Expert hacker Jacob Appelbaum, a key architect of The Onion Router (Tor) project, which was designed to provide the encrypted pipeline for whistleblowers to communicate anonymously with WikiLeaks, argues that surveillance, especially of the “dragnet” kind that vacuums user metadata, is antithetic to democracy. He says: “These moves need to be resisted, not just protested against. Protest is when you do not go along with something; resistance is much more than that. It means you will try and stop others from going along with these things.”

Mr. Appelbaum, who left India just before the twin blasts of the Verizon and Prism scandals shook the world, said the idea of data retention, which is the correlation of a trail of data that a person leaves behind, enables “retroactive monitoring”. This means the authorities can track the web addresses a person has been to, their IP addresses or even the person’s physical trail as they move from one place to another.

Freedom from suspicion

Freedom from suspicion is fundamental, argues Mr. Appelbaum. “When you pick up a phone, are you free to speak what you want? If the answer is no, then there is something wrong.” He says his friends do not call him any more because they are concerned. This is not difficult to understand because Mr. Appelbaum has himself been detained on at least a dozen occasions by U.S. law enforcement agencies. No wonder he does not use a cell phone; the only way to contact him is through a voicemail box or through encrypted mail.

Asked to explain how in his schema criminals can be caught, Mr. Appelbaum says: “The problem is that the criminals understand well, unlike most people…If you don’t know how the system works, the system can employ means to punish you in unjust ways.” A criminal, for instance, put his mobile phone on a train and set it to answer calls, thus generating an alibi. A criminal can falsify their data trail, he points out. Those who intend to break the law are thus in better positioned to tackle the system than ordinary citizens.

Data retention, Mr. Appelbaum explains, was not possible a century ago. Now it enables those who have access to the information to “retroactively” reconstruct a person’s physical coordinates in real time, where they have been, whom they met or spoke to, or, in some cases, even what was said.

“This gathering of patterns of data is what enables signature strikes, because they are based on the logic that the ‘suspect’ has met or talked to people who have done or are doing terrible things.”

“What happens to a person if they cannot come up with the evidence that proves his innocence?” he asks. The fact that the data collection happens in the background, without the knowledge of the owner of the data, means that they have no means of establishing innocence.

The bigger, the better

The more diverse the data set, the more valuable the data is. Big data is thus better data. In fact, the pernicious logic of networks ensures that as the volume of data increases, so does its “quality”. For example, if law enforcement agencies have more information on the people I speak to, it would be possible to profile and target me better.

Mr. Appelbaum observes that when data gathered from our presence on the Net is juxtaposed with our credit card transaction logs, mobile phone records, banking transactions and every other possible means by which electronic data can be generated, it results in more refined profiling and tracking of citizens.

Data retention enables retroactive monitoring, helping reconstruct a person’s physical coordinates in real time

Data retention enables retroactive monitoring, helping a person’s physical coordinates in real time