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Is this the Tony Blair Moment for Five Eyes?

Is this Barrack Obama’s Tony Blair Moment? I define the Tony Blair Moment as:

The moment in time when a valued and admired individual, organisation or company loses public trust and respect.

Blair was, though it may be difficult to remember now, quite liked and respected in the UK and internationally, that is until it became clear he had blatantly lied to us about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in order to join Bush in a foolish, hubristic and illegal war. To this day he dismisses all concerns about that lie. He has never been forgiven. Now with Obama’s name change floating around – George W. Obama – one begins to wonder if it is his Tony Blair Moment. His casual dismissal of concerns for and challenges to the massive surveillance by the U.S. government, not only of its own citizens but apparently of everyone else’ too, are sadly and disturbingly reminiscent of Mr Blair.

Of course what I’m talking about is Snowden letting the spying cat out of its digital bag. I wouldn’t bet on Snowden’s future, but so far he is giving the U.S. government a run for its money. Did he leave Hong Kong? Did he enter Russia? Is he on his way to Ecuador? As I write this, no one knows. And I must confess it was pleasing to hear that some 24 journalist boarded a plane from Moscow to Havana only to find Snowden wasn’t on the plane. The Guardian had a little fun with the news:

Around two dozen journalists settled in for the 12-hour journey to Havana – a flight on which no alcohol is served, much to the chagrin of the reporters, many of whom aren't used to going half a day without a stiff drink.

In any event, thanks to Snowdon’s revelations Prism (U.S.), Tempora (UK), and Five Eyes (U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) have entered the lexicon. His revelations have also thrown further light on the Obama presidency. George W Bush enlarged and further legalised the imperial presidency and it was never going to be the case that Obama would revoke some of the powers he inherited. However, not only has Obama embrace Bush’s imperial presidency, that which makes possible Prism for example, he has expanded it. Those of us who could never be accused of naiveté have still been disappointed by Obama’s vast expansion of drone assassinations and warfare, the prosecution of  more whistleblowers than all his predecessors combined and now the significant development of the National Security Agency’s ability to spy on U.S. citizens. (If only he had shown some of the same determination when dealing with the Tea Party.) The likes of Noam Chomsky and Core Vidal have been heavily criticized for exaggerating the extent of the continuous expansion of the executive branch. Looks like they were right on target.

It may not only be Obama facing his Tony Blair Moment. All those young rebels in Silicon Valley and Seattle are up to their necks in the spying game. Do no evil indeed. Here is the list of the wonder companies of our digital age that, through legal necessity and/or willing cooperation, are participating in the Prism programme (listed in order of their entry):

  • Microsoft
  • Yahoo
  • Google
  • Facebook
  • PalTalk
  • AOL
  • Skype
  • YouTube
  • Apple.

Add to this list telecommunication companies like Verizon to complete the surveillance holy grail for spying on citizens and we find that our friendly companies can provide governments our:

  • Emails
  • Chat communications (video and voice)
  • Videos
  • Video conferencing
  • Social networking information and activities
  • Photos
  • Stored data
  • Login histories and file transfers

The official governmental responses in the U.S. and the UK to the surveillance scandal go like this:

Trust Us.

Really? Even a brief examination of recent history would lead the average citizen to be more than hesitant to trust any government with their personal information and the power to collect that information. In addition, the request to “trust us” should  never trump the principles of a democratic society and should never define the relationship between the individual and the state. History demonstrates that that relationship is always in flux and is always susceptible to abuse by the state. And even if our governments were completely and utterly trustworthy, which they are surely are not, that would not justify the blanket surveillance of citizens.

If you are an innocent and lawful citizen you have nothing to fear.

This statement is so obviously absurd one is tempted to pass over it. However, given our politicians seem to think it merits voicing, just a couple comments.

First, the statement implies being guilty is the only reason why one would desire and seek legal protection of his or her privacy. There are any number of reasons, personal, social, economic and political, why innocent individuals and groups do not want the state listening in on their conversations and plotting their activities. But even given the rightness of those reasons, it is a prima facie value of democracy that the state does not abuse an individual’s right to privacy. Our leaders are not only asking us to trust them. They are also asking us to dispense with fundamental tenants of democracy. Innocence should be assumed, even when such an assumption is risky. The risks inherent in privacy and the presumption of innocence do not justify the misuse of state power.

