Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

The internet after Snowden: what now?

Since June, thanks to the information disclosed by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, a troubling truth has come to light. The internet, and with it the entire gamut of new communication…

What are the implications for democracy if our greatest communication tool - the internet - is turned on the citizenry and used for surveillance? EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

Since June, thanks to the information disclosed by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, a troubling truth has come to light. The internet, and with it the entire gamut of new communication technologies, have become the centrepiece of a gigantic, secret and complex system of mass surveillance used by governments to spy on citizens, on allies and enemies.

The Snowden files are quite revealing of the shifting role of communication technologies in democratic societies: from a much-talked-about technology of freedom to one of surveillance.

Evidence shows that American intelligence agents are using hackers’ tools to infect users’ machines and acquire the information they need. Reportedly, the NSA has used specifically designed malware to infect more than 50,000 computer networks worldwide to steal sensitive information.

One of Snowden’s leaks is a NSA memo named “SIGINT [Signals Intelligence] Strategy 2012-2016”. It shows that the agency’s priority for the future is to “aggressively pursue legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age” in order to be able to track the online activities of “anyone, anywhere, anytime”.

More worryingly, according to other documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA is able to collect data each day from “between 30 million and 50 million unique internet provider addresses”. This is real-time data that provides the agency with crucial information to name, localise and map the movements of the owner of the device connected to any of those IP addresses.

Showing a certain penchant for irony, the NSA calls the program the “Treasure Map”.

Have we gone too far?

Ideally, democratic power should always be accountable and open to scrutiny. But the secretiveness and pervasiveness of the many surveillance systems that surround us (both at state and corporate level, within and across borders) shatter the idyllic image of democracy we have cultivated for decades.

These highly complex systems literally disintegrate the spatial and geographical unity of people into streams of rights-less digital bits of data. No democratic system can survive and thrive in this context.

It is worth pondering whether or not we have gone too far in our quest to become a fully functional technological society. This is a quest that carries with it a great danger of displacement: technology evolves, but society – that is, both the institutions that constitute it and the people that live within it – seem to lag dangerously behind.

Our lives are continuously and necessarily immersed in a cacophony of data streams that are essential to our way of life, even though most of this data is beyond our ability to make sense of or even being aware of it.

The road ahead

The solution to this problem is very complex and cannot be handled by one body. It must be both a national and an international effort: an open process involving all stakeholders.

Laws must be rewritten to define adequate safeguards for users and restrain the excessive legal powers with which many governments can request to access to their citizens’ data.

In the latest edition of the Web Index, a report published annually by the World Wide Web Consortium, only five countries out of 81 surveyed were found to follow:

…best practice standards for privacy of electronic communications, meaning both an order from an independent court and substantive justification must be provided before law enforcement or intelligence agencies can intercept electronic communications.

Australia, the UK and the US were not among those five.

Whistleblowers’ role in our increasingly complex and secretive society has become of great importance. And yet, we still attach to them a certain stigma. We often call them traitors. In these troubled times this is the wrong approach. As Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, put it:

…at the end of the day when systems for checks and balances break down we have to rely on the whistleblowers – [hence] we must protect them and respect them.

Parliamentary oversight has proven itself inadequate to protect citizens’ privacy in a growingly complex information society. Many politicians have no idea how the internet works.

Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium. The consortium is shedding light on countries' spying practices. AAP/Paul Miller

The shape of things to come

We need to devise new mechanisms to control the controllers. We need to properly employ and empower the online community as a watchdog over the integrity of the system.

IT companies should create external non-partisan ethical committees to oversee some of their policies and assess the real efficacy of their encryption protocols. For instance, bodies like the Worldwide Internet Consortium or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) should be an integral part of this process.

Parliaments should also make extensive use of crowdsourcing to craft important pieces of legislation concerning the internet. Brazil has proven to be a step ahead of many with its Bill of Rights for the Internet (Marco Civil da Internet). Admittedly, the process has not been without hiccups and the text of the proposed law is still far from perfect.

