Computer secrets expert warns of data surveillance

  • Jacob Appelbaum talks about censorship, internet security and privacy, at Sonoma State University on Thursday, November 17, 2011.

Cellphones. Credit cards. FasTrak devices.

All of these electronic tools, which Americans rely on every day, contain data that can be collected by authorities and used to weave a story, true or not.

That was the theme of a talk at Sonoma State University by Jacob Appelbaum, a staff research scientist at the University of Washington, and the only known American to have volunteered for WikiLeaks.

The computer security expert grew up in Santa Rosa, where he learned much of the programming and hacking skills that propelled him to notoriety and made him the subject of a government investigation.

In his Thursday speech to SSU's Computer Science Colloquium, Appelbaum also discussed the state of censorship in the U.S. and abroad.

"We don't have anonymity," Appelbaum said. "We have the ability to be targeted in all the things that we do, and basically any communication that we have.

"Raise your hand if you sent a text message this morning?" Appelbaum asked. "Who here pays their cellphone with a credit card? How hard do you think that it would be . . . to trace all of the things that you do?"

Many people have Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and a cellphone history that tracks the top 10 people they call the most, but they don't think they're going to be the target of surveillance because they assume they're not very special, he said.

"The crazy way that surveillance happens now, is that everyone gets surveilled by default, to different degrees," Appelbaum said. "And then later, when you do something that attracts some attention, they go back and look through all the data they've collected."

He should know. Appelbaum was the target of government surveillance when Santa Rosa Internet service provider Sonic.net was ordered last spring to disclose data including all of the email addresses that he had communicated with since 2009. The company unsuccessfully fought the order in court.

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