Mikko Hyppönen: Why Should You Be Worried About NSA Surveillance? Virtually every international Internet user is being watched, says hacker and security expert Mikko Hyppönen. He calls for digital privacy in the age of government surveillance.

Why Should You Be Worried About NSA Surveillance?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas around privacy - what's been taken and what we've actually given. So in Utah, in a place called Bluffdale - it's about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City - there's a building. And it's sole purpose is to store secrets.

MIKKO HYPPONEN: We've only seen photos taken from far away of the building, but we know about the size of the facility. And it's 140,000 square meters, which means it's a massive, massive building.

RAZ: So picture the largest Walmart, IKEA, Cosco, Tesco you've ever been in, and now picture five of them.

HYPPONEN: It's, in fact, the largest data center on the planet. And that's where our future data and communication will be stored.

RAZ: This is Mikko Hypponen. He's a white hat.

HYPPONEN: It's my job to keep secrets so...

RAZ: He's a hacker, but the good kind. He goes after the people who make computer viruses.

HYPPONEN: This has been the last 25 years for me. And you also become paranoid in this line of business. You wouldn't believe the things I do to secure my systems and try to keep my own privacy.

RAZ: Anyway, that data center in Utah, well, we have a better idea of what might be stored there thanks to Edward Snowden and his trove of classified data from the National Security Agency. And what we do know is that it's the first data storage facility in the world designed to store a yottabyte. So to put this into perspective if your personal computer has like 60 gigabytes of storage, a yottabyte is 16 trillion personal computers. Here's how Mikko described the place in his TED Talk.


HYPPONEN: We estimate that just the electricity bill for running this data center is going to be in the tens of millions of dollars a year. And this kind of wholesale surveillance means that they can collect our data and keep it basically forever - keep it for extended periods of time, keep it for years, keep it for decades. And this opens up completely new kinds of risks to us all. And what this is is that it is wholesale blanket surveillance on everyone.

Well, not exactly everyone because the U.S. intelligence only has a legal right to monitor foreigners. They can monitor foreigners when foreigners' data connections end up in United States or pass through United States. And monitoring foreigners doesn't sound too bad until you realize, in fact, 96 percent of the planet are foreigners, right. And if you look back about the forecasts on surveillance by George Orwell, well, it turns out that George Orwell was an optimist. We are right now seeing much larger scale of tracking of individual citizens than he could have ever imagined

RAZ: I mean, you say that Orwell was an optimist. I mean, you think Orwell was an optimist? It is that bad.


RAZ: I mean, I have to admit that a part of me is still, like, not that bothered by it. I don't know. I mean, I am, I guess, a little bit, but most of me, like, I'm not losing sleep over this. It's just - why should any of us really be that bothered by it?

HYPPONEN: Because surveillance changes history. In our case, it will change the future because we've come to the day where storing data doesn't cost almost anything anymore. It's so cheap to store all data. It's cheaper to keep it than to delete it. And that means people will change their behavior because they know anything they say online can be used against them in the future. And even though you might not be worried about your everyday chores, you don't really know how future will turn out. We don't want to give away any more of our rights than we absolutely have to because every right we give away, we'll never get it back.


HYPPONEN: And surveillance changes history. We know this through examples of corrupt presidents like Nixon. Imagine if he would've had the kind of surveillance tools that are available today. And let me actually quote the president of Brazil, Mrs. Dilma Rousseff. She was one of the targets of NSA surveillance. Her email was read. And she spoke at the United Nations headquarters. And she said if there's no right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore, there can be no effective democracy. And when the leaks started, the very first thing I tweeted about this was a comment about how, you know, when you've been using search engines, you've been potentially leaking all that to U.S. intelligence. And two minutes later, I got a reply by somebody called Kimberly from the United States challenging me like, why am I worried about this?

What am I sending to worry about this? Am I sending naked pictures or something? And my answer to Kimberly was that what I'm sending is none of your business, and it should be none of your government's business either 'cause that's what it's about. It's about privacy. Privacy is nonnegotiable. It should be built in to all the systems we use. And one thing we should all understand is that we are brutally honest with search engines. You show me your search history, and I'll find something incriminating or something embarrassing there in five minutes. We are more honest with search engines than we are with our families. Search engines know more about you than your family members know about you. And this is all the kind of information we are giving away. We are giving away to the United States.

RAZ: But, I mean, everybody is sharing all this stuff, like, you know, online, on Facebook like what they like, who their friends are, what books they read, what music they listen to and their birthdays, where they live. I mean, they're voluntarily giving away all this information.

HYPPONEN: Absolutely they do. And it really makes sense for many people to do exactly that. It's so convenient, it's so nice, it's so easy and everybody else seems to be doing it. But we don't really understand the long-term implications of all of this. That we all share all of our information to the whole world to be recorded and to be stored forever. There is a difference between the stuff that people put online themselves like pictures and their trips and flights and meals they've eaten than the stuff that they don't realize is also going into foreign computers. Like, for example, copies of your emails or every single online search you ever do 'cause all that is being recorded as well.

And this applies to normal people. I mean, a normal everyday person who right now has no problem with any government on the planet probably isn't very worried about his Google searches being tracked or his emails being stored. But who knows about the future? Maybe that same person becomes an interesting person in 10 years or 20 years. And with today's technology, that information can be saved and stored for decades and then later used against him.

RAZ: I mean, but how?

HYPPONEN: Well, let's take an example. I live in Finland. Here in Finland, being gay was illegal in the 1970s. If you were gay in 1970s, you would've been jailed for it, which, of course, nowadays sounds outrageous. However, if our government would have had the same surveillance tools at their disposal in 1970s as they have today, it would've been trivial to find all the gay people and jail all the gay people and keep them in jails, which probably would've meant that the laws would have never changed. And it would still be illegal to be gay. So we don't really know how these new tools that government have at their disposal will change the future, but it's clear they will change the future.


HYPPONEN: Yes part of it is war on terror, and, yes, there are terrorists. And they do kill and maim, and we should fight them. But we know, through these leagues, that they've used the same techniques to listen to phone calls of European leaders, to tap the email of presidents of Mexico and Brazil, to read email traffic inside United Nations' headquarters and EU Parliament. And I don't think they're trying to find terrorists from inside EU Parliament. And there are terrorists, but are we really thinking about terrorists as such an existential threat, we are ready to do anything at all? But people are caring about terrorists. And then they think that maybe that surveillance is OK because, you know, they have nothing to hide. Feel free to survey me if that helps. And whoever tells you that they have nothing to hide, simply haven't thought about this long enough.


RAZ: But, I mean, how are we ever going to stop - I mean, Mikko, the train has left the station, right. Like, we can have moral and philosophical and even legal discussions, but that technology is just going to get better and better and better. I guess I wonder whether, in some ways, we just kind of have to surrender and say that most of our lives just won't be private in the future.

HYPPONEN: The world is changing. We shouldn't just blindly accept the change. Just because something is technologically possible, it might not be right. And we really have to think about these things now when we can still change them. And if countries that don't like to be surveilled by wholesale blanket surveillance or foreign countries targeting every single citizen, they should do something about that at a political scale. So we the citizens of the world should tell that to our politicians and demand change.

RAZ: Mikko Hypponen, white hat hacker. You can watch his entire talk on the NSA and privacy at TED.NPR.org.

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