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TED2015

Christopher Soghoian: How to avoid surveillance ... with the phone in your pocket

March 17, 2015

Who is listening in on your phone calls? On a landline, it could be anyone, says privacy activist Christopher Soghoian, because surveillance backdoors are built into the phone system by default, to allow governments to listen in. But then again, so could a foreign intelligence service ... or a criminal. Which is why, says Soghoian, some tech companies are resisting governments' call to build the same backdoors into mobile phones and new messaging systems. From this TED Fellow, learn how some tech companies are working to keep your calls and messages private.

Christopher Soghoian - Privacy researcher and activist
Christopher Soghoian researches and exposes the high-tech surveillance tools that governments use to spy on their own citizens, and he is a champion of digital privacy rights. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
For more than 100 years,
00:13
the telephone companies have provided
wiretapping assistance to governments.
00:14
For much of this time,
this assistance was manual.
00:18
Surveillance took place manually
and wires were connected by hand.
00:22
Calls were recorded to tape.
00:26
But as in so many other industries,
00:29
computing has changed everything.
00:31
The telephone companies
built surveillance features
00:33
into the very core of their networks.
00:36
I want that to sink in for a second:
00:39
Our telephones and the networks
that carry our calls
00:41
were wired for surveillance first.
00:45
First and foremost.
00:47
So what that means is that
when you're talking to your spouse,
00:50
your children, a colleague
or your doctor on the telephone,
00:54
someone could be listening.
00:58
Now, that someone might
be your own government;
01:00
it could also be another government,
a foreign intelligence service,
01:03
or a hacker, or a criminal, or a stalker
01:07
or any other party that breaks into
the surveillance system,
01:10
that hacks into the surveillance system
of the telephone companies.
01:13
But while the telephone companies
have built surveillance as a priority,
01:19
Silicon Valley companies have not.
01:24
And increasingly,
over the last couple years,
01:26
Silicon Valley companies have built
strong encryption technology
01:28
into their communications products
01:32
that makes surveillance
extremely difficult.
01:34
For example, many of you
might have an iPhone,
01:37
and if you use an iPhone
to send a text message
01:39
to other people who have an iPhone,
01:42
those text messages
cannot easily be wiretapped.
01:44
And in fact, according to Apple,
01:47
they're not able to even see
the text messages themselves.
01:49
Likewise, if you use FaceTime
to make an audio call
01:52
or a video call with one of your
friends or loved ones,
01:56
that, too, cannot be easily wiretapped.
01:59
And it's not just Apple.
02:01
WhatsApp, which is now owned by Facebook
02:03
and used by hundreds of millions
of people around the world,
02:05
also has built strong
encryption technology into its product,
02:08
which means that people
in the Global South can easily communicate
02:11
without their governments,
often authoritarian,
02:15
wiretapping their text messages.
02:18
So, after 100 years of being able
to listen to any telephone call --
02:21
anytime, anywhere --
02:26
you might imagine that government
officials are not very happy.
02:28
And in fact, that's what's happening.
02:32
Government officials are extremely mad.
02:33
And they're not mad because
these encryption tools are now available.
02:36
What upsets them the most
02:40
is that the tech companies have built
encryption features into their products
02:41
and turned them on by default.
02:46
It's the default piece that matters.
02:48
In short, the tech companies
have democratized encryption.
02:50
And so, government officials
like British Prime Minister David Cameron,
02:54
they believe that all communications --
emails, texts, voice calls --
02:58
all of these should be
available to governments,
03:03
and encryption is making that difficult.
03:06
Now, look -- I'm extremely sympathetic
to their point of view.
03:09
We live in a dangerous time
in a dangerous world,
03:12
and there really are bad people out there.
03:15
There are terrorists and other
serious national security threats
03:17
that I suspect we all want
the FBI and the NSA to monitor.
03:20
But those surveillance
features come at a cost.
03:25
The reason for that is
03:29
that there is no such thing
as a terrorist laptop,
03:30
or a drug dealer's cell phone.
03:32
We all use the same
communications devices.
03:34
What that means is that
if the drug dealers' telephone calls
03:38
or the terrorists' telephone calls
can be intercepted,
03:42
then so can the rest of ours, too.
03:44
And I think we really need to ask:
03:46
Should a billion people
around the world be using devices
03:48
that are wiretap friendly?
03:51
So the scenario of hacking of surveillance
systems that I've described --
03:55
this is not imaginary.
03:58
In 2009,
04:01
the surveillance systems that Google
and Microsoft built into their networks --
04:02
the systems that they use to respond
to lawful surveillance requests
04:06
from the police --
04:10
those systems were compromised
by the Chinese government,
04:11
because the Chinese government
wanted to figure out
04:14
which of their own agents
the US government was monitoring.
04:16
By the same token,
04:20
in 2004, the surveillance system
built into the network
04:21
of Vodafone Greece --
Greece's largest telephone company --
04:24
was compromised by an unknown entity,
04:28
and that feature,
the surveillance feature,
04:30
was used to wiretap
the Greek Prime Minister
04:32
and members of the Greek cabinet.
04:34
The foreign government or hackers
who did that were never caught.
04:37
And really, this gets to the very problem
with these surveillance features,
04:41
or backdoors.
04:45
When you build a backdoor
into a communications network
04:46
or piece of technology,
04:50
you have no way of controlling
who's going to go through it.
04:51
You have no way of controlling
04:55
whether it'll be used by your side
or the other side,
04:56
by good guys, or by bad guys.
04:59
And so for that reason,
I think that it's better
05:01
to build networks
to be as secure as possible.
05:04
Yes, this means that in the future,
05:08
encryption is going to make
wiretapping more difficult.
05:10
It means that the police
are going to have a tougher time
05:13
catching bad guys.
05:15
But the alternative would mean
to live in a world
05:17
where anyone's calls or anyone's
text messages could be surveilled
05:19
by criminals, by stalkers
and by foreign intelligence agencies.
05:23
And I don't want to live
in that kind of world.
05:27
And so right now,
you probably have the tools
05:29
to thwart many kinds
of government surveillance
05:32
already on your phones
and already in your pockets,
05:35
you just might not realize how strong
and how secure those tools are,
05:38
or how weak the other ways
you've used to communicate really are.
05:41
And so, my message to you is this:
05:46
We need to use these tools.
05:49
We need to secure our telephone calls.
05:52
We need to secure our text messages.
05:54
I want you to use these tools.
05:56
I want you to tell your loved ones,
I want you to tell your colleagues:
05:58
Use these encrypted communications tools.
06:01
Don't just use them
because they're cheap and easy,
06:04
but use them because they're secure.
06:06
Thank you.
06:09
(Applause)
06:10

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Christopher Soghoian - Privacy researcher and activist
Christopher Soghoian researches and exposes the high-tech surveillance tools that governments use to spy on their own citizens, and he is a champion of digital privacy rights.

Why you should listen

Christopher Soghoian is a champion of digital privacy rights, with a focus on the role that third-party service providers play in enabling governments to monitor citizens. As the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, he explores the intersection of federal surveillance and citizen's rights.

Before joining the ACLU, he was the first-ever technologist for the Federal Trade Commision's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, where he worked on investigations of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Netflix. Soghoian is also the creator of Do Not Track, an anti-tracking device that all major web browsers now use, and his work has been cited in court.

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