Refractions off the PRISM

Published : Jun 22, 2013 18:37 IST

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. The Snowden leaks indicate that despite their protestations, the giant Internet companies—Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Skype and YouTube—made the data of their users, clients and consumers available to the secret service establishment, and cannot breathe a word about it.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. The Snowden leaks indicate that despite their protestations, the giant Internet companies—Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Skype and YouTube—made the data of their users, clients and consumers available to the secret service establishment, and cannot breathe a word about it.

THE problem is that you cannot pick up the phone and talk about it. Nor sign on to Facebook or Skype to vent your feelings about it. Because, as we always suspected but now know, some three-letter outfit out there—NSA, CIA, FBI—is tracking your call, and your articulations (about anything really) on the social media, and colour-coding you, depending on where you live in the world, from a palette that shifts from safe green to dangerous red, and slotting you, depending on what you have to say, on a scale that imaginably ranges from “friendly” to “unfriendly” to possibly even “dangerous”; and if you have been rashly discussing your plans to bomb the United States into extinction online or on the phone, naturally as downright “terrorist”. If it makes you feel any better, you are the involuntary subject of humungous, innovative programmes dandily codenamed PRISM and Boundless Informant that can pry into your life if you are as much as online. But maybe, and that’s the hope which emboldens this column, in this obsessive sweeping, blanket electronic eavesdropping, what appears in good old print may just get by unnoticed.

The history of truth, said Nietzsche, is the history of the longest lasting falsehood. We seem to be living through that proposition in the Kafkaesque aftermath of the revelations by Edward Snowden about mass, indiscriminate snooping by the U.S. secret service establishment, which cumulatively amounts to a universal violation of the human right to privacy. What we have at face value in Snowden is a morally outraged conscientious objector on the inside track of this spydom who cannot take the lies and deception any more and blows the whistle on what he later characterises as “the largest programme of suspicion-less surveillance in human history”. All hell predictably breaks loose. Thus far there is, at least in some measure, a cause and effect relationship in the narrative.

What follows is a phase of disinformation and disorientation where your moral compass is magnetically deflected and the meanings naturally associated with concepts and terms are twisted and torn out to convey something entirely different and sometimes just the opposite. So the Director of the U.S. National Intelligence, James Clapper, brazens it out by telling NBC News that he was being “most truthful or least untruthful” when he told the U.S. Congress in response to a specific question, that the National Security Agency (NSA) was not collecting data about millions of Americans—when in fact it was. For one given to such clever prevarication, it should hardly be surprising that it is the disclosures made by Snowden that are “reprehensible”, not the secretive, intrusive, illegal large-scale quarrying of private communication by his agency, nor his lying about it under oath to the House. As Snowden, from his hideout in Hong Kong, described it in his Q&A session with the public in an online forum organised by The Guardian , “James Clapper baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy. The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.”

U.S. President Barak Obama’s early reaction was cautiously benign: he was not, he suggested, averse to a debate in the public about the competing—at times mutually exclusive, he pointed out—demands of individual privacy and public security. Almost two weeks after the story broke, at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Obama seemed to suggest that he was stung into action by the disclosures to appoint an oversight board of independent American citizens, including “fierce civil libertarians”, as further check and balance on the collection and use of such metadata. But he has been ominously silent about what he thought of, and what was in store for, the one who sparked off the debate and the soul searching, except to indicate that the Justice Department would initiate criminal proceedings against Snowden and move for his expatriation from Hong Kong— blotting out the whistle-blower, as a variant, if you like, of shooting the messenger.

This peculiar tack of mortal equivocation, that the Snowden revelations are important but no thanks to Snowden, seems to be adopted even by the influential mainstream press in the U.S., including The Washington Post (which, along with The Guardian , first published the expose) and The New York Times , whose opinion writers (unlike of course those of The Guardian ) had pretty harsh things to say about the whistle-blower. Obama, meanwhile, put on a brave face at the meet of the G8 with what must have been uncomfortable knowledge that some of them now knew what he must have known all along about the e-mails and phones of their and leaders of the G20 being hacked in previous meetings. Earlier, in his first meeting back home in California with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he may also have had to abandon any idea of a show of indignation about cyber espionage by China, because by then Snowden had blown the lid off the systematic hacking for several years by the U.S. of the computers of Chinese public officials, citizens and students.

Role of Internet giants If it is in the grain of the state to spy on its own people and the citizens of other countries in the name of real or imagined, in this case not necessarily either, danger to itself, multinational companies which handle the global personal communication of the people with one another, and who therefore are cast in a fiduciary role, are hardly expected to be collusive in this effort, especially in a system which celebrates an autonomous free market. Despite their protestations, the hint we have from Snowden is that the giant Internet companies—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype and YouTube—made the data of their users, clients and consumers available to the secret service establishment, and cannot breathe a word about it. But then, such a nexus between giant digital corporations and the U.S. state was both a political and market imperative.