Changing the trajectory of our future is crucial. If not adequately dealt with, the NSA’s pervasive system of mass surveillance may well represent the shape of things to come. It will be a 21st century society of control, where the sophisticated exercise of power will be invisible to most of us, and all we will be left with is a quasi-phantom version of the democratic life we thought we knew.

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

51 Comments sorted by

  1. Baron Pike

    logged in via Facebook

    Keep in mind that the NSA's essential purpose is to protect the nation and its cooperative nations from acts of terrorism. We don't need to look at your private correspondence, but we do need to have the ability to look at any channels of communication that terroristic parties might choose to use. And most certainly they will choose the ones that for whatever reason we've been prevented from looking at.
    if you don't trust the NSA to follow their professed rules concerning your communicative privacy, keep your most secret information to yourself. Either that or choose openly to give the terrorists a much freer hand. We're in a new kind of war for what would seem to be the long term. There are no civilian bystanders outside the dangerous communicative loop of the combatants.

    report
    1. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Baron Pike

      You're obviously one of those NSA trolls. Just stepped out of World of Warcraft to grace us with your presence?

      "if you don't trust the NSA to follow their professed rules concerning your communicative privacy, keep your most secret information to yourself."

      Everyone realizes now that this is not about 'eavesdropping' or the interception of private communications. I could quite happily follow your advice and keep things to myself, but the use of metadata from computer and mobile sources means…

      Read more
    2. Brandon Young

      Retired

      In reply to Baron Pike

      Do we live in a cartoon world of good guys and bad guys? Or does malevolence always rise to fill gaps in accountability?

      Even if you start out with good intentions, or wrap self interest up in rationale that seems to add up for the lazy minds, unaccountable power is a systemic bias that always drives corruption.

      report
    3. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris Booker

      Believe what you like. Let the propagandists suck you in. Unless of course you're one of them, which seems more likely to be the case.
      But of course many of the world's corporations have their own ability to do just what you'd like the NSA to be accused of doing. It's a big world and apparently too big for the likes of you.

      report
    4. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Brandon Young

      Corruption pretty much drives itself, and yes we live in a world replete with bad guys. They'd love it if you tied the good guys hands, but good doesn't necessarily equate with stupid.

      report
    5. Brandon Young

      Retired

      In reply to Baron Pike

      So you do believe in good guys and bad guys.

      In that case, you will not be able to understand the objections to your arguments that are based on a more realistic appreciation for how systemic power works. All you can do is use vague labels like propaganda and conspiracy theory, which is hardly constructive comment, is it?

      report
    6. Brandon Young

      Retired

      In reply to Brandon Young

      Or another way to put the question is ...

      How reasonable is it to defend secrecy if one is not willing or able to acknowledge the cost of secrecy?

      report
    7. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Baron Pike

      What an ignorant thing to say, it is the equivilant of stating "Stralia mate, if you don't like it F-off"

      "Overwhleming Government Survalliance; If you don't like it, don't organise any political group of protest or anything of the sort as they are monitoring all the communication tracks"

      report
    8. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Brandon Young

      "Does Malevolence always rise to fill gaps in accountability?"

      Hell Yes, the best sentence I have heard in a while

      report
    9. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Baron Pike

      i think the whole terrorism argument for the erosion of civil liberties and privacy IS the red herring.

      Just wat the US always wanted, an endless war against an unknown enemy in an unknown country, hence justifying their own horrors.

      report
    10. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Baron Pike

      must be so conformting to be so confident as to "whom" are the good guys and "whom" are the bad guys.

      report
    11. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Hanlon's Razor reads, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

      While the admonition to not rule out malice was later added, the matter in itself was raised by Goethe in 1774, and Jane West in 1812, and more recently Sir Bernard Ingham in his somewhat laconic adage, "cock-up before conspiracy".

