Christopher Soghoian

Your smartphone is a civil rights issue

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0:11

In the spring of 2016, a legal battle between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation captured the world's attention.

0:20

Apple has built security features into its mobile products which protect data on its devices from everyone but the owner. That means that criminals, hackers and yes, even governments are all locked out. For Apple's customers, this is a great thing. But governments are not so happy. You see, Apple has made a conscious decision to get out of the surveillance business. Apple has tried to make surveillance as difficult as possible for governments and any other actors.

0:52

There are really two smartphone operating systems in the global smartphone market: iOS and Android. iOS is made by Apple. Android is made by Google. Apple has spent a lot of time and money to make sure that its products are as secure as possible. Apple encrypts all data stored on iPhones by default, and text messages sent from one Apple customer to another Apple customer are encrypted by default without the user having to take any actions.

1:21

What this means is that, if the police seize an iPhone and it has a password, they'll have a difficult time getting any data off of it, if they can do it at all. In contrast, the security of Android just really isn't as good. Android phones, or at least most of the Android phones that have been sold to consumers, do not encrypt data stored on the device by default, and the built-in text messaging app in Android does not use encryption. So if the police seize an Android phone, chances are, they'll be able to get all the data they want off of that device.

1:58

Two smartphones from two of the biggest companies in the world; one that protects data by default, and one that doesn't.

2:07

Apple is a seller of luxury goods. It dominates the high end of the market. And we would expect a manufacturer of luxury goods to have products that include more features. But not everyone can afford an iPhone. That's where Android really, really dominates: at the middle and low end of the market, smartphones for the billion and a half people who cannot or will not spend 600 dollars on a phone.

2:40

But the dominance of Android has led to what I call the "digital security divide." That is, there is now increasingly a gap between the privacy and security of the rich, who can afford devices that secure their data by default, and of the poor, whose devices do very little to protect them by default.

3:06

So, think of the average Apple customer: a banker, a lawyer, a doctor, a politician. These individuals now increasingly have smartphones in their pockets that encrypt their calls, their text messages, all the data on the device, without them doing really anything to secure their information. In contrast, the poor and the most vulnerable in our societies are using devices that leave them completely vulnerable to surveillance.

3:42

In the United States, where I live, African-Americans are more likely to be seen as suspicious or more likely to be profiled, and are more likely to be targeted by the state with surveillance. But African-Americans are also disproportionately likely to use Android devices that do nothing at all to protect them from that surveillance. This is a problem.

4:06

We must remember that surveillance is a tool. It's a tool used by those in power against those who have no power. And while I think it's absolutely great that companies like Apple are making it easy for people to encrypt, if the only people who can protect themselves from the gaze of the government are the rich and powerful, that's a problem. And it's not just a privacy or a cybersecurity problem. It's a civil rights problem.

4:41

So the lack of default security in Android is not just a problem for the poor and vulnerable users who are depending on these devices. This is actually a problem for our democracy. I'll explain what I mean.

4:57

Modern social movements rely on technology — from Black Lives Matter to the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. The organizers of these movements and the members of these movements increasingly communicate and coordinate with smartphones. And so, naturally governments that feel threatened by these movements will also target the organizers and their smartphones. Now, it's quite possible that a future Martin Luther King or a Mandela or a Gandhi will have an iPhone and be protected from government surveillance. But chances are, they'll probably have a cheap, $20 Android phone in their pocket.

5:41

And so if we do nothing to address the digital security divide, if we do nothing to ensure that everyone in our society gets the same benefits of encryption and is equally able to protect themselves from surveillance by the state, not only will the poor and vulnerable be exposed to surveillance, but future civil rights movements may be crushed before they ever reach their full potential.

6:06

Thank you.

6:08

(Applause)

6:14

Helen Walters: Chris, thank you so much. I have a question for you. We saw recently in the press that Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook covers over his camera and does something with his headphone mic jack. So I wanted to ask you a personal question, which is: Do you do that? And, on behalf of everyone here, particularly myself, Should we be doing that? Should we be covering these things?

6:38

Christopher Soghoian: Putting a sticker — actually, I like Band-Aids, because you can remove them and put them back on whenever you want to make a call or a Skype call. Putting a sticker over your web cam is probably the best thing you can do for your privacy in terms of bang for buck. There really is malware, malicious software out there that can take over your web cam, even without the light turning on. This is used by criminals. This is used by stalkers. You can buy $19.99 "spy on your ex-girlfriend" software online. It's really terrifying. And then, of course, it's used by governments. And there's obviously a sexual violence component to this, which is that this kind of surveillance can be used most effectively against women and other people who can be shamed in our society. Even if you think you have nothing to hide, at the very least, if you have children, teenagers in your lives, make sure you put a sticker on their camera and protect them.

7:37

HW: Wow. Thank you so much. CS: Thank you.

7:39

HW: Thanks, Chris.

7:40

(Applause)

The smartphone you use reflects more than just personal taste ... it could determine how closely you can be tracked, too. Privacy expert and TED Fellow Christopher Soghoian details a glaring difference between the encryption used on Apple and Android devices and urges us to pay attention to a growing digital security divide. "If the only people who can protect themselves from the gaze of the government are the rich and powerful, that's a problem," he says. "It's not just a cybersecurity problem — it's a civil rights problem."

About the speaker
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.

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.