Privacy really is (nearly) dead

Should government agencies be able to track your email traffic, internet browsing, physical location, when you have a crap? Pretty redundant question really. As Bruce Schneier has written, the Prism programme, run by the NSA, has been going on for some time… we only know about it because the unbelievably brave whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed it to carefully chosen journalists, who have blown the lid on the gig. The NSA have been collecting info on whoever they choose – American, British, whoever – for quite some time, with no judicial oversight at all. That means, the NSA has been spying on the entire world, without even having to get a warrant!

I don’t think there’s much we can do about this. Extraordinary rendition, third-party torture, secret prisons run by the CIA all over the world: this is the status quo. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s pretty much impossible to cram the bastard back in. All we can do is look to our own privacy and that of our friends, as well as we can (and remember: the NSA has been constructing a massive data storing/trawling centre in Utah; so they can collect as much as they like without worrying about storage capacity – they could conceivably spy on all of us, every person with a phone line or other internet connection, anytime, anywhere.

The other thing we can do is support whistle blowers like Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange… and all the others out there. As Schneier says in his article on the matter (and I really do urge you to follow his blog
):

The U.S. government is on a secrecy binge. It overclassifies more information than ever. And we learn, again and again, that our government regularly classifies things not because they need to be secret, but because their release would be embarrassing.

Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal — or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law — but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state.

We need whistle-blowers.

Leaking information without getting caught is difficult. It’s almost impossible to maintain privacy in the Internet Age. The WikiLeaks platform seems to have been secure — Bradley Manning was caught not because of a technological flaw, but because someone he trusted betrayed him — but the U.S. government seems to have successfully destroyed it as a platform. None of the spin-offs have risen to become viable yet. The New Yorker recently unveiled its Strongbox platform for leaking material, which is still new but looks good. This link contains the best advice on how to leak information to the press via phone, email, or the post office. The National Whistleblowers Center has a page on national-security whistle-blowers and their rights.

Leaking information is also very dangerous. The Obama Administration has embarked on a war on whistle-blowers, pursuing them — both legally and through intimidation — further than any previous administration has done. Mark Klein, Thomas Drake, and William Binney have all been persecuted for exposing technical details of our surveillance state. Bradley Manning has been treated cruelly and inhumanly — and possibly tortured — for his more-indiscriminate leaking of State Department secrets.

The Obama Administration’s actions against the Associated Press, its persecution of Julian Assange, and its unprecedented prosecution of Manning on charges of “aiding the enemy” demonstrate how far it’s willing to go to intimidate whistle-blowers — as well as the journalists who talk to them.

But whistle-blowing is vital, even more broadly than in government spying. It’s necessary for good government, and to protect us from abuse of power.

We need details on the full extent of the FBI’s spying capabilities. We don’t know what information it routinely collects on American citizens, what extra information it collects on those on various watch lists, and what legal justifications it invokes for its actions. We don’t know its plans for future data collection. We don’t know what scandals and illegal actions — either past or present — are currently being covered up.

We also need information about what data the NSA gathers, either domestically or internationally. We don’t know how much it collects surreptitiously, and how much it relies on arrangements with various companies. We don’t know how much it uses password cracking to get at encrypted data, and how much it exploits existing system vulnerabilities. We don’t know whether it deliberately inserts backdoors into systems it wants to monitor, either with or without the permission of the communications-system vendors.

And we need details about the sorts of analysis the organizations perform. We don’t know what they quickly cull at the point of collection, and what they store for later analysis — and how long they store it. We don’t know what sort of database profiling they do, how extensive their CCTV and surveillance-drone analysis is, how much they perform behavioral analysis, or how extensively they trace friends of people on their watch lists.

We don’t know how big the U.S. surveillance apparatus is today, either in terms of money and people or in terms of how many people are monitored or how much data is collected. Modern technology makes it possible to monitor vastly more people — yesterday’s NSA revelations demonstrate that they could easily surveil everyone — than could ever be done manually.

Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power. What’s important here are government programs and methods, not data about individuals. I understand I am asking for people to engage in illegal and dangerous behavior. Do it carefully and do it safely, but — and I am talking directly to you, person working on one of these secret and probably illegal programs — do it.

If you see something, say something. There are many people in the U.S. that will appreciate and admire you.

For the rest of us, we can help by protesting this war on whistle-blowers. We need to force our politicians not to punish them — to investigate the abuses and not the messengers — and to ensure that those unjustly persecuted can obtain redress.

It must be really scary, blowing the whistle when you see things going on that just shouldn’t be happening. But we have to blow the whistle nevertheless. Otherwise, governments and their corporate buddies will just become more and more untouchable. They will be able to do what they want to whoever they want whenever, wherever and however they want. Is that the world you want to live in?

That very nearly is the world we’re living in. Only the glare of publicity can stop our world evolving into a massive police state. Do you want that?

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