Dissent or Descent
This is the choice we face that has never seemed clearer. Do we allow so much that we value and that we've fought for over decades, even centuries, to be dismantled out of apathy, fear, or convenience? Or do we take a stand and fight back, knowing that any time we do such a thing, there are risks of one sort or another involved?
It shouldn't be too hard to predict which choice we would opt for. But choices only remain correct if they're revisited, analyzed, even second-guessed to a point. It's not enough to simply stand up for something because it's what we've always done. We have to know why.
The NSA revelations that continue to come out on a somewhat timed basis are the worst possible nightmare for those who embrace state secrets. But for those who believe in full disclosure and have never subscribed to the notion of "just trust us" by anyone in authority, these are the brightest days imaginable. What Edward Snowden has done is turn the intrusive gaze of the National Security Agency 180 degrees and allowed us to see what they do and what they want. We find that, at some point, there comes a revelation that offends each of us, even the NSA's staunchest supporters. When all is finally revealed, however long that will take, we believe there will have been very decisive and radical changes in intelligence gathering, both here and abroad.
Consider the fact that relatively few of us are bothered by the existence of spy agencies in the first place. People tend to accept them as a necessary evil and, as long as they feel safe and don't believe their privacy is being violated excessively, these agencies pretty much get carte blanche to do as they please. Even with the initial Snowden revelations, a sizable number of Americans were willing to overlook having their own privacy invaded a bit, so long as it was all in the interests of security and they didn't feel like they were actually being targeted. What's a little more private info being given out in this day and age when we're constantly advertising our location and innermost thoughts to the world via social networking?
We've seen this attitude steadily begin to crumble, as the scope of the surveillance becomes better known. Ironically, some of the harshest criticism has come from those in governments who came to realize that the NSA's unblinking eye has had them in its sights for years. Oddly enough, this is precisely what agencies like the NSA are supposed to be all about: gathering intelligence on leaders of other countries, even friendly ones. But when it was revealed that Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone had been tapped since 2002, the German government was outraged, and so were leaders throughout the world. There were even hints that Snowden would be welcome in Germany to presumably reveal more such details, an abrupt reversal of the unquestioning allegiance they - along with much of the world - have shown towards the United States in their desire to make him a fugitive with nowhere to go. Similar revelations have come out concerning the leaders of Mexico and Brazil, along with more than 30 other heads of state throughout the world. It seems everyone has a breaking point when it comes to their own privacy, even and especially those who routinely violate that of others.
"France and Germany, and many other countries, require U.S. companies to register their encryption key for reasons of national security. All the American transmissions are monitored and the data is passed onto the local competitors. Companies like IBM finally began to routinely transmit false information to their French subsidiary just to thwart the French Secret Service..."
But even though this is what many of the headlines focused upon, this is not where the true story lies. The real issue here is with the insanely thorough and ever-expanding spying being perpetrated against the average citizens of the world. Consider:
- The NSA stores metadata from half a billion telephone calls, emails, and text messages in Germany alone every month.
- In direct violation of the law, France has been revealed to have been intercepting and storing most of that nation's internal Internet and phone communications for years. The NSA is said to have obtained over 70 million phone records on French citizens in a single 30 day period.
- The FAIRVIEW program is being used by the NSA to spy on the communications of Brazilian citizens.
- Direct access to monitor communications lines has been given to the British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) by Verizon, Vodafone, and BT.
- The NSA has cracked numerous forms of encryption used by private citizens and is planting back doors into consumer products with the help of the tech industry, often through the use of malware and outright theft of keys.
- Most major smartphones are now able to be tapped into by the NSA. These devices contain a world of information on many of us, from our personal correspondence to where we happen to be at any moment. We help make this form of surveillance possible because we want the convenience offered by this technology.
- Google and Yahoo! have had their unencrypted data center communications intercepted by the NSA, allowing almost full access to whatever these companies store in "the cloud" on our behalf.
We could go on; there are many more revelations, but the point has been made. Everyone is affected at some point. And everyone should feel violated.
While we share in the outrage, we don't share in the surprise. As we put this issue to press, we're also digitizing Volume Three of our Hacker Digest series, comprised of our publications from 1986. What's interesting is that even back then in these very pages, people were concerned about what the NSA was doing and what they had access to. Before the Internet was even born, those who were paying attention could see the looming threat. There was discussion of the fact that warrants weren't needed for phone line monitors known as "pen registers," devices that simply collected the numbers that were being dialed on any line that was being watched, unlike an actual phone tap. This was the metadata of the time and the concern was that this information provided anyone watching with a pretty accurate assessment of who the target spoke to without any actual legal oversight. We are seeing the same concerns now being addressed with regard to the metadata in emails, and how thoroughly that information can paint a picture of who somebody talks to and where their interests lie. Over the years, these concerns haven't changed, but the technology and capabilities certainly have.
Through time, we also occasionally come to accept things that were once thought of as intrusions. An example we see from looking at our earlier material centers on the initial suspicion that Caller ID was viewed with. Having one's phone number transmitted to the called party seemed an unacceptable sacrifice of anonymity. At first, phone companies resisted installing an option to block the number trans mission and allow the caller to remain anonymous, but the prevailing concern of the time made this an essential part of the new technology. Today, we accept the fact that we share our phone numbers when we make calls, and relatively few people opt for the anonymous option. It makes things so much more convenient, after all. But while our perceptions may have changed, this doesn't mean that the initial concerns weren't valid and aren't still to this day. Consider that at the time we were discussing these issues back then, we were also amazed that in parts of Europe, it was considered a privacy violation for the phone company to even keep any record of who called whom. It was very difficult for us to understand this, as call records were something we were very used to and we saw it on our bills every month. But many in Europe knew all too well that this information in the hands of an evil government could easily be used to round up people based on their affiliations. Again, metadata being implemented as a means of intelligence gathering. And while we may believe we've advanced beyond certain depravities, history always seems to come back and haunt us. Whatever technological advancements we embrace will be used for good, but also inevitably for evil. And, unless a part of those advancements also includes some sort of defense against this, we will find ourselves more the victims of technology than its beneficiaries.
So the choice lies with all of us. Do we blindly trust those who have acted so deceitfully and sink ever more deeply into an Orwellian world of total surveillance? Or do we dissent and establish some boundaries as to what's acceptable and what is clearly not?
It's the citizens of the world, especially those in the United States, who can have a decisive role in what sort of authority we give agencies like the NSA. We don't agree with the overreaching power they have taken for themselves, we never agreed in the past, and we surely won't in the years ahead. Expressing this sentiment vocally is the only way to make such feelings relevant.