Losing The Future: Schneier On How The Internet Could Kill Democracy

With his deep background in both cryptography and Internet security, Bruce Schneier is of the most thoughtful commentators on all matters cyber. So revered is he, that he even inspired a list of humorous Chuck Norris-style “Bruce Schneier” facts .

In recent months, Bruce has been an invaluable sounding board amid the drip-drip-drip of details of ubiquitous government surveillance stemming from Edward Snowden’s leak of classified intelligence on NSA spying and cyber operations.

In this video, from a recent speech Bruce did at the TEDxCambridge event up here in the Boston area, he goes a bit deeper: drawing out the current trend lines like hacktivism, Facebook- and Twitter-fueled popular revolutions, civil war and mass surveillance, and trying to discern what the future might look like.

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Bruce’s theory: although nimble groups of activists, dissidents and hackers have been more adept at using the Internet and innovative technologies and platforms built on top of it (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube), the future lies with established power structures, not the yearning masses. “Distributed groups are more nimble and quicker to make use of new power,”  Schneier says. “Institutions are slower, but they are able to use the power more effectively.”

Syrian dissidents may have helped their cause by using Facebook to organize protests against the Assad regime in the early days of the popular uprising in that country, for example. But Facebook and other platforms have also proven invaluable to the Syrian government in identifying and arresting dissidents, Schneier said.

In the long term, the balance of power tends to favor institutions over individuals, he said.

“Its easier for the NSA to spy on everyone than for anyone to maintain privacy. China has an easier time blocking content than its citizens have getting around those blocks. And even though its easy to circumvent digital copyright protections, most users can’t do it.”

In short: defeating the powers of online surveillance and control requires a substantial amount of technology expertise. That’s expertise that is sorely lacking in the general public. What’s needed, says Schneier, is a balance – a stalemate between the “quick” (dissidents, individuals, civil liberties groups, idealistic hackers) and “the strong” (governments, corporations, militaries and organized online crime groups). That will require much more transparency about what these groups are up to, and new rules to empower the disempowered in the face of consolidated government and corporate control and surveillance of The Internet. Check out the full video here.

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