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PogoWasRight.Com Interview: Surveillance Is Dominating the Security Theatre

PogoWasRight.Org is a news aggregation and viewpoints blog that increases awareness on key privacy issues. The site's owner, who goes by the pseudonym "Dissent," uses the blog to highlight the powerful reach governments and businesses have and their unrelenting efforts to expand their surveillance and data collection abilities.


In a recent discussion, Dissent explained to us her motivation and challenges with providing this content. She also provided key insights regarding the privacy issues people care about and the uphill battle against government surveillance.

Where did the website name come from?

The site's name was inspired by a character in a political satire strip by Walt Kelly. Looking around at the destruction of the environment, Pogo Possum said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." I thought his words applied equally well to the erosion of our privacy. It's not the enemy "over there" that we have to be most concerned about. The greatest threat to our privacy is us.

Since you don’t have a staff or generate any type of ad/sponsorship revenue, PogoWasRight is a complete reflection of your personal take on privacy matters. What drives you to continue providing this service?

I made a decision early on to keep the site non-commercial. That's why you won't find any "share" buttons on the site, either. Just having a Facebook button on the site would have given Facebook information on my site visitors.

As to what drives me to continue, well, there are still way too many members of the public who just don't see the threat all around them. They don't speak up when government tries to extend its reach into our private lives, they willingly give up privacy for free apps (a horrible tradeoff, if you ask me), and they don't realize that what the government does in the name of keeping us safer doesn't keep us safer. It only puts us at greater risk of our most sensitive information and private thoughts being splashed all over the internet or used to market to us or extort us.

The blog covers privacy stories from around the globe. It’s a lot for one person to manage. Any plans to expand or do you like keeping it as a personal service blog?

Yes, it's a lot for one person to manage. Are you volunteering to help? In addition to online privacy, your blog also chronicles stories dealing with abortion. Do you see this as an extension of the privacy issue?

Absolutely. A woman's decision as to whether she wants to or can carry a pregnancy to term is one of the most intimate and private decisions a woman makes. And the hypocrisy of this Congress is stunning: they try to limit or wipe out abortion and wind up failing to fund efforts to deal with the Zika virus, which can cause significant birth defects. Those do-as-we-dictate jerks attached a poison pill to the Zika funding bill to eliminate Planned Parenthood funding.

So how much do they really care about babies? Not much, it seems, because they'll let potentially untold numbers of wanted babies be born with birth defects just to try to stop a small percentage of women who don't want to or don't feel they can continue their pregnancies? If others have religious beliefs that prohibit abortion, then that's their religion. That doesn't give them the right to trample a woman's right to make these decisions.

You’ve been posting stories on the site since 2006. In that time, the battle between pro-surveillance and pro-privacy camps has waged fiercely. Who is winning that battle now, in your opinion?

The surveillance camp is still winning. Too many people drink the government's kool-aid and believe these programs are keeping us safer, even though there's no actual evidence that these massive and intrusive programs have really foiled any plot.

When he blew the whistle on NSA surveillance, Edward Snowden had a significant impact - the public began to wake up to how extensive and secretive the government surveillance has been for years. And in the national dialogue that followed, the public learned that these programs had no compelling evidence showing they were of benefit. But if you look at Congress, with the exception of some outstanding advocates like Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, they're mostly still just repeating the same old refrain without any real evidence that these programs have been effective. And they use each terrorist attack to try to get even more powers.

A few years after 9/11, Bruce Schneier coined the phrase "Security theatre," and it still applies. There should be no intrusion on our privacy without evidence that merits the intrusion. We don't need to weaken Fourth Amendment protections and we sure as hell don't need to require a backdoor in our cellphones, which will make all of us less secure. The fact that our government comes out with asinine statements suggesting that there's a way to do this without weakening our security if the cryptographers and tech industry just "geek harder" should make everyone realize that the government just doesn't get it and is willing to put us all at risk for the charade of protecting us.

What must the pro-privacy camps do in order to be more successful?

Wow. That's a tough one. We're up against powerful federal agencies, members of Congress who are way past their "best used by" date, and business lobbies that have funding and influence like we'll probably never have. Look at for how long ECPA reform has been attempted without meaningful results.

Nor has Congress passed any strong federal legislation to ensure that if entities have breaches of our personal information, we're notified. They'll pass weak legislation that would pre-empt stronger state laws if we don't stop them, so we keep resisting whenever another weak bill is proposed. And then you turn around and all of a sudden, there's another threat to privacy with a proposed "fix" to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that would allow judges to issue search warrants outside of their area. Or the FBI is trying to get a massive biometrics database with our personal information exempt from the Privacy Act. Or an insurance company is taking pictures of drivers' faces on the highway and matching them up with vehicle information and speed.

Everywhere you look, there's a threat to privacy. And if we're not vigilant, it will keep being eroded until there's little, if anything, left. We're playing defense and we need a stronger offense, but I'm not sure how we get there without more revelations that would shock and appall the public.

In addition to government surveillance, 3rd party tracking by online advertisers and internet giants has grown exponentially during your coverage. Do you view these privacy threats on the same level as government?

Sure, because you may find yourself targeted for advertising or being given higher rates based on their profile of you as a consumer. I stopped reading sites that won't allow you to read them unless you turn off ad blockers. And nothing stops the government from getting commercial databases to add to their already massive databases with information about us.

I was chatting with a hacker recently who was telling me about a government database that he claims to have a full copy of. The types of information he told me that are in there were very worrisome. Maybe if he actually dumps some of the data, there will be a massive uproar on the part of the public. I hope he doesn't dump any personal data, but if he's telling the truth, it might actually help if the public just saw all the data types our government has compiled on us.

Do you have privacy recommendations for a common citizen (i.e. use a vpn, password generator, or Tor browser)?

All of the above. But how many average consumers would even recognize what "vpn" and "Tor browser" refer to? And even if they do all those things, it still won't be enough.

What does it say about our society that we have to defend ourselves against all these intrusions? Shouldn't the default state be that our privacy is respected and not trampled upon without a firm justification? And no, your business's profit margin does not count in my book as a justification. And no, security theatre doesn't justify it, either.

Looking ahead, where do you see PogoWasRight in two years? How about in 10?

I don't know. It might still be around in 2 years, but maybe not. I occasionally get disheartened and think of just quitting it all. But then I'll get an email from some stranger who tells me how the site made a difference to them, and I think, "Okay, maybe next week I'll quit, but not just yet."

About the Author

John Norris worked as a tech writer, journalist, and instructional designer before turning to tech blogging in 2013. While focusing on digital security and privacy issues, he is interested in any tech area that can enrich people's lives.

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