Point/Counterpoint: Big Brother Is a Sissy

Point: Marcus Ranum / Counterpoint: Bruce Schneier

A lot of my security practitioner buddies are always keeping their ears to the ground for the distant tread of jackboots, and their eyes peeled for other signs of the incipient arrival of Big Brother. Now, these are smart and well-educated people - no questions there - but you need to keep things realistic before you break out the tin-foil hat. Take, for example, the RFID passport thing. A lot of people (including you, Bruce) are wringing their hands the potential that bad guys will be able to RFID-snoop our passports and learn our private information. Or maybe that Big Brother will be able to track our whereabouts without our knowing it once we're RFID tagged. Since you're always talking about weighing risks, let's be realistic for a moment. What's the likelihood that your private information is going to get leaked via a RFID sniffer, as opposed to being left on one of the plethora of laptops that federal agency employees appear to lose every week? What's the likelihood that Big Brother is going to track you using RFID, versus the likelihood that every hotel (have you noticed that they all ask for ID now?) is turning their guest data over to some federal agency? By the way, I'm not saying they are - in fact, I rather doubt it, because if the feds were getting access to that data, someone would have lost it on a laptop by now.

Another Big Brother scare that I just can't understand is the E-voting issue. Am I concerned that someone is going to steal an election by jiggering the E-voting machines? Of course not! They'll steal the election the traditional way: getting the vote out, manipulating public perception with huge-$$ media campaigns, and just plain old lying to voters. Anyone who thinks E-voting creates new problems needs to go read some history. Why get upset about a little E-ballot-stuffing while sitting idly and watching both parties in Congress hand out dollars to targeted constituencies that are known to vote along certain lines? Frankly, a rigged election would probably save the taxpayers a lot of money.

Why worry about Big Brother abusing national ID system when you can worry about the hundreds of millions of dollars that The Department of Homeland Security has spent failing to implement a biometric day-worker pass system for our border with Mexico? Why worry about a Big Brother with huge databases about everyone when you can worry about the decade-long billion dollar failure of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to get Virtual Case File working? In order to build a totalitarian state, you need lots of low-tech, effectively and ruthlessly applied. Security practitioners who are worried about Big Brother whenever they see new government technology ought to take off their tinfoil hats and worry about mission creep, cost overruns, and expensive failures, instead.

Can you seriously imagine what The Department Of Big Brother Department would be like? If they had gotten started in 1984 like they were supposed to, they'd probably have just recently switched most of their agency Email off of AOL into their own, outsourced, private service - after incurring massive cost-overruns and having their mail server compromised by a 9-year-old hacker. If The President ordered The Department Of Big Brother Department to jigger the E-voting machines in Florida to rig the 2008 election, it'd never work. By the time they had gotten the first couple implementations specified, implemented and tested, it would be 2016 and by then the E-voting machines wouldn't be running Vista any more and they'd need to start over. Obviously, I'm kidding around here, but anyone who thinks that Big Brother is a problem is seriously over-estimating the competence of our government. Now that is something worth worrying about! Instead of worrying about protecting us from prying RFID snoops, let's ask how it is that our government is spending Big Brother Budget Dollars but acting like Keystone Kops.

Me? I'll only worry about Big Brother if the federal government starts hiring the guys who built Amazon.com, Google, Ebay, and Yahoo!