How intrusive electronic surveillance is thoroughly incompatible with democracy. The cyberworld must change but will the USA be a part of that world?
And, some resources you can use to protect your privacy on the Internet
The most infamous surveillance states in history used tools that are pitifully impotent in comparison to those being directed at us right now
Though the highly repressive Stasi and Securitate strove to surveil and censor all communications in East Germany and Romania respectively, the efficacy and extent of those campaigns pales into rather feeble and ineffectual insignificance when compared to the unprecedented scope, depth and rigor of current comprehensive and indiscriminate network information sweeps. Not only were the spying efforts of East Germany and Romania limited by highly labor intensive systems to what could be eavesdropped upon by an army of full-time operatives, but the means to collect, store, search and scrutinize data collected was pitifully plodding and primitive when compared with that which is now in use.
Not only can modern electronic eavesdroppings — every word said or written, heard or read, every place visited, purchase made — be archived and searched in retrospect and perpetuity, but the analysis tools that can be selectively brought to bear in the interpretation and correlation of that data can well rival intense interrogation or psychoanalysis in the picture they provide of the thoughts, opinions, predilections and perversions of the subjects being studied. When every keyboard, cellphone, security camera, mail and social networking service, laptop and tablet is in the service of intelligence agencies, these are potential tools of repression far beyond the dreams of even the most tyrannical Ceausescus or Honeckers.
Would mass data collection be justified if all stored information were used benignly to protect the country? No, not a bit.
The question is: Should we be concerned if all our thoughts, passwords, secrets are accessible to intelligence agencies even if we’ve nothing to hide and if the agencies were entirely benign and discreet? The answer one must arrive at is simply: Yes, it is of grave concern! And it doesn’t matter now benign and discreet those agencies might be. Even if our overseers are not inclined to use the data resources for political ends and even if they were to analyze them only when that action is sanctioned by a court, the presence of those data is intensely troubling. If the life-thought of every member of congress, every judge, every minister, bureaucrat, tax auditor, and law enforcement functionary is known to be potentially subject to scrutiny and analysis, there is little hope for our democracy and our nation.
Most of us have a crazy uncle
Anyone whose past contains any indiscretion or minor peccadillo would be seriously reluctant to raise a voice against the interests of those who hold the key to everyone’s intimate life details. Simply befriending the “wrong” person or a person who knows the “wrong person” could be deleterious. The misdeeds and propensities of one’s children, ex-spouse, wayward in-laws or crazy uncle Billy may be enough to cause concern. Indeed the imagination of the nervous and possibly tainted official may well be far more of a deterrent to acts that might offend government officialdom than would active intrusion, coercion, vilification and blackmail by those government agencies. Democratic dissent will wither away from self-imposed, anxiety-driven muzzling and subtly enforced tacit consent (particularly when dear crazy Uncle Billy is coming up for parole). The potential victim of blackmail will impose his/her own constraints upon the democratic process.
Government checks and balances have been undermined
Developments in information processing together with the open structure of the Internet have created a climate that invites excess and abuse. It should not be at all surprising that agencies tasked with collecting intelligence should be doing so with all the tools available to them. This they have done exceedingly well and are perhaps to be commended for that. Unfortunately, the checks and balances placed in our constitution to prevent overweening hegemony by a single branch of government have not been functioning as intended and cannot function when secrecy and closed-door policies render them ineffectual; some might maintain that checks and balances have been intentionally undermined. When unconstitutional laws are passed and creatively applied to sanction unconstitutional acts, when the public is kept uninformed and congress intentionally misinformed about espionage programs and policies and when judicial review has not been brought to bear, the balance of power is thrown off.
It may well be appropriate to question the feasibility of our constitutional system of checks and balances when one branch of government has effectively kept the others in the dark about its information gathering practices, practices that have enabled it to “get the goods on” all of the members of the other branches — including all those responsible for reining in excess, abuse and disproportionate influence.
NSA supporters may well be acting in good faith but they do not see the big picture
It serves no purpose to revile and vilify the people and the agencies who have undertaken to collect and archive personal information indiscriminately. In many, possibly most cases, they genuinely feel that doing their jobs as best they can is a benefit to society. It is the rare individual who thinks beyond officially accepted doctrine and, seeing the larger picture, is prompted to question it. Far rarer is the person who, recognizing unconstitutional abuse of power, is willing to sacrifice career and homeland, is willing to risk torture, imprisonment and death to take meaningful steps in defense of the constitution he/she has sworn to uphold. That is far more than can be reasonably expected of anyone. It is strangely disconcerting that, while we require government employees to take an oath to defend the constitution, we react with such indignation when one actually takes that oath seriously.
