Laughing too soon: the joke of online privacy

For the last few years, my routine has been to wake early, make coffee and spend time on social media networks – reading articles, commenting on friend’s photos, discussing my favourite subjects on blogs.

By the time  Edward Snowden’s first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras was released, I had embraced social media completely: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Linkedin, Gmail, tumblr and Skype. I probably clicked on the link to his interview from my FB or Twitter feed.

The stickers on Ed Snowden’s laptop: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TorProject

I knew from early on that these platforms were not really free, that we pay for them by giving online advertisers access to our personal information. And we know that governments spy on us. But learning the extent of this spying from someone who had seen it up close and personal really jarred me. Knowing the details of how the spying is done made me start thinking a lot more about corporate surveillance too.

All of a sudden I was keenly aware of how my actions were being monitored whenever I was online, and how much personal detail I had made public: the names and details of my husband, son, a great many relatives and most of my friends, where I am in time and space, the name of my bank, my favourite coffee, my birth date, blood type, eye colour, favourite writers, political views, religious preferences or lack thereof – almost everything.

Hearing Edward Snowden tell us in detail how our privacy is a joke was the stone that started the landslide. My denial about the impact of my online activities on my privacy and my relationships with others has come to an end. I started changing my online behaviour. I started to feel very angry. I should not have to  be censor what I say online to avoid “incriminating” myself.

I should be able to share my personal life online according to my own wishes, and not those of corporations and governments. Constant surveillance and data collection have consequences. These activities threaten our freedom and degrade our public spaces and dialogue. They undermine our humanity. They make a joke out of civil rights.

As a left-leaning writer with an activist past, I have always doubted that I would be given top-secret clearance, even if I applied. I do have a couple of friends with top-secret clearance, so I realize that working for the government in that capacity does not have to mean you defer entirely to authority. But I very much doubt you could openly protest the activities of the spy agency or department you work for and keep your clearance for very long.

I suppose a weakness of spy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment Canada or the National Security Agency in the digital age is that they need computer experts who are on the cutting edge to hack technologies for them, and most of those folks are young guys who may not have completely worked out their moral and political life yet. The danger is that some of them will have an awakening and turn on their masters, which brings us to Edward Snowden.

Ed Snowden joined the NSA when he was very young and over the course of eight years gained access to some of the Agency’s  more sensitive information. Snowden’s inner moral and political awakening to the NSA’s abuse of power was gradual:

When you’re in positions of privileged access…you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee and because of that, you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances.

When you see everything, and you see it on a more frequent basis, you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses…

…[O]ver time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it… until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”

Unlike Snowden, my moral and political life has continued on its early trajectory. I have never trusted spy organizations, and would never accept a position working with CSEC or CSIS, even if it were offered.

Just the same, Snowden’s revelations have given me the chance to deepen my own moral and political perspective. I have woken up to the reality that I have, effectively, no privacy, and even though I have left Facebook, dumped gmail and encrypted my hard-drive, the genie is out of the bottle and my actions now are just damage control.

To illustrate what I mean by this loss of privacy, consider Facebook. We all know it’s free because the company makes its money selling advertising on the site. So we accept that in exchange for the ability to use this platform that lets us connect with friends, relatives and others around the world, we will have to put up with a certain amount of advertising.

And if that were the case, I would be okay with it. It would be a fair exchange, perhaps. But that is not what is going on.

Richard Stallman says Facebook is a surveillance machine, and most of the technology created by big corporations is designed to track and surveil its users. At first, I thought he was paranoid, or extreme. But the more I think about it, this conclusion seems inescapable. As Bruce Stirling puts it:

“Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all…intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.”

When you set up camp on Facebook and build your virtual apartment there, you become part of a community that is inside a transparent bubble. You create a profile to represent yourself to, and connect with, people you have chosen to have in your network – your audience, in a sense.  But in reality, your Facebook profile is actually transmitting information about your desires, interests, habits, work activities, location, family relationships, political and spiritual views to advertisers, third-party applications, data miners and governments.

