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A warning, not a blueprint – living in a post-Snowden world

Extra-governmental agencies, beyond democratic accountability, want to censor and control our free and open internet…

It is twenty five years since Tim Berners-Lee had the germ of an idea that became the World Wide Web. Smartphones for everyone have been with us less than a decade. Technology is transformative and world changing. 150 years ago we didn’t have the electric light or the phonograph. Photography was a new and rare technology, and everything we take for granted in our lives today – central heating, hot and cold running water, flushing toilets, fridges, cars, radio, and TV – had yet to be invented, or was at the very least out of the reach of the average citizen.

In this new world we inhabit, we are never still and we are never quiet, ever at the mercy of our electronic and physical stimuli, and never far from events on the opposite side of the globe – and yet we forget how much of this is new, and how much the technology at our fingertips changes the parameters of the world in which we live. Most of the changes are helpful and harmless, and the technology we have at our fingertips is no more than a set of tools we can use to give us instantaneous access to a wider world, but these amazing tools can also be used against us.

In the idealised world of the web when it was new, access to the network was seen as a projection of the ideal of a global village – an instant medium where we could all speak freely and share our vision with our fellow citizens on the opposite side of the globe without the interference of spokesmen or intermediaries, and in the words of Marshall Mcluhan, “Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer.”

Beyond the possibilities of static media, the internet could be seen as a democratising force that allowed us to interact with our peers across the cultural, racial, political and religious boundaries of the physical world. Nothing was sacrosanct and no-one cared. The web was ours and ideas were up for grabs. The surfers of the Web went in search of information, and information wanted to be free.

What makes the internet different is that, unlike television, it is interactive. We can determine what we read, and how we read it. We are the editors and the filters. Unlike television, or newspapers or radio, everything we find on the net can be translated into a file, edited and copied and stored on an anonymous computer a thousand miles from its source. In theory, this truth makes the internet hard to police, and harder to censor, for as John Gilmore once said, “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”.

Herein lies the first great problem of the internet. Extra-governmental agencies, beyond democratic accountability, want to censor and control what we do, and so do the content providers. The users, and the technology, want to route around it – and the solution to these contradictory notions gets no closer.

Along the wires

The tragedy for users is that the web is not just an anarchic device for sharing views and information, but is also an opportunity for extra-governmental agencies and corporate interests to engage in mass surveillance and intrusion into our online habits, and to balkanise their bits of the web. We bank and shop and share our secrets online. Increasingly, our lives are played out on the wires. We make unguarded remarks that we intend only to share with friends, and express our big and small differences with the prevailing view of the world. Extra-governmental agencies and corporate interests see this as an opportunity to gather data, for commercial or other, sometimes more sinister, ends.

Maybe we shouldn’t be bothered. After all, it’s for our own good, you might say, and if we haven’t done anything wrong, we have nothing to fear, but a web that evolves into the future as a mass surveillance tool for agencies that operate beyond our democratic control is not in our interests. Surveillance is a threat to the open web, and not just because it intrudes on our personal space. As Tim Berners-Lee has suggested, knowing that GCHQ and the NSA are side-stepping encryption services and eavesdropping on every aspect of our lives, this gives governments an excuse to create networks such as China’s Great Firewall, with the reasoning that it is to protect their own citizens from intrusion.

The justification for intrusion and mass surveillance has been the ongoing war on terrorism, but the papers released to The Guardian and other news agencies by the whistle blower Edward Snowden, a lowly subcontractor employed by a private firm working for the NSA, show that the NSA and GCHQ have engaged in much more than a search for suspects in the margins of our society. The agencies have been engaged in industrial espionage and the surveillance of apparently benign organisations and individuals such as charities, UNICEF, and the EU – not to mention collecting and storing the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of any wrongdoing.

Towards the future

As the much-travelled aphorism suggests, Orwell’s 1984 was intended to be ‘a warning, not a blueprint’ for the pursuit of unconscionable conformity. Just as worrying as GCHQ’s lack of accountability is the absence of debate in the UK about its effects and consequences, and the lack of democratic checks and balances on its activities. One illustration of its extra-curricular activities is the unit of GCHQ known as the Joint Intelligence Threat Research Group (JTRIG), which “runs what it terms an ‘Effects’ programme against Britain’s enemies under what it calls the four Ds: ‘Deny/Disrupt/Degrade/Deceive’. The mission of the unit is: ‘Using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world.'”

“Slides from a 2012 presentation, marked Top Secret, outline JTRIG’s role in discrediting targets using both online techniques, such as using blogs to leak confidential information to companies or journalists, and real-life methods like the honey trap – a time-honoured intelligence trick of luring an individual into a sexual encounter to gain information and leverage, potentially for blackmail. Under the heading ‘Discredit a target’ one slide notes: ‘Honey trap; a great option. Very successful when it works. Get someone to go somewhere on the internet, or a physical location to be met by a ‘friendly face’.

In addition, the NSA has been allowed to collect “the phone, internet and email records of UK citizens not suspected of any wrongdoing” and to use the data “to conduct ‘pattern of life’ or ‘contact-chaining’ analyses, under which the agency can look up to three ‘hops’ away from a target of interest – examining the communications of a friend of a friend of a friend”.

Technology is redefining the possibilities for information exchange and the dissemination of ideas, and how we respond to them, but it is also opening new opportunities for misuse of power. Edward Snowden has been much vilified, but he has also done us all a much-needed service in reminding us of the fragility of our freedoms and the limits of our dependence on technology.

It may be that the best defence against all this surveillance is to simply be transparent in a society that is losing its prejudices and changing as fast as its technology. Nevertheless, we should also be increasingly wary and ask that the agencies that are there and exist to serve our interests are both democratic and accountable.

As Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has said: “I do hear a lot of concerns about the direction that a lot of governments are taking with respect to the web. One of the things that I do is campaign in authoritarian countries to explain why it’s important for their economies and futures to have freedom of expression online. But when I’m meeting a minister in China or Kazakh, and saying that they’re on the wrong side of history, it’s important to be able to point to the UK or US as examples – and when I say that they shouldn’t be spying on everyone in China or Kazakh, it rings a little hollow. We may trust GCHQ to not take activists away in the night, but if they monitor everybody’s communications, then the Chinese will feel justified in doing the same.”

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