As the Edward Snowden leaks spread via Glenn Greenwald, onto the Guardian, though fibre optics and into our minds, I keep hearing people – even smart people – saying ”pah, nothing new here – if you didn’t know this was happening, you were naïve” – as they carry on with their day.
The cynics are probably right; this was inevitable at this time in history. There is no reason to doubt the various intelligence services’ desire to tap into our digital lives and to have the ability to map our existence with a few keystrokes. The combination of post-9/11 mentality, the internet’s omnipresence in our lives and Moore’s law is a potent one.
However they’re not right in asserting, as some do, that these revelations are almost irrelevant.
Firstly, they deny the intelligence services plausible deniability. Up until now they could shrug and say ”secret” – or simply lie. It’s much more difficult to lie or deny when your internal slides and tacky acronyms are floating around. The questions being asked become too concrete to be nonchalantly brushed off as tinfoil hat nonsense by the agencies or their allies in politics and punditry.
Secondly, the more we know about how we’re being surveilled, the better. There is now no doubt that internet companies willingly sell you out, and it seems most transatlantic internet traffic - which includes a lot of inter-European traffic due to how the internet works - is looped via the British intelligence services. Anti-surveillance activism, as well as protecting your own activities (and you don’t need a better reason than preferring that no stranger can rummage through your stuff at will) is easier the more details we know.
Thirdly, cynicism is just too easy. We’re not fighting state surveillance, or climate change, or the grossly unfair financial system, because we see a clear path to victory, but because it’s the necessary thing to do. We shouldn’t take pleasure in leaning back with a worldly expression and saying ”I told you so” each time a fear of ours is confirmed, however tempting that is. It may feel like winning for a split second – but the war is being lost. We should point some angry fingers, refuse to accept the situation as inevitable and avoid being distracted by sideshows like ”the great Snowden hunt”.
Alongside the cynics, we have those who are not only unsurprised, but also unconcerned; they don’t expect to be personally targeted or simply trust that governments, current and future, won’t be tempted to abuse these powers.
Such trust is touching of course, but let’s leave the state to one side and there’s another cause to worry: states won’t be the only users.
Every database that many can access (and restricting access too much would defy the point of having it in the first place) will leak. Snowden leaked info on the systems, which isn’t a problem – worse leaks could come from it. Post 9/11 the world’s intelligence services have ballooned, and in the US over a million people have security clearance, many of whom work for private companies. Only a small fraction of these has the kind of access Snowden had, but those who do - even to one arm of the intelligence octopus – are sitting on a very valuable commodity.
If Snowden gave up his comfortable life to leak from conviction, how often do you think someone will be tempted to sell information on a specific individual for high monetary reward and small risk? Political opponents, industry lobbyists, organized crime, gutter press, businesses in fierce competition – the list of potential customers is long and includes anyone with money, an adversary and a willingness to get their hands just that little bit dirty.
The product is information, more comprehensive than ever before in history. Your correspondence and content is one thing, another is the metadata that can be used to map your every movement and relationship. This information is pure power, available to the most shrewd of the already powerful, whether inside the state or outside.
There’s a positive flipside: Snowden isn’t the only disillusioned intelligence agent partial to freedom. On a few desks in the world’s secret services there must be agents who are admiring his courage, and wondering what their contribution to a more just world could be. Some of them will act. Godspeed.