No hiding on the Internet

2013-10-03 00:00

A COUPLE of weeks ago, The Witness received an unusual complaint from a reader who objected to the fact that his comment posted on the company’s Facebook page had been printed in the newspaper. It was a reminder that many users of the Internet and social networking have a rather limited conception of exactly what they are doing and its implications.

CIA chief David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, made a similar mistake. They operated an anonymous shared e-mail account and communicated via drafts that were stored and never sent. Broadwell reportedly used WiFi facilities in hotels, but was betrayed by a trail of metadata, times and locations, that the police were able to cross-check against registers.

What appeared a secure means of communication was, with a little effort, easily cracked. We leave an electronic footprint wherever we tread in cyberspace.

Perhaps people will be more cautious in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s recent revelations. The former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) employee has paid a considerable and somewhat ironic price for his whistle-blowing human-rights activism. He now lives beneath the figurative radar in Russia, a country not known for civil-rights advocacy that is probably active in the same large-scale snooping on the Internet like Snowden’s erstwhile employers. The Russians are no friends of whistle-blowers but, like the Ecuador government which harbours Julian Assange, are happy enough to annoy the Americans.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, which has been at the forefront of coverage of the operations of security agencies, has pointed out that we are confronted by something way beyond the fictional imaginings of George Orwell and Franz Kafka. Digital privacy is ultimately a myth. The authorities can keep one individual or thousands under surveillance without moving from their computer screens.

Our supposed freedoms are caught in a vice: fundamentalist fanatics with AK47s and grenades on one side; the security services with their invasive algorithms on the other.

It is not just the scale of the intelligence operation that has been mounted on the Internet, but the slim chance that it can be confined, that concerns civil libertarians. Government agencies will always play the national-security card to obtain access and once this has been achieved there is no limit to their trawling activities. They may thwart the White Widow’s next attack on a suburban shopping mall, but on the way they will not turn down the chance of gleaning information about, say, anti-fracking, socioeconomic justice and political-rights campaigns that challenge the rich, powerful and well-connected.

In the eyes of officialdom, the distinctions are not as clear as they should be. In March 2013, a program appropriately named Boundless Informant belonging to the NSA captured 97 billion pieces of information. The Middle East was the main target, while most of our continent (except with tragic retrospective significance, Kenya) fell into the low-surveillance zone. The act of amassing this information is secondary to the ability to make coherent sense of it.

The standard intelligence-service response to civil-society concerns is that they are simply media hype or paranoia. An Indian official recently shrugged off news that India is a prime target of American cyberspace trawling with the response that all nations spy on one another. Governments are blasé because, given the opportunity, they all behave in the same way.

It is individuals, communities and pressure groups that have cause to worry about the potential control exercised over them by online burglary on a vast scale. Trends in lifestyles, political attitudes and economic preferences can be readily gleaned.

American politicians in a bipartisan effort are trying to restrain the powers of the NSA by prohibiting unlimited trawling of phone calls and Internet communication. But this will protect only Americans. So it is with this in mind that a wide spectrum of free-speech groups, led by Index on Censorship (IoC) and including Amnesty International, has labelled mass surveillance a tool of authoritarians and demanded an end to it. Stephen Fry put it well when he highlighted the tendency to “scream terrorism and use it as an excuse for Orwellian snooping”.

A spokesperson for IoC pointed out that personal vulnerability is hard to imagine until we consider the obvious Orwellian analogy: listening devices installed in every home.

At root, the debate about mass surveillance is not that different from ours over the Secrecy Bill: where is the legitimate line to be drawn between the state’s right to access or monopolise information; and the freedoms of individuals and groups?

• letters@witness.co.za

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