      Now, because this thread is already being invaded by loons, and before more arrive, I'm out of here.

      report
    12. Brandon Young

      Retired

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      "cock-up before conspiracy"

      Gee Tom, the world has moved on a long way from there. We understand systems now. We understand that systems can have malevolent bias without a single malevolent action. So, while cock ups and conspiracies do occur, we can explain many malevolent outcomes without having to find anyone to blame or dream anything into existence.

      report
    13. Billy Field

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Baron Pike

      Baron says "Keep in mind that the NSA's essential purpose is to protect the nation "....

      If they want to protect from attacks us why not start by stopping the needless military foreign interventions? They are profitable but rarely necessary...
      I suspect it is LARGLY really about protecting themselves from the masses biting them on the ass for their own crimes...& to control us & silence dissent ...by intimidation....
      Thank heavens all, like Assange, Snowdon & Manning, are not "true believers".....how sad we now have our own whistler-blowers being persecuted for reporting the crimes they ought!

      report
    14. Brandon Young

      Retired

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Thanks for the link, it is spot on. I had seen others in the series but this guy sums up systemic power in economics pretty well, and I would urge anyone who is willing to invest 15 minutes of their lives into understanding the world a lot better to give it a try.

      Unfortunately there are significant psychological barriers to overcome before complex systems make sense to people, including the need to suspend all belief and self-interest while applying genuine intellectual effort to contemplation, as Glattfelder alludes to, and most people will decide to remain in the dark.

      report
  2. Tony Simons
    Tony Simons is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Dodgy Director

    NSA is very similar to the East German Stasi. And economic espionage is an unstated part of the brief as we saw from Dolly Downer / Woodside attacking the very small, starving Timor Leste ("that's old news"). The arrogance of a lack of accountability and secrecy.

    report
    1. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tony Simons

      Stasi? Ask an East German to make that comparison. Then try to get a bit closer to the truth next time.

      report
  3. Michael Birch
    Michael Birch is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired teacher

    It is not just about terrorism, though, is it? Surveillance relates also to those who protest coal seam gas exploration, those concerned with human rights abuses as in Palestine, those who protest apartheid, like Mandela, those who organise to reduce our contribution to climate change, those who tell the truth, like Bradley Manning, those who protest the inequitable distribution of wealth, or the gruesome profits of the whole military-industrial complex. It threatens all except the .01%

    report
    1. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Birch

      That's the propaganda, and if you want to believe it, you will. But you should elect a representative you trust and have him or her examine the agency, which they have a right to do. Even then, if you're a conspiracy enthusiast, you won't be satisfied, but that' going to have to be your problem. In which case you should consider getting this system: https://www.mywickr.com/en/index.php

      report
    2. Baron Pike

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Baron Pike

      In any case I've had my say and I'll leave you all now to your own devices. Otherwise the moderator will start erasing my commentary anyway.

      report
    3. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Baron Pike

      ahahahahahahahahahaha.. "elect a representative you can trust". hahahahahahahahahahah.. tanx :)

      report
    4. Billy Field

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Is it possible Baron is a True Believer or a shill?..I just pass his entries now...

      report
  4. George Michaelson

    Person

    "For instance, bodies like the Worldwide Internet Consortium or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) should be an integral part of this process."

    Should be? It *is*. -Did it escape your attention that IETF88 Vancouver headlined Bruce Schnier talking about the risks, the IETF has formed the PERPASS working group, continues discussion on requirements for enhanced end-to-end security, and participates in the outcomes of the Montevideo Statement, and the coming meeting in Brazil?

    report
  5. Peter Strempel

    Consultant

    Navarria is mistaken to see the issue of surveillance solely or even principally as a state matter. The technology tools for capturing and evaluating surveillance information are all in private hands, developed for profit-making purposes.

