Cyberwar's first casualty: Your privacy

And Google looks like the go-to guy for government snoopers

The first casualty of war, the Greek playwright Aeschylus said, is the truth. But when it comes to cyberwarfare, the first casualty will more likely be your privacy.

And unlike in past wars, the government itself may not do the snooping. Instead, it will most likely let private industry do the dirty work, essentially outsourcing cyber intelligence gathering.

In warfare, information is one of the most important weapons in a government's arsenal. No matter the physical weaponry, the key to victory is an understanding of the enemy's intentions and who and where he is. I've been reading Caesar, Life of a Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy, and was struck by how important gathering information about the movements of his enemies was to Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Look at any war, and you'll generally find that the victor had better intelligence.

As we've seen, though, intelligence gathering is frequently subject to abuse. During the Cold War, the CIA and FBI regularly violated the rights of citizens. More recently, the Patriot Act gave legal cover to government prying, and the National Security Agency carried out covert wiretapping without seeking the proper warrants.

The intelligence that will be gathered in the coming generation of cyberwarfare will dwarf anything that came before, in the breadth of information acquired, the ease with which it is gathered, and the number of people caught in the net. In past wars, a fair number of innocent people had their privacy invaded. In tomorrow's cyberwar, it'll be virtually everyone.

Cyberwarfare is fought online; its geography is virtual, and you're part of it. In physical wars, armies scout the countryside. In cyberwars, they'll scout the Internet.

The Internet is made up not just of wires, routers and servers; it's made up of the data crossing it. Those who fight cyberwars will mine vast amounts of data in an attempt to find nuggets of information. They'll look for patterns of use and relationships that otherwise would escape notice.

To find those patterns and information requires massive and constant data gathering, on a scale likely not being done by the government. Constantly gathering that kind of information would probably be illegal.

That's why you'll see government outsourcing its intelligence gathering to companies that already do the work legally -- and primarily that means Google.

I'm not saying that Google will purposefully gather information for the federal government. Instead, the government will legally tap into Google's already in-place information gathering, by issuing subpoenas on a regular basis.

Why Google? Google already gathers vast amounts of information about people's browsing and search habits, and it regularly responds to subpoenas for that data.

And the information that Google gathers is about to grow exponentially, when Google Voice launches to widespread use. Google Voice can route all of your calls through a single number, lets you record and store calls online, and offers transcripts of voice mail. At some point, it will probably offer transcripts of all calls recorded. It can do that for your normal voice calls, not just calls made to or from a computer.

You can be sure that the government will want to get its hands on that vast treasure trove of information. Why go through the difficult process of getting a phone tap when it's so much easier to simply issue a subpoena to Google?

Google isn't alone, of course, and many other private companies -- particularly ISPs and big telecom providers -- gather information about people online. But no one gathers the amount of information about people that Google does. So it will become the government's biggest source of information about private citizens in the age of cyberwars.

The upshot? If you care about your privacy, your best bet is to find ways to hide your information from Google. Private companies, more than the government, will be the biggest privacy invaders.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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