For the last few years, my routine has been to wake early, make coffee and spend time on social media networks – reading articles, commenting on friend’s photos, discussing my favourite subjects on blogs, and occasionally writing commentary here. This routine coincided with the purchase of my first Mac laptop, which gave me the option of being online while propped up on the couch, with my coffee steaming on the table next to me.
By the time Edward Snowden’s first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras was released, I had embraced social media completely: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Linkedin, Gmail, tumblr and Skype. I probably clicked on the link to his interview from my FB or Twitter feed.
The stickers on Ed Snowden’s laptop: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TorProject
Of course, I knew from early on that these platforms were not really free, that we pay for them by giving online advertisers access to our personal information. And we all know that governments spy on us. But learning the extent of this spying from someone who had seen it up close and personal really jarred me. Knowing the details of how the spying is done made me start thinking a lot more about corporate surveillance too.
All of a sudden I was keenly aware of how my actions were being monitored whenever I was online, and how much personal detail I had made public: the names and details of my husband, son, a great many relatives and most of my friends, where I am in time and space, the name of my bank, my favourite coffee, my birth date, blood type, eye colour, favourite writers, political views, religious preferences or lack thereof – almost everything.
Hearing Edward Snowden tell us in detail how our privacy is a joke was the stone that started the landslide. My denial about the impact of my online activities on my privacy and my relationships with others has come to an end. I started changing my online behaviour. I started to feel very angry. I should not have to be censor what I say online to avoid “incriminating” myself.
I should be able to share my personal life online according to my own wishes, and not those of corporations and governments. Constant surveillance and data collection have consequences. These activities threaten our freedom and degrade our public spaces and dialogue. They undermine our humanity. They make a joke out of civil rights.
As a left-leaning writer with an activist past, I have always doubted that I would be given top-secret clearance, even if I applied. I do have a couple of friends with top-secret clearance, so I realize that working for the government in that capacity does not have to mean you defer entirely to authority. But I very much doubt you could openly protest the activities of the spy agency or department you work for and keep your clearance for very long.
I suppose a weakness of spy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment Canada or the National Security Agency in the digital age is that they need computer experts who are on the cutting edge to hack technologies for them, and most of those folks are young guys who may not have completely worked out their moral and political life yet. The danger is that some of them will have an awakening and turn on their masters, which brings us to Edward Snowden.
Ed Snowden joined the NSA when he was very young and over the course of eight years gained access to some of the Agency’s more sensitive information. Snowden’s inner moral and political awakening to the NSA’s abuse of power was gradual:
When you’re in positions of privileged access…you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee and because of that, you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances.
When you see everything, and you see it on a more frequent basis, you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses…
…[O]ver time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about. And the more you talk about the more you’re ignored. The more you’re told it’s not a problem until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”
Unlike Snowden, my moral and political life has continued on its early trajectory. I have never trusted spy organizations, and would never accept a position working with CSEC or CSIS, even if it were offered.
Just the same, Snowden’s revelations have given me the chance to deepen my own moral and political perspective. I have woken up to the reality that I have, effectively, no privacy, and even though I have left Facebook, dumped gmail and encrypted my hard-drive, the genie is out of the bottle and my actions now are just damage control.
To illustrate what I mean by this loss of privacy, consider Facebook. We all know it’s free because the company makes its money selling advertising on the site. So we accept that in exchange for the ability to use this platform that lets us connect with friends, relatives and others around the world, we will have to put up with a certain amount of advertising.
And if that were the case, I would be okay with it. It would be a fair exchange, perhaps. But that is not what is going on.
Richard Stallman says Facebook is a surveillance machine, and most of the technology created by big corporations is designed to track and surveil its users. At first, I thought he was paranoid, or extreme. But the more I think about it, this conclusion seems inescapable. As Bruce Stirling puts it:
“Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all…intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.”
When you set up camp on Facebook and build your virtual apartment there, you become part of a community that is inside a transparent bubble. You create a profile to represent yourself to, and connect with, people you have chosen to have in your network - your audience, in a sense. But in reality, your Facebook profile is actually transmitting information about your desires, interests, habits, work activities, location, family relationships, political and spiritual views to advertisers, third-party applications, data miners and governments.
On Facebook, my network is not my audience. My network and I are on stage together. The audience is made up of organizations, positioned outside the observation bubble, that analyze everything about us in order to better sell us products and services and predict all our preferences and behaviour. And lurking in that audience are spies, quietly collecting information about our friends and family, our political views, our connections and affiliations and all our movements from day to day and year to year, on behalf of powerful governments.
Facebook’s so-called privacy is a setup whereby you create your own password key, which you use to enter into your compartment within the transparent bubble in order to visit your carefully selected network of people and organizations. This network mostly shares your views, or at a minimum, doesn’t disrupt your worldview too much.
Privacy in this sense means that you get to choose which inhabitants of the bubble can view the contents of your compartment. But you have no control over what the watchers on the outside of the bubble are able to see. In this sense, Facebook privacy (and most likely online privacy in general) is a joke.
But unfortunately, the joke doesn’t end there. We started laughing at the absurdity of our situation a bit too soon. According the Guardian:
“The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.
With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.”
Given the extent of NSA access to user information stored on servers by Google, Facebook, Apple, Skype, etc., we can assume that the NSA and its partners have the keys to some of our online spaces too. It was not enough to watch through the observation bubble along with the corporations and the data miners. The spies have entered our rooms and secretly taken up residence under the bed. It is thanks to Edward Snowden that we now know the depth and breadth of our exposure online.
If you are an American, you have at least a chance of reining in the NSA. But if you are from outside the US, as I am, you can’t expel these spies. You have to close down the rooms where they lurk. Stop using these “free” social media and email services – close down your Facebook and cloud accounts, switch to a paid email service that respects privacy, and use other social media platforms with caution, if at all.
If we decide to maintain a presence in the virtual spaces of social media, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are safe and won’t be targeted by our governments’ spy agencies as long as we do and say nothing wrong – the notion that you don’t need to worry if you have nothing to hide.
We have revealed so much online that all our essential details and connections are known. If an agency decides I am a person of interest (as Greenwald and Poitras are), or that I am connected to one, that organization already has everything it needs to portray my innocent, innocuous activities and friendships as nefarious, dishonest and questionable.
It would be a wonderful thing if we could connect with each other online using platforms that allow us to privately and freely befriend each other and exchange ideas, dreams and interests. Our governments have an obligation to protect the freedom of these online spaces because these spaces are essential to freedom of expression and freedom of movement, liberties that underpin democracy.
Our defence against surveillance and the invasion of privacy lies offline, in the parliaments of our countries where policies about privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are determined.