Like it or not, we are all complicit in online snooping

Minority report: it’s not just a fantasy. You are being tracked by tech. Creative Commons

The revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been deploying a software tool (PRISM) that enables federal agencies to engage in the online equivalent of phone tapping have generated a swift sharp response from across the board; from US lobby groups, to international NGOs, to pundits and funders.

In the glare of global media outrage, officials are looking to walk the tightrope of qualified disapproval at the intergovernmental level, e.g. the EU commissioner for justice, Viviane Reding and nationally, where there is lot of egg on the face of governments with intimate connections to the US intelligence establishment.

Revelation: everyone was surprised to hear the NSA spies on people

The first thing to note is that this response comes from linked-in parts of the world that are mobile phone/web-dependent, which is still only a third according to current statistics. Another set of responses is quickly gathering from those parts, including China, that have been the object of US-centred criticism for engaging in like-minded activities.

A clever parody on YouTube emanating from Taiwan capitalises on this aspect to the Obama administration’s fall from grace. In Europe protesters yesterday took to the streets in Berlin in anti-Obama demonstrations to voice their objections to US digital hegemony, among other things. Others assemble in various venues connecting offline with online realms (e.g. @EFFlive, @DigitalRightsPK, #FOTunis, #netfreedom,).

Meanwhile, an ad hoc coalition of groups calling themselves “international civil society” have mobilised to present petitions objecting to the negative implications these practices have for civil liberties not just in the US but also beyond. Their point is that the rights of both US and non-US citizens are protected under the 1948 International Bill of Human Rights even if there are differences in the sense and the classification of these rights at the national and intergovernmental level (The US First Amendment, The European Convention on Human Rights).

No online rights yet

At the very least, this affair highlights the ongoing chasm between how the rights and principles laid out in the above covenants (to privacy, freedom of expression, free association, religious freedom) are abused on the ground - in “meatspace” - every day. The legal and political fall out after PRISM throws into relief how such rights now have a digital dimension. Politicians, lawmakers, and software designers are struggling to come to terms with the need to recognise that in cyberspace human rights matter.

This controversy could actually be a boost to precursor initiatives to put just this point on internet governance agendas, such as the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet. The generalised condemnation could become a fillip to the UN Human Rights Council’s landmark decision to recognise that human rights are relevant, indeed under threat, in the online environment.

Dead giveaway: most people have a primitive notion of privacy online.

So, as the world wakes up to the news that all of us are suspect until tagged as otherwise, to talk of human rights and the internet is no longer an oxymoron. Perhaps a critical mass is developing as one petition went to the United Nations Human Rights Council last week and the second petition was presented this week to the US Congress.

A second point to note though: in this criminalising of everyday life through visible (mandatory mugshots and fingerprinting at the border) and invisible techniques (for example, deep packet inspection tools) and rights-based responses to them, governments are not acting alone. Technical communities, internet service providers and defence industries benefit too.

Whatever good intentions they may espouse - homeland security, anti-terrorism measures, public safety, enhanced service – all parties operating in these domains are operating according to the principle that the ends justify the means. They are all part of a post-9/11 and web-infused worldview where trust is assumed, not requested; where the indexing of transparency and socialising operate according to the “invisible hand” of market forces.

Just good business

Corporations, enjoying the chance to make capital for their own “internet freedom” agendas are deeply complicit in this state of affairs as well. What the PRISM scandal also underscores is that the corporate and government sectors are developing increasingly sophisticated and automated digital means to keep track of us all, everywhere, by default (which means by design). Collecting more data to mine and analyse means lucrative R&D contracts for researchers, government and corporate, to develop, refine, and try out these tools.

No-one is exempt from these issues in that everyday life itself has acquired an online dimension that has outstripped existing laws and rights-based institutions. The trade-off is that in exchange for generating advertising and tax revenue for service providers and governments respectively, ordinary users assume they will be left alone. They assume they will be allowed to expose themselves and their private lives on social networks (exuberantly), or on the bus when on the phone (loudly) in peace without fear of being grabbed in a pre-emptive raid by the security forces (think of the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s film, Minority Report).

Need to know: corporations make money from your private data. Creative Vision via Creative Commons

Huge databases are being amassed by dominant online giants such as Facebook and Google under their revised privacy terms of use. These are the databases that governments can and do request providers to allow them access to. More to the point, Big Brother assumes your consent because basically the terms of use and end user license agreements that we all sign up to in order to enjoy and use the internet services of US-based providers are where you live your life.

True, these same corporations are obliged by law to supply information to the US authorities on request and, true, they are on the side of the rest of us about this use of legal means to “snoop” on people. So it makes sense that they are mounting their own lobby offensives, backing the civil society campaigns noted above, or working out their own deals in order to keep business going as usual.

For those engaged in researching and supporting the broad-based opposition to these developments though, the PRISM news confirms what many have suspected all along: that Big Brother is watching you online without you knowing - and that Big Brother is not your own government, it is someone else’s. More to the point, Big Brother is not necessarily a government acting alone - data collection and retention is being done as we fill up our petrol tanks, withdraw or move money online, purchase shoes or a holiday, call our parents, enrol in university or exit the country. Supermarkets, borders, and our emails are now fair game for corporate and state powers looking to own and control everyday life.

The dream of cybernetic organism liberation that Donna Haraway envisaged in her 1980’s Cyborg Manifesto is morphing into its antithesis, a paranoid and self defeating power matrix of human-machine co-dependencies and networked geopolities that operate by designed defaults. As Haraway also notes, the new freedoms and the “informatics of domination” born of the digital age are intertwined.

As the much cited Michel Foucault argued 40 years ago, (neo-)liberalism’s main problem is that it is not liberal enough. For anyone looking for easy answers, or a quick moral fix-it to these conundrums there aren’t any.