Sharon Weinberger: Inside the massive (and unregulated) world of surveillance tech

Recorded atNovember 18, 2020
EventTED Salon Brightline Initiative
Duration (min:sec)11:08
Video TypeTED Salon Talk (partner)
Words per minute202.34 very fast
Readability (FK)38.75 very difficult
SpeakerSharon Weinberger
CountryUnited States of America
Occupationjournalist, writer
DescriptionAmerican journalist

Official TED page for this talk


What is a weapon in the Information Age? From microscopic "smart dust" tracking devices to DNA-tracing tech and advanced facial recognition software, journalist Sharon Weinberger leads a hair-raising tour through the global, unregulated bazaar of privatized mass surveillance. To rein in this growing, multibillion-dollar marketplace that often caters to customers with nefarious intents, Weinberger believes the first step is for governments to classify surveillance tools as dangerous and powerful weapons.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:13 A few years ago, an American defense consultant I know told me about a trip he took to Uzbekistan.
200:18 His role there was to help sell technology that the Uzbek government could use to spy on its own citizens.
300:25 He eventually shared with me the marketing material he'd presented to the Uzbek government.
400:30 One glossy brochure featured technology that could not just intercept phone calls, but identify the caller, regardless of what phone number they were using, based on their unique voiceprint, and then identify their exact geographic location.
500:44 This is a guy who had been involved with the arms trade for years.
600:48 He wasn't some Hollywood-type gunrunner doing backroom deals.
700:51 He was just a guy that worked with legitimate Western companies to help sell their weapons abroad.
800:56 But he wasn't bothered by marketing this sort of technology.
900:59 For him, it was just the next step in the arms trade.
1001:02 And it was even easier than, say, selling weapons to Iraq, because it didn't require an export license from the US State Department, the way most arms sales would.
1101:11 It turns out that these tools of surveillance are almost completely unregulated, because as of today, they're not defined as weapons.
1201:18 But they should be, and we need to regulate them that way.
1301:21 I'm a journalist who has spent the last two decades looking at how the military and intelligence world spurs the development of new science and technology.
1401:28 I've tracked the emergence of new weapons and looked to see what happens when companies start to market these weapons abroad.
1501:35 But what is a weapon in the information age?
1601:37 We know that armed drones are weapons, missiles and bombs are weapons, but the State Department actually classifies broad categories of technologies as weapons.
1701:46 So for example, a scientist going abroad on an oceanographic research vessel, they want to take the latest night-vision goggles?
1801:53 That, according to the State Department, is potentially a weapon.
1901:56 Why?
2001:57 Well, because though night-vision goggles are used today by scientists and hunters around the world, it was a capability first developed for the military.
2102:05 And yet, tools of surveillance that an authoritarian regime could use to spy on its own citizens, on dissidents, on journalists, that, according to the US government today, is not a weapon.
2202:15 And yet, these tools of surveillance are part of a growing secretive multi-billion-dollar industry.
2302:21 The genesis of this spy bazaar goes back some 18 years, to a Hilton hotel in northern Virginia, just a few miles away from the US Central Intelligence Agency.
2402:30 A few dozen people, mostly dark-suited men, gathered there in the spring of 2002 for a conference with the unassuming name of ISS World.
2502:38 You know, at first glance, this conference probably looked like dozens of events that used to take place around the Washington, DC area.
2602:45 But this event was unique.
2702:46 ISS stands for Intelligence Support Systems, and the people who were there were from companies that built technologies to spy on private communications.
2802:55 In other words, these were sort of wire-tappers for hire.
2902:58 And the reason they were there was that less than a year earlier, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had spurred the Congress to press through legislation known as the Patriot Act.
3003:09 This gave the government broad new authorities to monitor communications.
3103:13 Emails, internet activity, phone calls, even financial transactions.
3203:18 This created an instant demand for data.
3303:21 And in the true American entrepreneurial spirit, an industry rose up to help collect this data.
3403:27 But back in 2002, this was still a pretty modest affair.
3503:30 Only about 10 percent of the world's population was even online using the internet.
3603:34 So most of what was being collected were simple emails and phone calls over landlines and cell phones.
3703:41 But over the next few years, the way that we communicate began to change rapidly.
3803:45 There was the introduction of Skype, Facebook and then, crucially, the iPhone, and within a few years, billions of us were walking around with little computers in our pockets that do everything from monitor our exercise habits to help us find romantic partners.
3904:00 And suddenly, you didn't necessarily need the advanced capability of the National Security Agency or big telecoms to monitor everyone's communication.
4004:08 In some cases, all you needed was access to that device in their pockets.
4104:12 And that gave birth to an entirely new type of industry.
4204:15 You know, not many companies can build missiles or aircraft, but it doesn't take a lot of capital to create software that can hack into someone's smartphone.
4304:25 Computer hackers have been around for years, but now their skills could be used to build technologies that were in high demand by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
4404:34 And soon, dozens and even hundreds of companies were getting into this wire-tappers' market.
4504:40 And that little conference in Virginia, it grew and soon became known as the Wiretappers' Ball.
4604:46 Well, not much was known about the Wiretappers' Ball in those early years, because the conferences were closed to everyone except the companies and their government customers.
4704:54 But journalists did begin to see and hear reports of companies getting into this private spy market.
4805:00 Spooky entrepreneurs going around the world, doing deals, often with authoritarian regimes.
4905:06 And it was, from the start, a really loosely regulated market.
5005:10 Some countries do require permission to sell these technologies abroad, but rarely with the type of scrutiny that is given to traditional arms.
