Friday, June 28, 2013

Spook Nation

Through out history, governments have spied on their people for reasons known and unknown. Authoritarian regimes did it to scare their people into control and submission. The secret police, like the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Communist Romania and more recently in Egypt, China and Iran, infiltrated the civilian population to instill a fear of being constantly watched. Democracies have spied on their people by adopting more invisible methods to avoid shattering the mirage of a free society. From the telegraph to the telephone, everything has been used to spy on the "enemy" within and without. Today the internet is the technology of choice. Having infiltrated every artery of our lives, the internet has become an effective tool to spy, snoop and intercept. When Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) imagined his dystopian novel "1984" in 1949, he did visualize technology to be an instrument for totalitarianism. I don't think he could have ever imagined the sophistication to which it has evolved today. From drones to iphones, the art of surveillance has been perfected and is only being improved upon. By getting informed consent from those being surveilled in suspicious and underhanded ways, under the pretext of keeping the people in question "safe", and protecting companies from lawsuits, the world wide web has certainly cast a formidable "web".

The day I sat at this thing called the "computer", and formed words and sentences next to a flashing cursor and tapped "send", only to watch alphabets vanish into ether, I knew a new age had dawned. From that almost primal moment in the 1990's, to the present day, technology has slipped by the grasp of humankind. One no longer has to press "send". Just by turning on your computer or your cellphone, one is giving away information about oneself endlessly all the time. And the invisible forces behind the "world wide web" have your permission, to use that information to sell to you, inform you and spy on you.

A new revealing documentary film titled "Terms and Conditions May Apply"examines how as a society and a planet we have come to give away all control of privacy and a right to seclusion, by a click of a button. As we relentlessly engage with the internet to perform daily tasks, such as shopping, communicating and socializing, we forget those uninvited guests who enter our circle of friends without our knowledge, only to gain information about us from the shadows.

So when this month Edward Snowden revealed to the world via The Guardian newspaper, that the American government was intercepting emails and phone calls of its citizens and has been requesting data in secret from internet and phone companies like Apple, Google, Yahoo, Verizon and ATT , it should not have come as a surprise. But it did for those who were living with their head in the sand. For revealing the names of classified dragnet surveillance programs PRISM and TEMPORA, he is being hunted by the US government who hope to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. As he lies holed up in a Moscow airport, his fate is being decided in the high-wire act of diplomatic double speak between two erstwhile cold war adversaries.

What Edward Snowden accomplished, is being hailed by many as heroic. Much like what Bradley Manning did when he leaked secret government communiqu├ęs to Wikileaks, exposing the underbelly of war and diplomacy and Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the deceptions of the US Government during the Vietnam war, via the Pentagon Papers. Edward Snowden is being hailed as the next "whistle-blower" extraordinaire. But what differentiates him from the others, is that he is a fugitive, hiding in a nation which has an abhorrent record on civil and human rights.

When George Bush and the Congress signed the Patriot Act into law in 2001, many civil liberties were gutted in the United States, under the guise of waging the nebulous "war on terror". The Patriot Act gave carte blanche to the president and the agencies that are entrusted with keeping America safe, the right to search any American citizen's phone, email and financial records without a court order. The Watergate Scandal and the wire tapping the CIA and FBI extensively engaged in during the sixties had brought into place stringent laws to protect the privacy of American citizens. The Patriot Act did away with most of those protections. The surveillance laws that were imbedded in the Patriot Act were to expire in 2005. President Obama and the Congress extended those provisions which are in effect today.

It was revealed today, by The Guardian, that the Obama Administration for more than two years directly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to continue collecting vast amounts of records detailing the email and internet usage of Americans. The collection of these records began under the Bush administration's wide-ranging warrant less surveillance program, collectively known by the NSA codename Stellar Wind. When questioned by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, about the embarrassing revelations, the obvious defense President Obama put forth was that the violation of civil rights was necessary for the safety of all and Germany had in fact benefited as a result. A "minor inconvenience" he quoted for the greater good, as many terrorist plots were foiled and lives saved as a result of the snooping. 

Whenever America or the west has been attacked by terrorists or terrorism, politicians and the media have taken every opportunity to frame it as an attack on "our way of life". An onslaught on "freedom" and all that it embodies. Privacy is personal freedom. When that space is violated, so is democracy and all that it guarantees, no matter the justification. It is a serious attack on the way of life we are meant to believe we are living in the United States.

To exchange freedom for security, is more than just an inconvenience. Many may not put much thought to it, as security and safety is momentary and amorphous, a state of mind. One only thinks of it at an airport or in a New York city subway. But at the great American malls, where one is required to focus on consumption, security and freedom mean very little. Unless you have a mad man strolling around with a machine gun. Which has happened much too often in America, which the congress and the president have yet to satisfactorily address.

Certainly, America faces real threats from those who have tried and are trying to cause harm. And not everyone walks in the president's shoes, to know what is in the chatter. But one has to weigh the costs, when one infringes on ones people. President Obama promised more transparency in his government, and as a constitutional professor promised a better shade of democracy. It does not bode well for him when his administration is accused of spying on those who elected him. 

In the age of the internet that is offering wonders and experiences that are fast changing the world, keeping up with privacy issues is going to be a challenge. Much like strict laws keep cloning and other medical advances that are reshaping humans at the most fundamental level under check, similar laws and ethics are required to keep the issue of privacy under check. The internet and its obligations to privacy have to be policed, if we have to expect true democracy on the floor of the most democratic technology invented by mankind.

By igniting this debate in the rapidly changing tech age, Edward Snowden has undoubtedly done us a service. If he does return home, there is no question he will be prosecuted for violating the secrecy laws of the government. While there is a need for secrecy within government for efficient functioning, too much of it has often proven counterproductive and has mostly done harm.  The prosecutions the Obama administration has sought against those on the inside who have leaked information to the press, has exposed a very disturbing side of the government, which only weakens its credibility.

While the government is trying to frame the Snowden expose´as a security issue, many view it as a civil rights issue. When one takes comfort in democracy, it is under the assumption that one's civil rights are protected under all mitigating circumstances. In a disturbing development this month, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - a seminal civil rights legislation which gave scores of disenfranchised African Americans in the south, the right to vote. The voting rights act requires nine states mostly in the south, which have had and have a history of discrimination, to get approval from the justice department, before they change their voting laws. That will no longer be the case. On a more positive note, in a landmark civil rights decision, the Supreme Court made the road slightly easier for the gay community, by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied them certain federal benefits. A democracy that cannot guarantee all civil rights to all, at all times, despite any pressing circumstances, is a sham. It is what it is.