end up on some kind of watchlist?” before informing themselves, what happens to the way we engage, discuss and vote? Surveillance has some very obvious downsides for us all.

If an unspoken fear of being watched is stopping us from thinking the thoughts we otherwise would have had, this is a partial victory for extremists, for the enemies of democracy and for the planet as a whole. Putting further bounds on thoughts and exploration will also likely have a negative effect on creativity and our ability to find new solutions to big societal problems such as climate change, poverty and even religious extremism and political conflicts, the latter being the reason why we seem to accept such massive surveillance programs in the first place.

But isn’t GDPR fixing all this?

The GDPR is certainly a good thing for privacy but it has not fixed the problem. It does apply to the big tech firms and the adtech industry but it really hasn’t solved the problem, at least not yet. As documented in this post from Cybehave.no, privacy statements are still too long, too complex, and too hidden for people to care. We all just click “OK” and remain subject to the same advertising driven surveillance as before.

The other issue we have here is that the GDPR does not apply to national security related data collection. And for that sort of collection, the surveillance state is still growing with more advanced programs, more collection, and more sharing between intelligence partners. In 2018 we got the Australian addition with their rather unpleasant “Assist and access” act allowing for government mandated backdoors in software, and now the US wants to backdoor encrypted communications (again).

Blocking the watchers

It is not very difficult to block the watchers, at least not from advertisers, criminals and non-targeted collection (if a government agency really wants to spy on you as an individual, they will probably succeed). Here’s a quick list of things you can do to feel slightly less watched online:

  • Use an ad-blocker to keep tracking cookies and beacons at bay. uBlock origin is good.
  • Use a VPN service to keep your web traffic away from ISP’s and the access of your telephone company. Make sure you look closely at the practices of your VPN supplier before choosing one.
  • Use end-2-end encrypted messaging for your communications instead of regular phone conversations and text messages. Signal is a good choice until the US actually does introduce backdoor laws (hopefully that doesn’t happen).
  • Use encrypted email, or encrypt the message you are sending. Protonmail is a Swiss webmail alternative that has encryption built-in if you send email to other Protonmail users. It also allows you to encrypt messages to other email services with a password.

If you follow these practices it will generally be very hard to snoop on you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s