5105:18 So for example, the Italian-based company Hacking Team reportedly sold its technology to authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Kazakhstan.
5205:27 The Israeli-based company NSO Group has reportedly sold its technology to the regime in Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of harassing, and even, in one case, killing one of its political opponents.
5305:37 And we do think of weapons as things that kill people.
5405:42 But in the information age, some of the most powerful weapons are things that can track and identify us.
5505:47 This is something that the Pentagon and CIA have recognized for years, and they've tried to build technologies that can track people, suspected terrorists, around the globe.
5605:56 The Pentagon has invested in something called smart dust, little microsensors the size of specs of dust that you could scatter on people without them knowing it, and then use it to track their location.
5706:07 The Pentagon, through its venture capital firm, has invested in a beauty products company once featured in "Oprah Magazine" to build a device that could surreptitiously collect DNA just by swiping across the skin.
5806:20 But something remarkable has happened over the past decade.
5906:23 In many cases, what the private marketplace has been able to do has far outstripped what the Pentagon or CIA even thought was possible.
6006:30 Back in 2008, the Pentagon had a secretive database of DNA from terrorists.
6106:36 It had about 80,000 samples.
6206:38 Well, the private company AncestryDNA today has samples from over 15 million people.
6306:44 23andMe, the second-largest genealogical database, has samples from over 10 million people.
6406:50 So now, maybe you don't need these James Bond-worthy techniques of collecting DNA if we're willingly handing it over to private companies and even paying for the honor of doing it.
6507:01 Well, what could you do with a sample of someone's DNA?
6607:05 In the United States and China, researchers are working on using DNA samples to build images of people's faces.
6707:11 So if you pair DNA with facial recognition technology, you have the basis of a really powerful surveillance system that could be used to track individuals or entire ethnic groups.
6807:22 And if you think that sounds a little bit paranoid, keep in mind that the Pentagon last year sent out a memo to all of its service members, warning them precisely not to use those commercial DNA kits over concerns that information could be used to track them or their family members.
6907:37 And yet, even with the Pentagon raising concerns about this technology, almost nothing has been done to reign in this market.
7007:44 One American company, Clearview AI, has been collecting billions of images of people's faces from across the internet, like those pictures you post on Instagram of you and your friends and family, and then selling its facial recognition services to US government and law-enforcement agencies.
7108:00 And even if you think that's a perfectly acceptable application of this technology, there's nothing to stop them from selling to private individuals, corporations or even foreign governments.
7208:11 And that's exactly what some companies are doing.
7308:13 That Wiretappers' Ball that started in northern Virginia?
7408:17 Today, it's held in multiple cities around the globe.
7508:20 Thousands of people now attend the ISS trainings and conferences.
7608:25 And more of the companies showing up are coming from the Middle East and China.
7708:28 The spy bazaar has gone global.
7808:31 And at arms shows now around the world, you'll see companies displaying facial recognition technology and phone hacking software, displaying right next to traditional arms manufacturers with tanks and missiles.
7908:42 And walking around these arms shows, it's pretty easy to go down dystopian rabbit holes, thinking about future surveillance technology that will track our every move.
8008:51 And I remember one Pentagon adviser telling me that what the military really needed were space-based satellites that could track people anywhere on earth based just on their DNA.
8109:00 It's enough to make you invest in tinfoil hats.
8209:03 But the truth is, we don't know what sort of technology the future will bring.
8309:07 But we know that today, in the absence of regulation, this marketplace is already exploding.
8409:13 And in fact, one of those companies accused of selling surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes, today, it's offering to help track those infected with COVID-19.
8509:23 And of course, technology does offer the tantalizing promise of helping control a pandemic through contact tracing.
8609:29 But it also opens up another door, to privatized mass surveillance.
8709:33 So what do we do about this private spy bazaar?
8809:37 We can hide, go offline, get off social media, ditch our smartphones, go live in a cave, but the truth is, we're not trained to be professional spies, we can't live under false identities or with no identities.
8909:49 And even real spies are having a hard time staying below the radar, these days.
9009:53 It doesn't matter how many passports Jason Bourne has if his face or DNA is in someone's database.
9109:59 But if even governments have lost control of the tools of spying, is there anything we can do about it?
9210:04 One argument I've heard is that even if the US were to restrict companies from selling this sort of technology abroad, companies based in China might simply step in.
9310:13 But we regulate the arms trade today, even if we do it imperfectly.
9410:18 And in fact, there was a multilateral proposal several years ago to do just that, to require export licenses for surveillance software.
9510:26 The United States was among those countries that agreed to these voluntary regulations, but back in Washington, this proposal has simply languished.
9610:33 We have an administration that would rather sell more weapons abroad with fewer restrictions, including to some of those countries accused of abusing surveillance technology.
9710:42 I think to move forward, we would need to revive that proposal, but even go one step further.
9810:47 We need to fundamentally change how we think of surveillance technology and define these tools as weapons.
9910:53 This would allow government to regulate and control their sale and export the way that they control traditional arms, advanced aircraft and missiles.
10011:03 But that means recognizing that technology that tracks who we are, what we do, what we say, and even in some cases, what we think, is a form of advanced weaponry.
10111:12 And these weapons are growing too powerful, available to the highest bidder, and according to the whims of the spy bazaar.
10211:19 Thank you.