    The biggest threat is from unregulated robber baron capitalism, which is distinct from private enterprise principally because of the amorality it assumes, and the trans-national character that helps it avoid state controls in any jurisdiction. What these robber…

    Read more
    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Peter Strempel

      Great point, devestating point, Private intelligence companies are a massive threat and they do both government and non government work

      report
    2. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Peter Strempel

      getting very hard to tell the difference. Just read that the NSW Liberal party state Executive is "liberally" pepperred with Lobbyists for the corporations. with reference to previous Nazi refs, from what i understand, that's how they started too.

      report
    3. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Michael Shand

      The one sure thing to counter intelligence, is being intelligent.

      report
  6. Peter Parry

    Child and adolescent psychiatrist & senior lecturer at University of Queensland

    I'm very glad to see an article approach this topic on The Conversation.

    I used to be dismissive of "conspiracy theories" but have found in recent months that there are real concerns we should all examine for ourselves. Whistleblowers like Snowden have caused millions to start to be concerned about these issues.

    What worries me is that the fiction and non-fiction I read in my youth - Orwell, Huxley, Solzhenitsyn, Dudintsev, writers from Mao's China, "Fatherland" by Robert Harris, the rise…

    Read more
    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Peter Parry

      It's a tricky topic Conspiracy Theories;

      9/11 was a conspiracy by any account - a group of men planned in advance to highjack planes and fly them into buildings

      This is a conspiracy, they conspired to do it

      On the same notion, Alex Jones would have you believe there is a secret race of lizard people running the earth

      This is a conspiracy theory in the colloquial sense

      The fact that the CIA overthrew a democractically elected leader in Iran in 1953 was a conspiracy, and it worked - CIA Admit to it, pushing propaghanda, shoring up protests, etc

      So it's a vexed term conspiracy theory - as there are actual conspiracy's out there

      Golden rule of thumb is to apportion your belief to the evidence

      report
    2. Billy Field

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Parry

      Peter says..."In the end free speech, transparency and willingness to ask uncomfortable questions are vital to true democracy." Thankyou. How very true Sir!

      And free speech can expose the tactics of wrongdoers and cause them to change practices...eg end wrongful occupations & repression.....and it can demoralise people who support & collaborate in wrongdoing...The internet is the greatest revolution ever because really ignorance & communication is the only real problem... If you know someone is trying to pick your pocket you can take a step backwards...we can ALL be a Ghandi now ..better still do it anonymously....Keep writing Peter AND we will win...Utopia Now I say!

      report
  7. Tom Fisher

    Editor and Proofreader

    I find myself somewhat bemused that this argument didn't go back to the source, and in failing to do so led to the usual drivel commentary, so way off the mark it's pathetic.

    The simple fact is that what we think of today as the Internet is the very child of the military, in a nutshell developed by their introducing packet switching technology as a means of enabling information sharing capability broadly across distributed networks, and securing their computer systems against centralised attack…

    Read more
    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      The internet may have started as a military project....but so did Australia

      Australia was started as a prison for british criminals - by your logic that's all Australia can ever be, any idea of turning it inot a contry, lol, Australia is a prison, always has been right? ohh wait a minute

      report
    2. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Michael Shand

      I have no problem with Australia turning into a country one day, eventually, but from the endless drivel posted here, this being an as great unrealised and plain unrealisable promise of intelligent discussion, I'll not hold my breath waiting.

      And Ockham's Razor? Who know it in the original, and it's context, or able to quote it correctly?

      For now, "Pluralitas none est ponenda sine necessitate."

      Out of here.

      report
    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      Occams razor is basically the idea that the most simple answer is usually the most correct.

