Innocent: nothing to fear

So the whole NSA thing kicked off and the entire internet is full of commentary, as you’d expect.

As with any new piece of news, HUGE REVELATION is followed by some detailed picking apart. (Right now, the biggie seems to be the “what does ‘direct access’ to servers actually mean?” – next up, “Why did Edward Snowden identify himself as the whistleblower?”).

The interesting thing about this debating is that although it’s clearly a good thing to pick apart potentially sensationalist bits of broad-brush news “YOU ARE BEING SPIED ON” and focus on the detail “WHAT DOES ‘SPYING’ MEAN IN THIS CONTEXT?”, there is also – I think – a danger that if the focus becomes too specialised you not only lose audience interest and impetus as the detail is debated by experts in that particular niche field, but you also potentially lose sight of the big picture.

This picture seems to me to be the single most important thing, and it echoes Snowden’s stated reasons for coming forward:

I don’t want to live in a society that
does these sorts of things

This isn’t about the detailed debate as to whether this kind of surveillance helps or hinders terrorism, this isn’t about what “metadata” is in this context, it isn’t even about where particular allegiances lie. It’s about the flavour of the place we want to create as a civilised, intelligent and compassionate society.

In debating the importance of privacy with friends, the most common response is this: “I’m innocent. I have nothing to fear”, and it is almost exactly these words that the British government is using in pretty much every interview I’ve heard about NSAgate. “British citizens have nothing to fear” said Malcolm Rifkind on Radio 4 today: sub-text: “If you’re guilty, fear. If you’re not, fear not”.

Really? So you’re happy sitting in a pub chatting to your friends for a total stranger to pull up a chair and listen in to you talking about the fact you fancy the barman? You’re ok with someone borrowing your phone and looking at the last ten numbers you dialled? You have no problem at all with someone totally unknown friending you on Facebook, or reading your diary? You’re innocent, right, so all of this is ok to you? “It’s just metadata” you say – “the Government doesn’t know what we said, they just know we you said it to, and that’s ok”.

Well look, here’s what the EFF says about metadata:

> They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
> They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
> They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
> They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
> They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood’s number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.

The thing is, the surveillance state that can be developed today is abusable in a way that is entirely unprecedented. Is there anyone out there who can genuinely claim that they have never tweeted or posted a comment, visited a website, sent a text, received an email which – if taken out of context – couldn’t be used in nefarious ways by the next Government or employer who wasn’t quite so happy that you went on that anti-war march ten years ago? I don’t think so. The “innocence” of your actions is in the eyes of the beholder; this innocence is contextual and changing with time and with circumstance. Blanket, panopticon-like surveillance of the kind described by Snowden sets a wholly dangerous precedent.

The bigger point is surely this: do we want to live in a society where someone is watching all the time?

However “innocent” you are, I don’t think you do.

2 thoughts on “Innocent: nothing to fear”

  1. No I don’t.

    However, until we accept that appalling acts (normally categorised as terror by the media) will happen and are often unpreventable, successive governments of all colours will continue to use this as an excuse to demolish privacy and civil liberty.

    Is the fact that govt’s spy on our online activity any surprise when even so called democracies imprison people without trial or meaningful evidence and then force feed them when they have the temerity to complain?

    We may want and need better, more tolerant, liberal, progressive democracies around the world. However, before that happens the population in general needs to engage more and at the very least vote.

    Until this happens we can expect the usual diet of sensationalised headlines followed by general brouhaha followed by acceptance on the basis that nothing ever changes.

    Maybe this NSAgate will finally irritate people enough for them to act … if not we will continue to get the politicians we deserve.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Simon. Couldn’t agree more, the general not-engaging-with-politics thing is absolutely at the core of this. I guess in the UK the problem we have is that with two parties increasingly occupying a fairly similar point of view on most matters and with very little opposition to speak of it’s tough to see this as a democratic process.

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