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We cannot be complacent about the Stasification of our societies

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Still from "The Lives of Others"

We all know by now that the tinfoil-hat wearers were right all along: they are watching everything you do. As Bruce Schneier, the well known cryptographer and security expert says, the US government has commandeered the internet; its surveillance capabilities are far beyond anything Orwell imagined in 1984. Luckily, after a steady torrent of revelations about abusive levels of state surveillance by the US, the UK, and other western governments, public opinion has begun to shift. Even influential mainstream media like the New York Times (also here and here), The Economist, and Foreign Policy are increasingly critical of the excesses of US surveillance and the lack of oversight and debate on the erosion of civil liberties over the last decade. (This is a terrific rundown of how the issue has been treated by politicians and the mainstream press.) The detention of David Miranda and the flagrant intimidation of The Guardian by British intelligence thugs sent by the British Prime Minister’s Office have shown even to many inclined to trust the security state that it cannot be trusted with the power it has.

It’s amazing to me, then, that many people, including many leftists and activists, remain so complacent about the Stasification of western democracies and the ubiquitous surveillance of their populations. Many buy into the logic that since they are doing nothing illegal, “they have nothing to hide”, and so they are not worried. Some activists distrust the state but argue that because they are operating within the law and “above board” they need take no precautions; yet to the state anyone working for social change is a threat and information gleaned on them can be misused to hurt them or others. The surveillance state is not most effective against organized criminal or terrorist threats, who know how to take countermeasures, and in fact,  bulk surveillance is liable to generate mostly errors and inefficiencies in those tasks through false positives. Rather, the surveillance state is most effective against the civilian population, chilling activism and dissent. Historically, it has been used by the government to surveil those who are fighting peacefully for social change - the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, environmentalists, peace activists, and so on. The chilling effect is real -- I can speak for myself on that. I have found myself self-censoring on occasion, because of the way even innocent discussions of subjects deemed threatening by the state can be, and have been, misinterpreted and misused by the surveillance apparatus. In the end, they decide what is innocent, not you.

A pervasive chilling effect is one reason why mass surveillance is intolerable in a democracy, and why we must defend the fundamental right of privacy in every way we can. Privacy is not just about personal comfort levels with sharing, it is a social and political issue. It is essential to our freedom to live lives of our choosing, to be intimate, to think and speak freely, to organize for social change, to be democrats; privacy is as essential to a democracy as a vital public sphere is. Information is also power, and in an unequal society, access to information is asymmetrical. Government and big business have access to vast quantities of information about anyone they choose to target. Wealth can buy investigative services to pry into others’ lives for the advantage of the paying party. Those with less access and wealth do not have these options. For the rest of us to equalize the playing field, we need to do two things: agitate collectively for better legal protections for privacy and greater transparency for governments and businesses; and proactively take measures to raise the barriers to overweening privacy invasion by these entities.  

The struggle to defend privacy and shrink a security state that is out of control can no longer be relegated to the margins of geekdom or casually dismissed as paranoid “security culture”. Forfeiting our right to privacy through personal and collective inaction enables totalitarianism when information technology has become an important new apparatus of oppression. And relegating it to the margins makes more vulnerable, conspicuous, and exposed those who, for whatever reason, do need to protect their privacy and data (for example, journalists working on sensitive stories or people who live in authoritarian states).

The spooks have shown they can’t ever be trusted with their expensive toys.  It is imperative that we take collective action to force structural change, increase transparency, defend the rights of whistleblowers and journalists, and sharply curtail the surveillance state (here’s somewhere to get started). We also need technological solutions that work for most people, because we can’t ever again trust that the power to surveil won’t be abused, even if the law is changed. Many new products are in development responding to renewed interest in privacy. These look good but one-off solutions are inadequate in the long run. There needs to be an open, widely deployed technological solution baked into the infrastructure and software the internet depends on, because relying on individual user choices, while important in the short term, won’t be enough in the long term. Although organizations like Mozilla may be in a position to develop baked-in solutions that will protect users’ privacy, it is unlikely that companies like Google and Facebook whose business model centres on selling data about users will ever enable end-to-end privacy for their users. It goes against their business interests. However, they do need their users to trust them and so far they have failed that trust. This gives them an incentive to vigorously push back on government surveillance, which is one small reason for optimism.

But individual consciousness and efforts to maintain our privacy are also essential. First  because, as Bruce Schneier has written, even the NSA is constrained by economics: it has finite resources. Ubiquitous adoption of effective encryption by the masses thwarts bulk surveillance and greatly raises the cost of all surveillance overall. Secondly, it is a measure of solidarity with those who do not have the luxury of not using such technology: providing canopy to cover people like dissidents in brutally repressive regimes. If everyone encrypts their emails, chats, and text messages, such behaviour will not be conspicuous and marked as suspicious. And any journalists or activists who work with people in such situations have a duty to understand and practice good security so as not to jeopardize the lives of people they work with. Thirdly, just because we, however naively, believe we have nothing to hide does not mean we should happily facilitate bulk surveillance, which is what those who shun individual protections are doing. Certainly, this is not the attitude of the corporations and states who largely rule over us when it comes to the privacy of their own data. As they see it, security of their data and communications are essential to the exercise of their functions. We should learn this much from them: the security of our data and communications, and the right to privacy, are essential to our ability to live as humans, as social beings, and as democrats in a technological world. And essential to our ability to continue fighting for better worlds.