On Facebook, my network is not my audience. My network and I are on stage together. The audience is made up of organizations, positioned outside the observation bubble, that analyze everything about us in order to better sell us products and services and predict all our preferences and behaviour. And lurking in that audience are spies, quietly collecting information about our friends and family, our political views, our connections and affiliations and all our movements from day to day and year to year, on behalf of powerful  governments.

Facebook’s so-called privacy is a setup whereby you create your own password key, which you use to enter into your compartment within the transparent bubble in order to visit your carefully selected network of people and organizations. This network mostly shares your views, or at a minimum, doesn’t disrupt your worldview too much.

Privacy in this sense means that you get to choose which inhabitants of the bubble can view the contents of your compartment. But you have no control over what the watchers on the outside of the bubble are able to see. In this sense, Facebook privacy (and most likely online privacy in general) is a joke.

But unfortunately, the joke doesn’t end there. We started laughing at the absurdity of our situation a bit too soon. According the Guardian:

“The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.”

Given the extent of NSA access to user information stored on servers by Google, Facebook, Apple, Skype, etc., we can assume that the NSA and its partners have the keys to some of our online spaces too. It was not enough to watch through the  observation bubble along with the corporations and the data miners. The spies have entered our rooms and secretly taken up residence under the bed. It is thanks to Edward Snowden that we now know the depth and breadth of our exposure online.

If you are an American, you have at least a chance of reining in the NSA. But if you are from outside the US, as I am, you can’t expel these spies. You have to close down the rooms where they lurk.  Stop using these “free” social media and email services – close down your Facebook and cloud accounts, switch to a paid email service that respects privacy, and use other social media platforms with caution, if at all.

If we decide to maintain a presence in the virtual spaces of social media, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are safe and won’t be targeted by our governments’ spy agencies as long as we do and say nothing wrong – the notion that you don’t need to worry if you have nothing to hide.

We have revealed so much online that all our essential details and connections are known. If  an agency decides I am a person of interest (as Greenwald and Poitras are), or that I am connected to one, that organization already has everything it needs to portray my innocent, innocuous activities and friendships as nefarious, dishonest and questionable.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could connect with each other online using platforms that allow us to privately and freely befriend each other and exchange ideas, dreams and interests. Our governments have an obligation to protect the freedom of these online spaces because these spaces are essential to freedom of expression and freedom of movement, liberties that underpin democracy.

Our defence against surveillance and the invasion of privacy lies offline, in the parliaments of our countries where policies about privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are determined.

An open letter from within glass walls

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: marchwinds@hushmail.com
Date: Tue, Jul 16 at 09:53 AM (UTC)
Subject: A few words of support
To: edsnowden@lavabit.com

Hi Ed Snowden,

Since your email address appeared on the Web, you’ve probably been inundated with emails from people around the world. Or maybe people are afraid to write, knowing that you’re very closely monitored, and not wanting to lose their ability to cross borders. I am writing anyway!

Thank you for the risk you are taking. Listening to the interviews that Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras did with you inspired me greatly. Much of the focus in the US media has been on how the US government is spying on US citizens, and there has been little concern about their spying on citizens of other countries. A typically insular perspective.

As a net-connected Canadian, I am very active on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linkedin and WordPress. I have known since I joined these platforms that I pay for these services with some of my personal information.

But when I saw the documents you released, I realized just how compromised these online services really are. My passwords are keys to
rooms with glass walls, and on display is everything about me.

Having realized this, I have deactivated my icloud account, removed most of my photos from Facebook, encrypted my hard drive, moved all my backup data to a terabyte hard drive in the basement (gotta encrypt that) and opened a HushMail account (with the intention of eventually deleting my gmail account). I have also turned off location services on my phone and beefed up its password.

Really, it’s kind of too late for me and most social media users since we have already allowed so much information about ourselves to be made public. As an activist, I have a great many connections to aboriginal and climate activists so have probably been on lists for years anyway.

Everyone says that it’s no problem that governments have access to our personal and private information, because as long as we’re not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to worry about. Sounds crazy to me. If you weren’t Jewish, Slavic, Communist, gay, handicapped, etc., then you were safe in Nazi Germany. Right up until you were added to the long list of so-called wrongdoers.

