These Rights Are Our Rights, Colltalers
In less than two years since Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA documents revealing a vast, global network for citizen surveillance, orchestrated by the agency and aided by some of the biggest social media companies, the issue never stopped being red hot.
It’s getting even hotter with antitrust charges filed Wednesday by the European Union against Google, two cybersecurity House bills with major implications to individual privacy being debated this week, and the outlook for reauthorization of the Patriot Act in June.
On the surface, these developments may seem unrelated, but they’re part of a common, fundamental discussion over our stand as a free society. Or whether a shady government agency or private enterprises should have unrestricted to individuals’ personal data.
Since Snowden’s disclosures, it became clear that the NSA has engorged its ability to collect data on anyone around the world, with help from both powerful social networks and an outdated, faulty legislation. That, and of course, the widespread paranoia about terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. No wonder that tragedy is often invoked whenever basic individual rights are about to be violated.
It goes beyond that; the false dilemma between security vs. privacy has been the preferred argument to increase government powers to spy on citizens’ private affairs. The whole concept of intelligence has been somewhat thwarted to privilege secretive, circumstantial gathering of information over the larger context of the civil right of individuals and groups to assembly and dissent.
That’s why the EU’s suit is commendable, as it addresses a nefarious side-effect of the Internet age: corporate access to personal data. Yes, it wouldn’t be possible for them to have such access if users wouldn’t have given them all for free, or in exchange for peanuts.
But if you’d want the government interfering on anything, it’d be to protect your privacy. Instead, as the documents attest, both corporations and the government have been intimate allies on this front. The EU filing is a breach on this non-written agreement.
Which is significant, since up to now, those two social network giants, plus Twitter and others, had been diverting their operations to European countries, such as Ireland, so to avoid U.S. anti-trust and, timid, privacy laws. So much for the Obama administration’s image as a severe prosecutor of whistleblowers, while being utterly complacent about the alleged crimes they are denouncing.
Not that the Justice Department has shown any signs that it’s changing its beat. As of now, there’s no deal on the table for Snowden, Chelsea Manning languishes in a federal prison for disclosing an even smaller trove of classified secrets, and an array of journalists and former government employees face imprisonment for trying to warn the American public about what’s been done in its name.
To be sure, the anti-trust suit brought against Google by European regulator Margrethe Vestager is tangential to the big debate over privacy laws. It alleges simply that it used illegal practices to beat its competitors in the lucrative market of search results.
But after years trying to persecute it based on possible infringements of Europe’s personal privacy laws, and getting nowhere, catching it on a technicality may just be enough. Also, the upside of the multibillion dollar suit may be to ignite new restrictions in the way social networks profit from personal data, hindering, in the long run, their deputizing by the NSA to mine individuals’ data.
That it’s happening in Europe has yet another unintended collateral: it may discourage companies such as Twitter from using the continent to avoid complying by NSA’s court requests for its users’ sensitive information. Again, in this complicated dance over profiting from Internet users’ personal information, corporations play allies in one instance, and intrusive snitches in another.
Facebook, another nation-size power prying and profiting on its customers’ personal lives, has been on this shady side of privacy laws many times before. So it’s no surprise that it’s been reported that it’s allowed a CIA-funded company to scan its chat rooms.
The EU’s decision to go after Google, regardless whether it may directly affect the way the Mountain View, California, company goes about its business of offering quick search results at your fingertips, is not nearly enough to set up a trend, however.
More crucial is the U.S.’s ability to muscle its way through foreign markets, avoiding privacy restriction laws. Such somber prospect suddenly became closer to reality Thursday, when congress gave the Obama administration fast-track authority for trade deals.
Preventing trade partners from protecting themselves from the onslaught of American digital goods and data flows crossing in and out of their borders is the government’s gift to big U.S.-based social network and Internet companies. Free to operate without constrains from pesky local legislations, they’d in theory be more than willing to help the NSA to do its dirty data-collection deed.