      Some have used the term Occams Chainsaw recently where people apply occams razor without due diligence

      report
  8. Billy Field

    logged in via Facebook

    This data WILL be used CORRUPTLY for political purposes and, corrupt commercial purposes, and, to silence dissent....will worsen INCREMENTALLY.... just a matter of time.., AND as always after the crimes, they will pull rank, defend their "meal tickets", blame some underling or "mistake" and NO real price will be paid for the most serious crimes in the world.....To many examples to name... Watergate...Iraq....Global banking & tax fraud..
    The Chinese execute corrupt public officials....in fact "OUR…

    Read more
  9. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Thanks Giovanni for this pivotal piece. Interesting that our quasi NSA's local rep here on TC, Baron reminds us in true "with us or against us" fashion that NSA's essential purpose is to protect the nation and its (sic) cooperative nations from acts of terrorism". That little possessive pronoun 'its' and the following adjective, 'cooperative' provides us with a wealth of insight into the situation from the viewpoint of the seat of empire....namely that Australia is a possession of the USA (principally…

    Read more
  10. Peter Wilkin

    Australian Realist

    Yeah whatever. The world will always find newer and ever more interesting ways to suck. Meanwhile i'm not going to care if some tired overworked underpaid government agent underling in whatever country gets to see what kind of gay porn i like. Just take me out and shoot me for being offensively apathetic about something that i can't change, you can't change, nobody can change.

    Just don't turn your nation into a theocracy. Nobody will hunt you like those who hunt you on behalf of their God with this curiously delicate sensibilities regarding what his creations can do with their anatomy.

    p.s. I'd just like to throw a pillow at all the people who are pretending to be shocked by what they knew was happening already, for the sake of drama or something. ( you know who you are Angela Merckel et al) XD

    report
    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Peter Wilkin

      At every turning point in history, there was a group of people who didn't know what they were talking about, insisting that change is impossible, it can't happen, you can't change it, don't even try

      In fact, if one thing is true in this world, it is that change is inevitable and the arc of history bends towards justice

      As for you "I'd just like to throw a pillow at all the people who are pretending to be shocked " - they aren't pretending, they actually understand the situtation

      report
    2. Peter Wilkin

      Australian Realist

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael nations have always and will always spy on each other. They have always and will always use EVERY tool at their disposal to do so from time to time, and from time to time innocent people will get accidentally in the middle of that.

      Do you seriously imagine that Angela Merkel's Germany didn't collect any information from the internet? Seriously?

      report
    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Peter Wilkin

      "nations have always and will always spy on each othe" - this is the equivilant to stating that the climate has always changed - it's true but that's not the point is it?

      "Do you seriously imagine that Angela Merkel's Germany didn't collect any information from the internet? " - no, you putting words in my mouth, I never mentioned Merkel - this is what is known as strawmanning

      but basically your argument boils down to "Nations have always spied on each other....therefor this can't be a problem"

      No one is argueing that nations do not spy on each other, this isn't an important point, the climate has always changed, that's not in dispute

      your arguments are shallow and ignorant

      report
  11. Leo Braun

    Conscientious Objector

    "That's the propaganda, and if you want to believe it, you will. But you should elect a representative you trust and have him or her examine the agency, which they have a right to do"! [Baron Pike]

    • Manifestly there are none so blind as those who refuse to see the reality. Pertaining to those who know not what they are unable to know, yet incessantly toying at collecting items of the ignorant intellect. Ever expanding the darkness of their cave. No wonder for a dismal failure to notice consequences of the usurped nation!

    Thanks to the jellyback pollies flair to corral public opinion as duped casualties treacherous era of universal deceit were driven always into unthinking conformity for a sole purpose to deflect focus from the insidious consequences. Have a look at the contours Legislative Assembly benches array, resembling Ü shaped silhouette ... http://ericmatic.free.fr/sitefolder/images/houserepresentative_JPG.jpg

    report
    1. Leo Braun

      Conscientious Objector

      In reply to Leo Braun

      "In fact this convenient illusion of 'democracy' is a farce that needed to be shattered, like children learning that Santa doesn't really exist. The appearance and pretence of sovereign 'democracy' functions as the window dressing/puppet show of captured govts and is the optimum tool to shield the growth and intensification of crypto-fascism, thus allowing the machinery of the now globalised corporatocracy unchallenged maximum penetration of the public body in individual nation states"! [Pat Moore]

      report