It is clear to me that you love your country very much. Probably more than most of your American detractors (ironically). The current government of my country is very conservative, and very much in the pocket of the US government. Having travelled to Iceland, I have also considered moving there! But it’s almost impossible to immigrate if you are not a part of the EU, and my Icelandic friends tell me their current government is quite conservative also. And anyway, I still love my home, even if the government is terrible at the moment.

I wrote a blog post about your activities:
http://marchwinds.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/a-man-of-conscience-is-a-rare-thing/

If you need anything from a Canadian, and it won’t get me arrested, let me know! If it will get me arrested, let me know anyway and I’ll see what I can do.

I wish you safe travels and pray that you find a safe home.

Jennifer

Thoughts from the continuum

I would like to challenge the notion that there are “mental” illnesses and “physical” illnesses – that certain illnesses are biological and others are psychological.

For example, what are the causes of high blood pressure? Well, according to WedMD, it is caused by the following factors, most of which are no less “psychological” than the causes of depression or anxiety disorders:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Too much salt in the diet
  • Too much alcohol consumption (more than 1 to 2 drinks per day)
  • Stress
  • Older age
  • Genetics
  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Adrenal and thyroid disorders

And if you look at the list, you will see that many of these “causes” of high blood pressure are the same as the causes of depression. The following all contribute to depression’s onset or its return after remission: stress, alcohol abuse, family history of depression, genetics, older age and lack of physical activity.

There are other known (and probably unknown) causes for depression, anxiety and high blood pressure, no doubt, but isn’t it interesting that people with high blood pressure are almost never sent to a psychologist for therapy, even though their condition would probably be improved by learning to cope better with stress, reduce alcohol consumption and change and improve lifestyle?

What about type 2 diabetes, many cases of heart disease and chronic pain? These conditions could also be improved through specific types of psychotherapy and counselling, often in conjunction with medication.

I have grown tired of the argument that people who suffer from certain “mental” illnesses like depression and anxiety should not take medications, but should instead see a therapist to get to the root of their problems.

These illnesses are not curable, as far as we know. They are conditions, just as high blood pressure and diabetes are conditions. Those who suffer from them have to manage them, usually with some combination of medication, exercise, stress reduction, nutrition and, often, psychotherapy. Why is it that people with conditions that can be measured with a blood pressure cuff or a blood sample are not so often told to get to the root of their problems?

And then we have scientists like Dr. Irving Kirsch, whose research into anti-depressant medications resulted in him confirming his own bias that the medications don’t work and are nothing but placebos. Imagine if you were a diabetic and had been taking a medication that helps you keep your blood sugar in check and a scientist publishes a study telling you that it’s all in your head?  “Guess what? Your medications don’t work! You just think they do!” That’s what Kirsch has done, and many media outlets trumpeted his message uncritically.

Scientists are in the midst of developing an antidepressant medication that works in hours instead of weeks. Perhaps if we start having medications that have rapid effects, the notion that antidepressants are nothing but placebos will come to an end.

We have learned that even our genes are influenced by our environment, with certain genes being turned on or off depending on the conditions in which we live. There is no absolute division between environmental and genetic causes of illness, just as there is no real dividing line between the psychological and the biological. It is all on a continuum. To believe otherwise is to create obstacles to wellness for people suffering from a great number of conditions. Why close the door on psychotherapy for high blood pressure problems? Why discourage sufferers from using medications for their anxiety?

I realize there is a problem with medications being overprescribed in many cases, but there is an even bigger problem with under-treatment of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain and anxiety disorders.

Just as there are biological and psychological dimensions to all diseases, there is a moral aspect as well. We can call on sufferers to improve their diets, manage their stress, get to the root of their problems. We can deny health coverage to smokers who develop lung cancer. We can discourage medication because we are so sure that sufferers can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But moral judgements won’t reduce suffering or lower the great burden of disease that society continues to bear. The costs to us are enormous in terms of lost productivity, social breakdown, medical expenses and quality of life.