Second, if the above statement is reasonable then logically there is no limit to the amount of surveillance of the innocent by the state can justify.

It’s legal.

First, the legality of the surveillance of citizens should never be assumed. It is not good enough for the state to say its activities are legal. Again, historical evidence suggests that trusting the state is always involved in legal activity is absurd.

Second, it is very difficult to verify the legality of these surveillance programmes because the legal determination is done in secret courts and protected by secrecy laws. Here is how John Naughton of The Guardian describes the Kafkaesque situation we find ourselves in:

State Although intrusive surveillance does infringe a few liberties, it's necessary if you are to be protected from terrible things.

Citizen (anxiously) What terrible things?

State Can't tell you, I'm afraid, but believe us they are truly terrible. And, by the way, surveillance has already prevented some terrible things.

Citizen Such as?

State Sorry, can't go into details about those either.

Citizen So how do I know that this surveillance racket isn't just bureaucratic empire building?

State You don't need to worry about that because it's all done under legal authority.

Citizen So how does that work?

State Regrettably, we can't go into details because if we did so then the bad guys might get some ideas.

Third, even if we assume all or this massive surveillance is legal (which I do not), questions of legality are not the only questions to be asked. When the state, secret courts and multi-national corporations get together we must also ask: Even if the surveillance is legal, is it right?

We are not collecting content but only metadata.

Basically metadata is data about data, though a quick look at Wikipedia indicates it is more complex than that. In the area of surveillance the collection metadata would include, for example, gathering information on who calls whom, where the call was made from and how long it lasted. In the age of computer analysis, this kind of information is more important than what a person actually says. Again Naughton explains it well:

You have a telephone number of someone you regard as potentially "interesting". Type the number into a search box and up comes a list of every handset that has ever called, or been called by, it. After that, it's a matter of seconds before you have a network graph of second-, third- or fourth-degree connections to that original number. Map those on to electronic directories to get names and addresses, obtain a secret authorisation from the Fisa court (which has 11 federal judges so that it can sit round the clock, seven days a week), then dispatch a Prism subpoena to Facebook and co and make some coffee while waiting for the results. Repeat the process with the resulting email contact lists and – bingo! – you have a mass surveillance programme as good as anything Vladimir Putin could put together. And you've never had to sully your hands – or your conscience – with that precious "content" that civil libertarians get so worked up about.

By assuring us that they are not collecting the content of our emails, telephone calls, Facebook posting, websites and blogs, governments want us to believe that we have nothing to fear, that our civil liberties have not been infringed (or if they have it doesn’t really matter) and that they have not abuse their power. This is clearly not the case. And we must remember, that governments have the ability to collect and store all the content they want.

Many claim we are at a crucial point in the life of our democracies. Given that the internet is the nervous system of human civilization and that the state, with the help of multi-nationals and under the cover of secret laws, seek the complete mastery of the internet (their words, not mine), the relationship of the citizen to the state is up for grabs. Some are saying that we are moving from democratic states to security states and there is much evidence to support that. The scale of the data being collected on people around the world is almost unimaginable. The ability to analyse that data is immensely impressive.

Bush was the self-proclaimed war president. Obama is becoming known as the security president. The likes of Zukerberg, Page, Schmidt, Gates, Ballmer and co have been exposed as less the free flowing agents of a new age and more the helpers of government surveillance and the protectors of big time capitalism. Who cares if some of them go to meetings in a tee shirts and jeans?

By the way, if you choose to protect yourself from governmental surveillance, it’s easy. All you have to do is stop using:

  • Microsoft cloud services
  • Google and Bing searches
  • Google Docs
  • Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail
  • Skype
  • YouTube and Vimeo videos
  • Flickr and Picasa
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • iPhones and iPads.

You will also need to stop using all cell phone. Changing the sim will not do the trick. Your phone has a IMEI number that can be traced anywhere on the planet. And oh, if you have a passport don’t forget your personal information can be read from a distance.

So, good luck with that. And welcome to digital paradise.

Copyright © 2013 Dale Rominger

Reader Comments (1)

Interesting that Noam Chomsky flagged up Obama's woeful track record before his first election. Since then Obama has been intent on proving Chomsky right. States and markets can only exist through violence, control, propaganda and deception, so Snowden's revelation is very welcome but not particularly surprising. Nice post.

June 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Snyman

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