U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience from Moscow Wednesday, and promptly reminded us why we should all be terrified of the “brave new world” that humanity is marching towards now.
Snowden, who was chased out of his home country for disclosing sensitive information, appeared on the show to remind the masses that the neon gods of technology to which we bow and pray each day are doing much more harm than good. And to promote his book about his life.
Specifically, Snowden forces the listener to reassess the role that smartphones have in our lives.
“The big thing that’s changed since 2013 is now it’s mobile-first everything,” explained Snowden, who went on to explain how the mobile tech boom has radically shifted the way that our lives function at an almost metaphysical level.
Snowden’s descriptions of how cell phones collect data and transport information to nearby cell towers, how obscure and ephemeral moments in one’s life no longer exist as a concept. Nothing enters the void, and everything is documented.
The reality that Snowden describes goes as follows: As a person who carries a cell phone around, you are agreeing to a lot of things that may not be obvious to the user.
For one, there is now a record of your presence at any place, at any time (that has a cell phone tower nearby). These records are being stored by companies that do not need to keep this information, as “there is no good argument for it to be kept forever, but these companies see that as valuable information,” something that Snowden calls “The big data problem.”
“This is all information that used to be ephemeral; where were you when you were 8 years old? Where’d you go after you had a bad breakup? Who’d you spend the night with? Who’d you call after? All this information used to be ephemeral—meaning it disappeared like the morning dew, it would be gone, no one would remember it—Now these things are stored.”
Snowden explains that unless the battery is removable from a device, it’s not guaranteed that it’s actually “turned off.” A phone can power down and brick itself until the power button is pressed again, but that’s not an actual indication of it being powered down.
And that’s just what happens when you connect your phone to a network. “That’s not talking about all those apps that are contacting the network even more frequently,” said Snowden.
What Snowden depicts is truly a Pandora’s box. There isn’t a way to undo what we’ve done.
The idea that there are moments in history that I cannot recollect, like who I was with or what I was doing 4 years ago, but observable metadata can find those things, is tremendously sad.
And that’s sticking to what Snowden discussed in about 10 minutes of his nearly three-hour appearance.
The problem is this: We are now less valuable than the data we produce. We’re now nodes, or leaves on a virtual tree, providing information to companies and artificial intelligence systems that seek to predict human behaviour, all in order to sell ads.
The more data collectively we provide, the better an algorithm can tailor advertisements to our needs. With different apps tracking where we are, what we’re doing, and often times what we’re saying to one another, is a grim sign that if the end of individuality is not near, it’s at least barreling towards us.
And no, it’s not just your paranoia. Your smartphone is listening to you in order to better serve ad space. Everyone has a story about saying something to someone and having a Facebook advertisement appear the next day.
This goes beyond “apophenia” or any other type of “pattern recognition.” According to Dr. Peter Henway, the senior security consultant for cybersecurity firm Asterix, and former lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University, cell phones are certainly listening to us, but not at all times.
It’s not a big secret, either. Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa has been used in courtrooms to solve murders. We’ve wiretapped ourselves, all in the name of convenience. To discredit what Snowden is saying because he’s a “whistleblower” or traitor is foolish.
Though solutions are few and far between, it does make the idea of dropping everything and moving to a cabin in the woods all the more romantic.