Collection of data itself is not necessarily sinister, he said. In some cases, when commercial entities like Amazon pitch products to him based on what he has already bought, "I like it."
But the reality is that Internet users pay for "free" and convenient services with their data. "We are tenant farming for companies like Google," he said. "We are on their land producing data. It's all very seamless, but in exchange, you have to trust them with everything. Our email, contacts, etc. are no longer just on our computers -- they're on servers."
And that means, even after IMs disappear from his phone, "Apple has them forever."
It also means there are much more repressive uses of that data. "Government can tell if you attended a protest," through cellphone geolocation, he said. "You can map people as they move around city. You can track people moving together who turn off their geolocation, and then turn on later. They can even tell if one phone is turned off permanently, but then another one is turned on in similar location and used similarly."
It makes mass surveillance much cheaper and easier. While it would take five FBI agents to conduct human surveillance of a single car, technology enables the tracking of thousands of cars at far less expense. "Instead of, 'follow that car,' it's 'follow every car,'" he said.
All this, he said, points to the tension between the value of data and the privacy implications. "There is value in me telling Google where I am, because we get better traffic information," he said. "If you give the NSA all your data, they'll keep you safe from the bad guys. There is enormous social value in putting medical information in a database and letting researchers study it. But it's very personal information.
"And anonymization of data is surprisingly difficult -- it's really, really hard," he said.
One of the ways to achieve a balance between those competing interests, he said, is to demand, "more data privacy for individuals and more transparency from organizations that collect our data. We know when we give government power over us we need some way to know it's being used responsibly."
That, he said, "is the issue by which we will be judged when our grandkids read about the early days of the Internet. We are amazed today that our ancestors ignored pollution at the start of industrial age.
"They will ask if we realized the toxins and poisons in data collection. That is way bigger than what is happening with the NSA."
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.