We all knew this was happening.
Anybody who worked in computer security looked at the NSA’s budget and the falling cost of hardware and simply said “they’re storing everything.”
There had been evidence before. The secret rooms in the telecom company data centers which piped data straight to the NSA, for example. But something about Ed Snowden’s presentation, the straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth documents, the banality-of-evil Powerpoint presentations, completely with their dreadful graphics and strange codenames, then the international circus as Snowden scoots across the map of America’s enemies before getting parked in Limbo in a Russian airport where he could spend months (or decades.)
Whatever it is, something in the drama caught the public imagination. Even with D-Notices and the usual American news blackout, the centre of gravity of the internet has shifted.
America are no longer even slightly plausibly the good guys. They’re using the internet against everybody – their own citizens, their allies, the European parliament. They’re storing everything. Snowden’s video describes how they could go back over years of your activity, your email and phone calls, and find something, anything to prosecute you for if they chose to.
Lest we underestimate the severity of this threat, consider the history of COINTELPRO, a blatantly illegal FBI program to suppress a wide variety of groups of poltical radicals in the 1960s, including the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers and the Peace Movement. We will never know the full extend of the damage done by COINTELPRO, but many lives were shattered. If you would like to think this is all a shadow of times past, consider the current scandal of UK police officers fathering children with activists while in “deep cover” identities to spy on them. Governments which are abusing their power in these ways, without providing any realistic framework of political accountability when due bounds are exceeded, simply cannot be trusted with the kind of power that the new NSA/GCHQ toolkit puts into their hands. If you need evidence of that, consider the murky networks that snared Anonymous and Pentagon risk management for large scale economic collapse.
Lawyers, Doctors and Accountants
I want to draw attention to one very specific area of impact: the role of pervasive government surveillance in the lives of professionals who require client confidentiality in their work. The three most obvious examples are lawyers, doctors and accountants. In most nations, communications between the professions and their clients are legally protected: attorney-client privilege, medical confidentiality, and accountant-client privilege.
Here’s the problem. In the UK and Europe, any email communication can be rationally expected to be monitored by the American government. Can professionals be secure in their relationships with their patients with a foreign power reading their email? If – if – the surveillance was being carried out by the government of the country the communication was conducted in, perhaps it would be possible to claim that the privilege of confidential communication had simply been withdrawn from the professions. But Germany has 500+ million emails spied on each month by the USA, completely violating its sovereignty and the basic rights of German citizens.
Are German doctors, lawyers and accountants simply to stop using electronic communication because it is no longer confidential? Surely this is a situation for the Pirate Party to pick up?
People like Mark Zuckerberg say that “privacy is dead” but try telling that to lawyers, doctors and accountants. Our society cannot function without professional confidentiality, and having foreign powers be presumed to intercept all communications is simply the end of these professions as we have known them. There’s no trusted advisor to consult with when it’s all ending up in the Utah data centre to be consulted in future decades under administrations with unknown political agendas.
Were we ruled over by benevolent intelligences flooded by wisdom and compassion, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, these powers would be corrupting. But we are ruled over by organizations which have maintained Guantanamo Bay and the Black Sites, which have engaged in campaigns of political assassination by robot airstrikes to prosecute their wars, and who have wrought havoc on the world with a series of ill-dignified wars.
I had hoped that America would recover after 9/11 and slowly rebuild its Constitution in government by closing Guantanamo bay, pushing the intelligence services back within constitutional bounds, and returning to the richly-deserved peace which came after the Cold War ended. Instead it is clear that the inmates are running the asylum, and even a President with the best of intentions can be co-opted by the logic-of-necessity into complete complacent collaboration with blatantly unconsitiutional action on a vast scale.
The language used to justify these actions is the language of fascism.
If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life you have nothing to fear about the British state or the intelligence services listening to your phone calls or anything like that. – William Hague
To this I have only one reply: the Assange Doctrine is simple.
How does that seem to sit with government these days? Poorly, because the leaks and the surveillance are two halves of a whole: leaks are how citizens spy on their government, and the NSA/GCHQ are how governments spy on their citizens.
This is a brutally destructive equilibrium. It cannot be allowed to continue.
This is simply insanity: the culture of distrust cultivated by constant surveillance and constant leaking is simply a 21st century Police State with a looks-both-ways Panopticon. It’s a total mess.
Instead of rule of law, with reasonable transparency and oversight by courts which take the law seriously, depriving leakers of legitimate grievance, we have what amounts of a covert surveillance battle between the state and the people over the basic right of the people to understand what their government is doing. To have both sides, government and people, making a mockery of the rule of law in the name of the rule of law is not the answer. The rule of law alone stands.
The whole point of this edifice is to maintain the fundamental bones of our civilization, the rule of law, and the supremacy of the courts over the political personalities of the day. If the USG had the NSA operating within due constitutional bounds there would have been nothing for Snowden to leak, and any leak he made would have been an indefensible breach of national security, unjustifiable by any argument as in the public interest. Snowden would likely have been a competent public servant for all of his tenure.
As it is, the revelation of blatantly illegal action on a huge scale is a simple proof that intelligence services without reasonable oversight simply drift further and further into insane and cannibalistic action: Nixon and Hoover have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that every level of the American government requires continual oversight to function within Constitutional bounds.
There are three main factions of response to the new reality in which we operate. They are
- Germany pushes back using international law against US intrusion into its sovereignty. The US likewise.
- Civil Libertarians push back within the court system in America and the UK asking for answers, real oversight, and civil rights.
- Cipherpunks now push end-to-end encryption of all messages as a basic civic duty by which we attempt to protect each-other from the State gone wrong.
The hardest part of all of this is going to be keeping all of these groups cooperating and moving in the right direction. The Germans, of course, want data retention and the right to spy on their own citizens, as most EU countries do. They will be quite unhappy with the cipherpunks. The civil libertarians are quite distrusting of encryption as an end-run around the legal system, a technical implementation of a civil right that could be over-turned by superior technology: a worthy argument, but let them change the law to comply with the Constitution then complain about crypto. Finally, the non-state wing of the cipherpunks view international and national action as a distraction: the system cannot be fixed, the guilty cannot be punished, and the only available approach is to remove the power of the State to do what we do not wish it to: a digital insurrection.
The desperate need right now is for orientation to the new reality that Snowden’s actions have exposed. The old map of superpower alliances may be toast, with China, the EU and Russia allied against the US in at least basic security concerns. The black-clad paranoids of the hackerspaces are now fully vindicated, and preparing GPG and OTR for mass adoption is now an urgent step. Finally, the ACLU & co are now, without a doubt, completely vindicated – but can they actually close with their targets, or will they be intimidated and fobbed off by corrupt courts?
It is all to play for, but discard your old map and do the analysis from scratch. There is much more going on than the old models predicted. Gods help all of us as we reorient and reintegrate, and take action to survive.
Disorientation is normal. Go about your day, citizen!