Columns

The new world — secrecy and digital tyranny

Sunday, June 16, 2013    

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AT long last, rhetoric about the existence of a 'Big Brother'state can no longer be denied or treated as excessive paranoia by a public fearful of any intrusion into their private and personal lives by what Tea Party activists and arch-Republicans opposed to the policies of the Obama Administration are fond of calling 'Big Government'.

Thanks to the fairly detailed revelations this past week by the fleeing 29-year-old former CIA operative Edward Snowden and the call for him to be treated as an enemy of the American state subject to prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, the world now knows from leaked data the depth of the Anglo-American state Internet, telephone, and other forms of communication surveillance of every living resident American in all 55 states and people all over the globe.

At the same time that President Obama, following on the revelation, is locked in disagreement in principle with civil liberties activists and Snowden on the question of whether the data held by the US Government about its citizens is for the public's own good, legislators on the other side of the Atlantic, in the United Kingdom, are busily preparing to grant themselves awesome powers in the passing of the Communications Data Bill.

This piece of legislation, if passed in the House of Commons, would require services like Facebook and Skype to record information about every British citizen's communications and to grant access to the records on demand by the police.

Like it or not, this is the new Big Brother surveillance state. It operates on the basis of raw tyrannical power in defence of its interests against all others. It is predicated on the exercise of constant inquisition into our daily intimate and personal activities, rather than the deployment of bombs, guns and explosives.

This way, we are meant to feel safe, secure and civilised in our existence - until the day you or I (God forbid!) decide to fight against such surveillance. Or worse, expose the secrets of government which is supposed to work, in this new dispensation, for the strong against those who are enfeebled.

Furthermore, the extension of United States digital surveillance jurisdiction beyond its national boundaries on the basis of coercive power can now be viewed as an instrument of foreign policy. Hence, what has happened to our own "arch-fugitive" Christopher 'Dudus' Coke, now imprisoned in the United States on racketeering charges in terms of the interception of his telephone communications, can happen to any Caribbean citizen, including its leaders, unless they behave themselves.

In an interview with the UK Guardian newspaper last week, Mr Snowden, a former soldier who served in Iraq, had this to say: "The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. I don't want to live in a society that does these sorts of things. I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded."

But this millenarian whistleblower may be surprised to learn that recent poll findings found that 49 per cent of Americans disagreed with his logic of information transparency as opposed to some 46 per cent who agreed. Most Americans clearly believe that data gathered about them by the Government and its agencies can, in fact, serve the public good, especially in the context of the "fight against terrorism" and where such "terrorists are home-grown".

In light of this, Edward Snowden may well be thinking that he may have misjudged the mood of public sentiments in America. When asked by the Guardianwhat he thought the American Government had in store for him now, he replied chillingly: "Nothing good."

My concern for information transparency 'heroes' like Snowden, Bradley Manning and Deric Lostutter is that they do not seem to have come to terms with the idea that Big Brother data surveillance in the 21st century equals Big Power. Data collection about any subject affects us all. It is all-encompassing.

This is because we do not willingly choose to be targets of surveillance, but every single instance of engaging the services of Facebook, for example, puts that company in complete control of our lives. By entering personal information, accepting "friends", "checking in" to various establishments, and "liking" things, we enter a virtual digital vault where information has a worryingly long shelf life.

In fact, Facebook owns the information collected from its billion users and sells advertising against it. Facebook, as well as companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, is really a collection of physical data centres known as the "cloud", which knows practically everything about us. A person's history of drug use or sexual orientation, for instance, can be analysed from their Facebook "likes". The point is: when surveillance data is actually data about you, then privacy issues become almost irrelevant.

In this new world, culture, commerce and politics are subject to the same colossal data chest prompting dystopian worries. But to survive in it, we are expected to learn to be silent, to be keepers of secrets, and accept that notions about the nation state and of secrecy are merely ideals to be hankered after.

In his new world, we must come to accept the authority of the state to access any information about any person at any time; while we the citizens harbour no similar right. We must fear publishing or breaking down the data in the possession of the state and its subsidiary institutions. Failure to do this will place severe restrictions on your freedom. At worst, it could cost you your life.

Big Brother data surveillance encompassing e-mail, phone call and even mouse click, can serve the public good, as in the case of preventing needless deaths in the health service and consumer protection in banking. But trouble comes when consumer protection organisations, or the citizens themselves, seek to get their hands on information. Who decides the granting of access? Who is going to police Big Brother?

Edward Snowden is learning that in the brave new world of Big Brother surveillance, if you expose how power is abused you can expect the worst.

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