Knowledge. The final frontier.
28 March 2017 15:37 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The tinfoil hat loonies were right all along

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

It is trite to compare government surveillance programmes to George Orwell’s 1984. It is trite, and the term “Big Brother” may have lost its impact, but the comparison is truer every time it is made. Through pervasive surveillance and even mood manipulation, the power of the state has never been greater, and the privacy of the individual has never been more under threat.

[This is a shortened and edited version of a talk delivered on 10 October at the 29th Libertarian Spring Seminar in Jeffrey’s Bay. An audio recording of the full talk is available here: The tinfoil hat loonies were right all along.]

In No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s book on whistleblower Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the rise of the surveillance state, he cites a quotation from the Washington Post: “The government has never shown much sensitivity to the poisonous effect which its surveillance has upon the democratic process and upon the practice of free speech. But it must be self-evident that discussion and controversy respecting governmental policies and programs are bound to be inhibited if it is known that Big Brother, under disguise, is listening to them, and reporting them.”

These lines could have been written today, but in fact date to 1975. Then, too, there was a scandal about the surveillance activities of a government agency. In that case, it was J Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Little has changed since then, except for massive leaps in technology. For many years, I thought that to get placed under surveillance, you had to be pretty reckless about sticking your neck out. For many years, that was true. Physical wiretaps, secret bugs, long-lens cameras and undercover operatives were the state of the art, and they were expensive. It was easy to make the argument that if you weren’t a troublemaker, you’d be okay.

In those days, outside of obvious police states like South Africa, people who thought the government was monitoring them were routinely dismissed as paranoid conspiracy theorists. I used to think so myself. I thought they were the lunatics on the fringe. It’s not like libertarianism doesn’t attract its share of paranoid conspiracy theorists.

If you went to extremes to escape government surveillance or industrial espionage, without actually being a high-level diplomat, a top executive, criminal, a terrorist or a spy, I’d think you were crazy.

In those days, this harsh judgement may have been right, but it is now 2014, and on surveillance, the tinfoil hat brigade has been vindicated.

The story of how Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, contacted journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Greenwald tells the story of the biggest leak since the Pentagon Papers well enough in his book and on his website. Snowden was sitting on a large trove of top-secret documents revealing widespread US government surveillance on foreigners as well as Americans.

The extent of the surveillance is truly startling, and is neatly summed up by the former director of the NSA, Genl. Keith Alexander: “collect it all”.

Besides wholesale network data tapping, including of South African ISPs, the NSA can and did divert hardware orders in order to bug them, spread viruses via social networks and establish a botnet on compromised computers, masquerade as banks for purposes of stealing information, construct decoy cellular towers to intercept mobile calls and data, conduct identity theft to set people up as bait in drug stings, and subvert cryptography standards to give government agents backdoor access without having to crack the encryption.

This awesome power is not only directed at terrorists. Among the documents is evidence that the US routinely engages in industrial espionage as part of its diplomatic missions, in support of US commercial interests. After all, all they need to do to find your tender documents, or notice your meeting with a company that competes against a US firm, is look you up and let the computer connect the dots.

The NSA claims to only collect meta-data; that is, information about messages, rather than the content of messages themselves. It has a record of lying, even under oath, so there is no reason to believe that, but even if it’s true, agents can construct a surprisingly detailed picture of your life just from whom you call and for how long you speak.

When Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the US Senate Intelligence Subcommittee, said that this surveillance didn’t matter because all they collected was meta-data, the media asked a simple question. Would she, to back up her position, agree every month to publish a full list of the people she emailed and telephoned, including the length of time they spoke and the physical locations of both parties? She declined. It would be absurd to expect her to agree, because that would be a very real invasion of both personal privacy and professional confidentiality.

In the United States, the scandal is that these outrages are being committed against American citizens. The rest of us are, fair game, unprotected by its vaunted constitution, or even our own. The NSA is trying to suck up the entire Internet. The paranoid lunatics with the tin foil hats were right. The US government, and many others, really are listening.

Very often, when warnings like these are raised, people respond with a shrug. They feel they are too insignificant to really be alarmed by it. They tolerate intrusive government surveillance because, they think, if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to be afraid of.

This is based on a number of misconceptions. Greenwald relates a psychology study in his book on the chilling effects of surveillance. People who have reason to fear they will be reported, or are being watched, are far less likely to express controversial opinions than if they have no such fear. People who are monitored also score much higher on psychological questionnaires that measure anxiety and inhibition.

The authors of the study wrote that because of regular revelations that suggest invasion of privacy is more common than we might have thought, “the boundaries between paranoid delusions and justified cautions indeed become tenuous”.

This was in 1975, long before the NSA had an entire Internet to download. Today, there aren’t any delusions about the true extent of government surveillance. If you think you’re not being spied on, you must think you’re a very special kind of clever indeed. Maybe you are, but I’ll bet most of you are not.

In a 2013 study, the PEN American Center found that the recent revelations about the NSA’s surveillance has started to cause writers to self-censor, avoiding topics they fear might draw the attention of authorities. This is the effect that surveillance has on a population. It silences them.

And what if you’re not a writer, or you don’t hold controversial opinions? Well, consider the fact that you might want to tender for a government contract, and your competitor with friends in high places has access to your bank accounts, your client list, your contract terms and your tender proposals.

Pervasive surveillance by governments that include corruptible officials, are known to engage in industrial espionage, and even sell the technology to do so to private companies, means that your private information is never safe and can always be used against you.

How much information about you or your family could be used to discredit you, blackmail you or compromise the safety of your family? Would you back out of a deal if you knew your competitor had embarrassing photos of your partner or pictures that could endanger the safety of your children? Would you back off if someone threatened to reveal private medical records, or tells your employer that you used to use drugs?