In Part 2 of this piece I will do the obligatory rundown of existing technological measures we can take to protect ourselves from intrusions on our privacy, ranging from the easy to the advanced. I hope it will be usefully compendious. In the meantime, here is a short selection of some of the articles I think have most effectively argued the value of privacy and the fundamental dangers of pervasive surveillance.

Bruce Schneier: The Eternal Value of Privacy

Guardian comment: Yes, NSA surveillance should worry the law-abiding

On conviction by algorithm: “The books you read, the emails you send, the TV shows you watch – 'big data' could jump to conclusions about your life”

Moxie Marlinspike: Why “I have nothing to hide” is the wrong way to think about surveillance

Bloomberg opinion: US surveillance is not aimed at terrorists

“The debate over the U.S. government’s monitoring of digital communications suggests that Americans are willing to allow it as long as it is genuinely targeted at terrorists. What they fail to realize is that the surveillance systems are best suited for gathering information on law-abiding citizens.”

Is online privacy a right?

“...the Obama administration has launched an initiative to force tech companies to give the NSA a set of Internet-wide skeleton keys. The radical move, which would let law enforcement agencies access vast troves of encrypted information, adds significant questions to the ongoing debate over privacy. It begs us to ask not only whether the government has a right to vacuum up millions of Americans’ private data, but also to ask whether the security-conscious among us should even be allowed to retain the right to make data truly secure?”

Letter to President Obama on Surveillance and Freedom (well worth reading!)

“Mass surveillance: wrong on principle, ineffective in practice, and a threat to social progress.”

Time to tame the NSA behemoth trampling our rights | Yochai Benkler

“Given the persistent lying and strategic errors of judgment that this week's revelations disclosed, the NSA needs to be put into receivership. Insiders, beginning at the very top, need to be removed and excluded from the restructuring process. Their expertise led to this mess, and would be a hindrance, not a help, in cleaning it up. We need a forceful, truly independent outsider, with strong, direct congressional support, who would recruit former insider-dissenters like Thomas Drake or William Binney to reveal where the bodies are buried.

“Anything short of root-and-branch reconstruction will be serving weak tea to a patient with a debilitating auto-immune disease.”

My Dinner with NSA director General Alexander

“Liberty and security are the hard-won results of democratic process and limited government power. A system of mass surveillance puts innocent people at risk, and is, in itself, an abuse of liberty. Inevitably, it leads to further abuses.”

The real purpose of the David Miranda detention and Guardian shakedown: to make journalism harder, slower, less secure

“Only if they can turn a mostly passive public into a more active one can journalists come out ahead in this fight. I know they don’t think of mobilization as their job, and there are good reasons for that, but they didn’t think editors would be destroying hard drives under the gaze of the authorities, either! Journalism almost has to be brought closer to activism to stand a chance of prevailing in its current struggle with the state.”

The real threat to our way of life? Not terrorists or faraway dictators, but our own politicians and securocrats

Telegraph columnist: It's Left-wing prats who are defending our freedoms

“An awful lot of people are saying that they don’t mind if their emails, Skype calls and mobile phone records are being collected. If that helps the state to protect them and their families, it’s OK.

“Well, suppose we park a security officer at the door of every household to monitor who enters and leaves, who visits whom and how many hours they stay? The security men won’t actually enter the house, of course, unless they have reason to believe that there might be some activity taking place inside that could facilitate or incite terrorism – but they will keep records of all the comings and goings from every address. Will that be OK too?

“The British degree of trust in their security agencies startles many other countries (like Germany and the US) where liberty is taken less for granted. An editor of the US National Review wrote last week of those “who steadfastly refuse to express anxiety unless they can actually hear jackboots”. Note: once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late.”

David Miranda and the preclusion of privacy

“The authorities knew there were copies, so destroying the information itself wasn't the point of the exercise.  The point was to make the Guardian spend time and energy developing suboptimal backup options -- that is, to make journalism harder, slower, and less secure.

“A heart beset by coronary disease will begin to recruit secondary arteries to carry oxygenated blood.  If you're the NSA, you recognize you have to block those developing secondary routes, too, or you'll lose control of the flow you feed on.  To the National Surveillance State, therefore, coverage of Miranda's treatment at Heathrow isn't a bug.  It's a feature.  And why not?  The authorities want you to understand they can do it to you, too.  Whether they've miscalculated depends on how well they've gauged the passivity of the public.”

NSA surveillance: A guide to staying secure | Bruce Schneier

James Risen's risk of prison means journalism is being criminalised | Lindsey Bever

“That a New York Times national security reporter may be jailed for refusing to name a source is a total affront to press freedom”

The NSA is turning the internet into a total surveillance system | Alexander Abdo and Patrick Toomey

Five ways to stop the NSA from spying on you | Timothy Lee



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