Monday, June 10, 2013

Information as a tool of Power

Knowledge is power. It is an elementary axiom instilled in school children the world over. Knowledge is created through an exchange of ideas and concepts through multiple mediums. A threat to this exchange of ideas is a direct challenge to the creation of new knowledge.

We are witnessing a very real challenge to the free exchange of ideas around the world with the revelations last week of a massive NSA spy network that essentially monitors all forms of communication. In short, the US government wants to know everything we do, think, and express at all times. Ostensibly it is to protect us from whatever bogeyman the government is currently after at any given moment, be it a courageous whistleblower or an alleged terrorist lurking in some half-forgotten cave in the middle of nowhere. But is it really about protection from bogeymen here and abroad, or does the government have alternative goals?

To be charitable, even if this massive amount of surveillance is a mixture of good intentions (security) and ulterior motives (power maximization), it is still an abridgment of fundamental rights that are a violation of the constitution and good consciousness. The US has decided to ignore all reasonable degrees of privacy in order to gain total information awareness. In this post, I would like to share some thoughts on this controversy and highlight some of the important questions that this latest fiasco raises.

To provide context, did a good job of summarizing what we’ve learned so far: 
On Thursday it was revealed that the NSA claims internally that it has been using a top-secret spying program called PRISM to gain direct access to personal data belonging to customers of top Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo. Many of those companies denied having this relationship with the NSA, but acknowledged, according to The New York Times, that they cooperated “at least a bit.
On Wednesday, Americans learned that the National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of the telecommunication giant Verizon.
On Friday we were told that President Obama had ordered his top national security and intelligence officers to construct an apparatus for globaly cyberattacks, which includes a list of targets overseas and potentially within the country. 
On Saturday it was disclosed that the NSA has a sophisticated tool for recording and analyzing the sources of its collected intelligence, a fact that gives the lie to the agency’s repeated assertions that it cannot keep track of all of the surveillance it performs on Americans’ communications.
What all of this demonstrates is that the US government is in the business of monopolizing information in order to use it for whatever means it deems appropriate. That means the government has the ability to access your private discussions with friends, families, business partners, employers, and others. It means the government has the potential for total knowledge awareness, knowing what you do, who you do it with, and at what time. But what if some other government got a hold of these massive data sets? As Conor Friedersdorf notes, "In the wrong hands, it could enable blackmail on a massive scale, widespread manipulation of U.S. politics, industrial espionage against American buisnesses;, [sic] and other mischief I can't even imagine." Is this something we the people should accept?

I think the answer is an unequivocal no. The government has no right to know everything. Privacy is a right that is not only enshrined in the fourth amendment of the US constitution, but is a fundamental right that all human beings deserve. Human beings deserve the right to know that our bodies and minds are our own, not to be surveilled or observed at the whims of others. This type of dragnet surveillance grossly infringes on our rights. This surveillance can be easily abused and, most probably, already has. To go pop culture, it reminds me of Enemy of the State, where spooks turned Will Smith’s life upside down because they thought he knew the wrong kind of secrets. Or in the Dark Knight when Lucius realizes that Batman has created a spy network that monitors everyone in Gotham and tenders his resignation because “this is a power no man should have.” I agree with Lucius that this is most certainly a power that no man – or government – should have, especially our own. Snowdon believes this so much that he has tendered his resignation from this alleged beacon of freedom and democracy to seek refuge in an alleged communist autocracy. Inverted reality, no? As the article in continued:
"Privacy is a deadly business. Psychologist tell us it is necessary for the development of personal independence. Artists, philosophers and scientists recognize its essential role in the birth of new ideas. And those who have gotten captured or killed for their political commitments worldwide, ever since someone stood outside of a tent and listened in on the conversation inside, know it is an essential condition for political freedom. Freedom is a value Americans love to claim they love."
I value freedom, privacy, and the desire to continue to exercise these rights. However, the NSA and other US spy agencies have developed a massive surveillance state in which the free exchange of ideas is being severely undermined. This is wrong and it is not in line with the values that America purports to hold. The construction of America’s authoritarian, corporatist state has been in the offing since 911, but a deep-seated disease has rotted away our political institutions and is undermining what is left of our “free” society. As Edward Snowdon noted, "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things." Neither do I.

For further reading:
Everything you need to know about the NSA’s phone records scandal
By: Timothy B. Lee, 6-6-13 Washington Post

How Congress unknowingly legalized PRISM in 2007
By: Timothy B. Lee, 6-6-13 Washington Post

President Obama’s Dragnet
By: NY Times Editorial Board, 6-6-13 NY Times

U.S. Confirms That it Gathers Online Data Overseas
By: Charlie Savage, Edward Wyatt and Peter Baker, 6-6-13 NY Times

The National Security Agency: surveillance giant with eyes on America
By: Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald, 6-6-13 The Guardian/UK

How to navigate the Internet around PRISM
By: Kris Holt, 6-9-13,