Mistakes can be corrected
Internet Protocols are too trusting
Internet protocols convey packets of information with visible routing information that can be saved at any point in their traversal of the Internet. These were conceived when some operating systems did not even impose security on users. Little thought was given to what such an approach might lead to. This will have to change.
There is no effective protection for whistleblowers.
Current whistleblower protections do not provide for meaningfully addressing issues raised and leave the whistleblower subject to persecution and prosecution without bringing matters to light and to the attention of the public and appropriate bodies. This has resulted in whistleblowers having to take other less-desirable paths.
Information gathering may have severely damaged American dominance of the Net.
The practice of mass surveillance has caused the world to distrust the US, its policies, its companies and their software and hardware. By intentionally coercing, forcing and bribing American companies to compromise their security and permit backdoors and massive data collection, US security agencies have seriously damaged trust in Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Dell, Apple, Skype, RSA etc. Future Internet giants will fill the gap with technologies that do not open their lines to surveillance by the US and may well be based in countries that we have offended with our policies.
There are those who remember
There are many who remember vividly the fear and repression of living under government scrutiny when any chance remark or confidence might mean disaster, where children might be forced to betray their parents and anyone might unaccountably be made to suffer for having a friend or relative who displeased the state or, heaven forbid, defected. People of East Germany who went through these times cannot help but imagine how much more horrific the experience would have been if the Stasi had had at their disposal those tools which the NSA has arrogated to itself. The mind boggles and the eyes dim. The future of dissent in such a world would be far more dismal even than that which Orwell’s Winston and Julia experienced. Perhaps it is entirely fitting that it is in Germany that those who oppose the surveillance state have found most support and protection.
A Gruesome scenario
It does not take a great deal of imagination for an information scientist to envision a dystopian future in which societal compliance and conformity are managed and enforced by a tight heuristic feedback loop, with punishment and reward meted out according to formulas based on speech, thought and behavior entirely without human intervention. We already see that kind of thing in the mysterious and capricious behavior of search engines, as algorithms shift according to inscrutable esoteric principles. If the means of comfort and happiness — network access, privilege, health care, environmental control, promotion/demotion, communication with friends and loved ones were to depend upon such a process, life would indeed be dehumanizing. As human activity increasingly interfaces with the cyberworld, this postulated scenario looms disconcertingly close.
The US has a choice
It is still possible for America to champion the causes of freedom of speech, pluralism and participatory democracy. By adopting a policy of genuinely secure communications, permitting and encouraging anonymity, removing and preventing security flaws and backdoors in phones, software, operating systems and applications, America may have a chance to retain its influence and dominance in the Information world. In many ways we have a responsibility to those whose governments surveil and censor dissidents and the press. We should be supporting worldwide freedom of speech, not providing despotic regimes with, support, justification and a detailed blueprint for repression.
If America does not lead the way to Internet freedom, its dominance will pass to others who will support secure communication and information interchange, as other countries, prompted by resentment of the arrogance of current surveillance policies, do respond to the need for a network sanctuary for democracy and the right to dissent and provide the world with channels secure from invasive espionage — or let’s hope that they will. The alternatives are too horrible to contemplate.
A few resources
There are many international efforts to create and provide unsurveillable services. They are facing serious opposition from surveillance states but international sympathies appear to be turning ineluctably toward those who oppose the surveillance state. This list is certainly not exhaustive and this information may change rapidly.
Already in operation
The TOR (The Onion Router) project. “Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.” “Tor is for web browsers, instant messaging clients, and more.” TOR is free and open source for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android: https://www.torproject.org/
Silent Circle: After closing down when threatened with being forced to reveal client data, Silent Circle has reformed in Canada with an End to End encryption system for phone communications that cannot be intercepted even by the service itself: https://silentcircle.com/
Virtual Private Networks provide varying levels of security and anonymity by routing and possibly also encrypting network communications. Most VPNs permit the user to choose the country the user will appear to be from.
Anonymox is a browser plugin that provides anonymous access to the net. Free version is limited to a few IPs and lower speed. http://www.anonymox.net/
Private Internet Access. Free trial:
Hot Spot Shield provides encrypted anonymous communications globally. Free version. Hotspot Shield was used to bypass government censorship during the Arab Spring protests in Egype, Tunisia and Libya.
Strong VPN provides encrypted anonymous communications globally. No free version.
Mondonet: Supported by Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, the purpose of this project is to study the technological, social and regulatory feasibility of developing a peer-to-peer mesh networking protocol. “MondoNet would serve as the foundation of a decentralized, ad hoc wireless mesh network, which would illuminate potential technology-based solutions to censorship and surveillance on existing digital communications platforms.” (http://mondonet.org/)
K. Titchenell is a retired computer science professor.
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