You’ll often hear people say they’re all for government making the world a safer place for them and their children, and they need the tools to do so.

This, however, assumes that pervasive surveillance is such a tool. The big boost for the NSA came in the wake of 9/11, but it turned out that all the information that was needed to prevent 9/11 existed. It had all been gathered using existing laws and police practices. The only problem was that the FBI and the CIA were not permitted to share that information. And this wasn’t even a legal barrier, but a wall put in place by Jamie Gorelick, an official in the Clinton administration. It needed no new laws, and certainly not something as dangerous as the Patriot Act, which created most of the powers the spies are now abusing.

Ordinary anti-war protests have been declared potential terrorist activity under the Patriot Act. It has been abused to place political groups opposed to government policy under surveillance, which is exactly what Nixon’s plumbers were accused of doing in 1972.

According to New York magazine, a US federal judge found that the Justice Department had failed to cite a single case in which analysis of the data that the NSA collected in bulk actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.

A third argument is commonly made by people my age and younger, who grew up with the internet. Privacy is over-rated, they say. They’re watching us. So what?

I’ve been tempted by this one myself. I’m aware how much private companies know about me. I don’t like it, but it seems a fair trade-off for all sorts of conveniences, ranging from free services to location-based information.

But the downside is that unless you know about it and opt-out, private companies – and the NSA – have a complete record of everywhere you’ve been. Google tracks your movements, down to your walking around in your house, at all times. That’s what I mean by they know all about your secret affairs. They know you’ve seen a shrink. They know if you’ve ever visited a drug dealer, or tried to commit suicide, or had an abortion, or visited an HIV clinic, or had rape counselling, or tipped off the police about corruption. And so, probably do the Brits, the Israelis, and the South African government. And if you don’t live here, so do the Iranian mullahs, the Chinese mandarins, the Turkish government, and the Burmese junta.

People who dismiss the importance of privacy rarely stop to think why they password-protect sensitive business information and email accounts, or keep their phones to themselves. How many people would tape their conversations with their lawyer, or their doctor, and post them online?

How many things would you do when you are alone, but wouldn’t you do in public? Would you want an audience when you’re having an argument, or having sex?

Would you want an audience in a confidential business meeting, where you review staff performance, or plan a competitive contract bid?

Well, surprise. The NSA can turn on the camera and microphone on your devices without you even knowing about it, and so can Apple, Google, and all the rest. These techniques aren’t limited to dodgy hackers you can easily avoid if you don’t download their obvious viruses. The supposed good guys use them too.

The truth is, most people wouldn’t even sing or dance if they knew someone else was watching. Being watched is profoundly restrictive to our behaviour and the choices we make. If you are always being watched, you are not free. Even if you don’t know whether or not you’re being watched, you’re not free.

You certainly are not likely to rock the boat if you know you’re being spied upon. Psychological research dating back to the 19th century proves this. Prisons, open-plan offices, one-way mirrors and security cameras are all based on this premise. Millions of South Africans quietly went along with Apartheid, because they were too scared of being watched by the secret police.

Being watched produces all that a corporate boss or a government official wants: docile, non-threatening and productive people.

Greenwald puts it brilliantly in his book. If you’ll allow me a longish quote:

The danger posed by the state operating a massive secret surveillance system is far more ominous now than at any point in history. While the government, via surveillance, knows more and more about what its citizens are doing, its citizens know less and less about what their government is doing, shielded as it is by a wall of secrecy.

In a healthy democracy,” he writes, “the opposite is true. Democracy requires accountability and the consent of the governed, which is only possible if citizens know what is being done in their name. The presumption is that, with rare exception, they will know everything their political officials are doing, which is why they are called public servants, working in the public sector, in the public service, for public agencies.

Conversely, the presumption is that the government, with rare exception, will not know anything that law-abiding citizens are doing. That is why we are called private individuals, functioning in our private capacity.

Transparency is for those who carry out public duties and exercise public power. Privacy is for everyone else.”

This leaves us with the question: How do we defend against it?

We’ve come to see the Internet as an open, egalitarian space. John Gilmore, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, famously said of censorship that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

We need to view surveillance the same way, and route around it.

The belief that the Internet has the potential to liberate millions of people from oppressive regimes and lift millions more out of poverty is based on the premise that the Internet is free from government control. Instead, we find that it has become the government’s instrument of control. It has become the government’s surveillance network. It has become a tool of oppression.

If this sounds serious, that’s because it is. The NSA has broken the internet.

Can it be fixed? Yes, it can, but it will take a lot of work.

Learn about encryption, and how to keep both your data and communications safe from prying eyes. Use proxy servers in foreign countries. Use the Tor browser, which anonymises your internet browsing so it is hard to identify you from the far side of a connection. Use a virtual private network to protect the near side of your connection. There is safety in numbers.

There will be gaps in your screen, as there will be in mine. There are commercial services on which I rely, for example. But I plan to learn more about privacy. It bothers me that if you’re a source who wants me to guarantee confidentiality, the best I can do is say “I’ll try”. I never agreed to sacrifice my privacy for the sake of (not) catching a handful of terrorists or criminals.

While ordinary people can learn good privacy habits, or might be convinced to use simple encryption tools, the real call to action is to the engineers. The Internet is by nature free and open. It needs to become secure and private. Only once security is the default state, built into the foundation of the Internet, by organisations we know are not compromised by the NSA, will the Internet be fixed.

I fear that this will take a very long time. Until then, consider the Internet broken. Use it like you would drive a broken car: fearfully and with great care. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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