In his recent book The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age , Nick Harkaway throws some light on how this comes to be. Citing the example of Google, he points out how “the U.S. considers Google a strategic asset. Google’s Trust and Safety Manager is a former agent of the U.S. Secret Service. This is not to suggest that Google would ever compromise its legal responsibilities to its customers, or that employees of the company would supply data to the government for which they should have to obtain court orders. Rather, it is to observe that while Google’s public posture is of rakish defiance of authority—a posture that perhaps looks a bit odd now that the company is a global titan—it seems not implausible that where necessary and permissible, Google tries to be a helpful corporate citizen of the nation where it was born.”

How corporate clout succumbs and plays second fiddle to the state as it goes after the whistle-blower was amply demonstrated in the case of WikiLeaks, when MasterCard, Visa Europe, Western Union, PayPal and Bank of America severed all transactions with the website and Amazon removed it from its hosting service.

Uncovering identity The credibility and reliability of the personal data of their users, acquired and compiled by digital corporations in the course of their business, are crucial to their leveraging their peculiar revenue model. As Harkaway points out about Facebook (and this would be as true of the others), “[Mark] Zuckerberg’s company has an immense paper value—investment firm General Atlantic put it as $65 million in March 2011—and a large part of that is the notional value of all the customer information in the network. That information, properly analysed and deployed, could allow the kind of targeted selling companies are only able to dream about.”

The value of that information is undermined to the extent that customers have different real and virtual (or social media) identities; and it is small wonder that Zuckerberg (speaking to David Kirkpatrick, who wrote The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World ) characterises recourse to such dual identity as lack of integrity.

Zeroing in on the identity of one who has been online by the electronic traces left behind, de-anonymising the user, seems a matter of professional pride with these companies. As the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, boasted at the second Washington Ideas Forum 2010, “With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” This is the hacker ethic, shorn of its rebel essence, in the hands of the corporation.

The alternative Advocates of the free software movement have, of course, been alive to the implications of concentrated digital monopolies. The founder of the Software Freedom Law Centre and Professor at Columbia University, Eben Moglen, in fact, suggests that in the balance the danger to freedom posed by the social media may outweigh their liberative potential: “Everything we know about technology tells us that the current forms of social network communication, despite their enormous current value for politics, are also intensely dangerous to use. They are too centralised; they are too vulnerable to state retaliation and control…. It is not hard when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse.”

Moglen’s counter-model of tens of thousands of encrypted servers inspired four students of the New York University to build an alternative decentralised social network they called “Diaspora”. The project has had quick and dramatic initial success and attracted a huge user following, but, to endure, may yet have to get around the ethical problem of how to monetise a social network without commercially exploiting the personal data, and thereby betraying the implicit trust of its users. Official India’s reaction to the Snowden disclosure of the Boundless Informant data of March this year, which showed that 6.3 billion pieces of intelligence had been mined from computers in the country, placing it fifth in the hit list (the others being Iran, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt in that order), has been pathetically docile.

After some initial half-hearted attempts to downplay the import of this level of interest in India, there has been a flurry of activity towards setting up a concerted cyber security response mechanism in the form of the National Cyber Coordination Centre (NCCC). But it is not clear whether this is meant to counter or carry forward the agenda of the U.S. National Security Agency in our cyber domain. It would be ironical, but entirely probable, that the Snowden expose provides an excuse, a fillip and a boost to our own cyber sleuths to enlarge their scope and mandate and bring what goes on online under more intense scrutiny.

Then there is the more troubling issue of the reluctance of the people at large to see such intrusion into their lives as an affront to their liberty because they are, at the same time, subject to the constant refrain of a terrorist threat round the corner. In his book The Rule of Law , published in 2010, the late Lord Chief Justice Thomas Bingham of the United Kingdom discusses how the shrill atmospherics of the war against terror beleaguers the rule of law. The tension of the times, he points out, is, at a philosophical level, that between Cicero’s position, “ Salus populi suprema est lex ” (“the safety of the people is the supreme law”) and Benjamin Franklin’s conviction that “he who would put security before liberty deserves neither”. Bingham himself is with Benjamin Franklin because, he says, “we cannot commend our society to others by departing from the fundamental standards which make it worthy of commendation”. Edward Snowden, too, cites Benjamin Franklin in support of his cause. Those who put security before liberty call him a traitor; for those who value liberty more he is a patriot.

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