For a Congress which has been ineffective to the point of complete paralysis, when it comes to social legislation and measures to boost the economy, its willingness to jump into granting the president Fast Track powers for trade is notable. And depressing.
The Republican-controlled House, for instance, is calling this a Cyber Week, as it prepares to vote on two bills to support companies against hacker attacks, but that offer no protection against government snooping on personal data of these companies’ customers.
As it’s widely known that many members of congress don’t have much use for the Internet, with some admitting that they don’t even email, it’s doubtful that they’d share the same concerns of the now majority of the mankind, which does use it daily. But a legislation of that caliber, with its supposedly heavy backers, once passed, does have the power to move the needles on other privacy laws.
Finally, the rotten cherry on this malodorous cake of unfulfilled privacy expectations is, of course, the Patriot Act, and its possible reauthorization in a little more than a month from now. One of the most stringent pieces of legislation ever introduced into a democratic state, this relic of the post 9/11 days of fear and paranoia is set to expire and be reintroduced in Congress for approval.
It’s essentially the act that made the NSA’s massive collection of personal data possible, along with the rationale that individual freedoms restriction is necessary if we’re to be safe from those who wish us harm. That’s a totally arguably point, of course.
In an ideal world, and with a frank debate, proponents of the reauthorization would have no chance against the practicalities of reality, as spies can’t argue in open court how exactly they do their business. The intel community is already mobilized, however, to make sure it’ll all be decided behind closed doors, invoking national security. On that scenario, we’re all bound to lose.
14 years since the al-Qaeda’s attack, thousands of American, Iraqi, and Afghan lives have been lost to not much purpose, dozens of prisoners still languish without due process in Guantanamo Bay, and there’s an overall feeling that U.S. armed interventions did little to prevent new global focus of hatred against Americans. In some ways, it made our standard in the world considerably worse.
But we still see a daily parade of hawks advocating for more surveillance, more weapons, and above all, more funding for the U.S. to continue on the same path that has cost billions of dollars with little practical result. We’re definitely not safer now than we’ve ever been, and no amount of further intervention abroad is likely to revert such situation. On the contrary, diplomacy may just be it.
As for Snowden’s revelations and the American people, the news are not that much encouraging. A few weeks ago, comedian John Oliver went to Russia, where the whistleblower is stranded since August 2013, for what turned out to be a quite revealing interview.
Oliver listened almost dismissively to Snowden’s idealized view of Americans as an interested, well-informed, and transparency-loving people, who’d be highly supportive of the public service for which he’s lost his personal freedom to deliver. No chance.
In a series of quick street interviews, most had no idea, or had the wrong one, about who Snowden is and why he’s at odds with the Justice Dept. Some were even angry at him for supposedly having betrayed the trust of his former employee, a NSA subcontractor.
That’s when Oliver did the work that most professional journalists have failed to do: put the core of the revelations into simple terms and proved why it matters. His strategy? nude pictures that people sent over the Internet in the assumption that they’re, well, private.
Immediately, the most serious concerns of those who didn’t know what the fuss about Snowden was about, came into focus, and they suddenly realized what was at stake, when a society entrusts an unaccountable government agency with their most personal secrets.
Hopefully, they’ve now joined the many millions who already knew that what’s been revealed has nothing to do with national security and everything with civil rights, regardless if some creepy dude has access to pics of our naked bodies and anatomy.
Again, no one forces us to share our most intimate thoughts and concerns with an all-absorbing faceless entity that does with them much more than simply delivering it to those we name recipients, this post included. But that doesn’t mean we’re signing off our rights over our data, even if we may need to step back and stop using the system altogether, so it can be fixed and made it safer.
Not a chance, of course. Change will come in leaps and backsteps, and no one’s sure that the individual will beat the collective in the end. We must try it, though. After all, Google, Facebook, the government, all work, or should, for us, even if some of us do work for them too. For that, their power must be curbed and, above all, the Patriot Act must not be renewed. Have a joint today. WC