It used to be that love letters were written on paper, sealed in an envelope and sent through the mail. These letters were private, and it was illegal to open them, unless you were the recipient. Otherwise you needed a warrant, signed by a judge.
Before the Internet, looking into private lives was a difficult thing to do. It took stealth and skill, or a police warrant.
Now spy agencies liken our private lives, our loves, to a haystack, in which, we are assured, criminals and terrorists lurk. Our expressions of love, our most intimate moments, are piled up like so many strands of hay, where they are picked through by security intelligence services, looking for disturbances in the patterns of our communications.
We live, more and more, online: placing photos of our children, friends and lovers, correspondence, essays, commentary, even financial and work-related documents on Google docs, Dropbox, blogs, tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — the list goes on and on.
Edward Snowden has spoken about love, moving strangely far from the abstract, technical and political discourse he usually engages in: “It may be that…by waiting and passing judgment over every association we make and every person we love, that we could uncover a terrorist plot… But is that the kind of society we want to live in?”
The online world is deeply penetrated by commercial and security interests, but also by images and stories of our loves, joys and sorrows — all the things we have done that will never come to pass again. These stories drift behind us, like mist in the electronic ether.
I have often heard the refrain that it doesn’t matter if everything we say and do online is collected. If we have done nothing “wrong,” we have nothing to fear. But would you willingly invite advertisers, data collectors and spies into your home to watch you take a shower or play with your children, because you’re “innocent” and have nothing to hide?
You may lock down your Facebook profile, but photos of your children can be collected by advertisers. You might turn off the GPS on your phone, but each time it communicates with a cell tower, your location is mapped, collected and used to find you in your past, present and future.
Knowing this, I tried withdrawing from Facebook. I closed down my profile, deleted all my connections and downloaded the hundreds of photos I had put online to a hard drive in my basement. But then I could no longer converse with friends in distant countries, or spontaneously meet up a friend in another city, because he knew I would be there when I said so on Facebook.
So, I created another Facebook account; an open profile with no “security” settings. Anything I reveal there can be seen by anyone.
It’s not as much fun this way. I miss posting photos of my holidays or capturing and sharing spontaneous acts using my camera phone. I have fewer online discussions that expose personal information.
To share photos and other files, I subscribe to SpiderOak, an encrypted, zero-knowledge online storage service, where you can upload information as you would with Dropbox, and share it selectively, whenever you want.
My email is now Hushmail — it costs actual money, but there is no advertising or data mining, and since it’s encrypted, it’s more difficult for spies to get into, should they wish.
The availability of these services suggests there is a hunger for something better. ello.co has tens of thousands of users clamoring for invitations to join this alternative to Facebook.
But even though I use services that support online security, my efforts to maintain a presence online while keeping some shred of a private life are probably futile.
But it’s the principal of the thing. I should be able maintain a creative, intimate personal life online.
Ed Snowden was reputed to keep a copy of his country’s constitution on his desk at work, but I think he risked everything for love. He knows that if expressions of love, creativity and friendship cannot flourish online, we aren’t free and secure.
We are paying a heavy price for giving away our privacy. It’s changing the tenor of our relationships. More and more, we look over our shoulders, wondering who is watching. We are constantly exposed.
It’s time to stop thinking our loss of privacy doesn’t matter. Without it, we have no democracy or individual freedom.
It’s time to stop paying with the geld of our personal information for free social media, email and storage. Reward responsible companies by paying to use their online services.
Kick the marketers and spies out of your living room. Do it for your friends and loves.
One of the reasons Edward Snowden managed to collect thousands of sensitive documents from the NSA and then escape overseas, is because the NSA’s greatest weakness is its overconfidence in the strength and predictability of its systems—both its information technology systems and its organizational systems.
Systems are self-contained, predictable, perform specific roles and fulfill pre-defined requirements. The creators, implementers and maintainers of systems tend to conflate human beings with systems themselves. Systems are not capable of originality; they do not act in the world.
The NSA and other surveillance organizations rely on monolithic and consistently patterned systems in order to ensure predictability and prevent outside actions from disturbing the flow of information collection and analysis.
The NSA’s weakness and blind spot is its inability to consider the possibility that an individual from within could act out and disrupt the system by allowing the outside world to enter in – a world that is anti-systematic and disruptive.
In an article about Russia’s decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Julia Ioffe says: “[The Russians] assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind.”
She says that this statement applies equally well to the US in relation to Russia. It is also a good description of hubristic nature of massive spy organizations like the NSA.
Edward Snowden’s actions are a beautiful example of the capacity of human beings to create new beginnings by acting in the world in a wholly new and unpredictable way:
“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”
The potential that each person has to introduce new possibilities into the world is a threat to massive information systems. These systems rely on limiting unpredictable actions and behaviour. Such disruptions are perceived by the system as malfunctions or new elements that must be subsumed and stripped of their uniqueness.
Ed Snowden broke ranks with his fellow system maintainers: “…one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” -Hannah Arendt
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.
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.
———- Forwarded message ———-
Date: Tue, Jul 16 at 09:53 AM (UTC)
Subject: A few words of support
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.
Ever since I first saw the video of Edward Snowden, recorded in an undisclosed hotel room in Hong Kong, I have been following media reports on his whereabouts, his government’s attempts to “bring him to justice,” and the massive American spying program that he exposed.
When I saw the video, I was struck by the simplicity of Ed Snowden’s actions. When we are young, it’s easier to do the right thing, or perhaps the “right thing” is more clear to us, because we’re not worrying so much about protecting family, making a living and our personal safety. Snowden has left all these things behind.
Much of the power of his actions comes from this simplicity. No prevarication, justification, or any other five-syllable words. Snowden followed his conscience.
“I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’” – Ed Snowden
Right now, the American government is paying lip service to the rule of law, and John Kerry, Secretary of State, has even suggested he is deeply troubled by China’s willingness to protect Snowden, which it did by allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong. The official Chinese response to the US request for the extradition of Snowden was that the American request “did not fully comply with the law.”
Given that Snowden had recently provided the Chinese government proof that the US has been hacking into its computer systems for years, it is hardly surprising that Chinese officials dragged their feet in handing Snowden over to US authorities.
I am mystified as to why John Kerry not more troubled by his country’s massive spying apparatus. How can a presumably intelligent human being stand before the entire world and justify this massive, unconstitutional invasion of privacy? All this in the name of freedom from terrorism. As frightening as terrorism is, more people die in the US each year in traffic accidents. Far more.
And why are we not more troubled? Western governments are able to count on our unwillingness to leave our comfort zone. We are anaesthetized by our attachment to comfort and material things, hypnotized by the drone of our daily routine: get up, go to work, navigate traffic, pay bills, do chores, go to sleep – a rhythm punctuated by moments of real connection to people, to nature, to ideas. But all in all, we are half-asleep, and the government is listening to all our chatter, listening for disturbances in the cadence of our activities.
“…you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. And if living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept – and I think many of us are because it’s the human nature – you can get up every day, go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” – Ed Snowden
Kerry defends the Obama administration’s spying policies and Obama calls on other governments to respect the rule of law. Yet what about America’s own constitution and laws? This huge spying program is illegal. America has no grounds to appeal to the rule of law. This is reality and we need to remind politicians of it.
And if I die before I learn to speak Can money pay for all the days I lived awake But half asleep?