We’re sleepwalking

2014-01-23 00:00

GEORGE Smiley, John le Carré’s outwardly unprepossessing spymaster, avoided notepads and wrote on single sheets of paper resting on a pane of glass. Twice a day an assistant polished it thoroughly. Smiley had his electronic-surveillance challenges in the seventies (the Circus was virtually stripped after the discovery of Bill Haydon’s treachery), but in today’s world most of us leave behind a noisily informative trail. And mass monitoring has become a controversy of our time.

Many people appear unaware, or not to care. In the British upper house of parliament, the intriguingly named Baroness Martha Lane Fox of Soho has argued that modern society is complacent and sleepwalking into a new era of technology with enormous potential for the state to track our lives. The government reaction has been something like this: “Trust us, we’re looking after your safety and security, and protecting all of us against Al-Qaeda”.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has responded that this is a laughably naïve response and that the potential for the limitation of civil liberties is all too obvious. The alarm bells were set clanging by Edward Snowden’s revelations last year about the data-trawling activities of America’s National Security Agency. These were significant, not so much perhaps for what they described about the extent of official surveillance of electronic communication, but its growing subtlety. The British government, for instance, has assured its electorate that to read the content of SMSes and e-mail, a legally authorised warrant is required; and, naturally, these are issued only in the most dire of circumstances.

But this is a red herring. The legal requirements to collect harmless-sounding metadata are more relaxed. The NSA’s Dishfire program stores operational information for about 200 million messages a day. Analysts may not have access to the content, but they can quickly build up a profile of anyone’s whereabouts, contacts and financial transactions.

In George Orwell’s bleak novel 1984, the house of every party member had a telescreen linked to the thought police. Our use of the worldwide communication network amounts to the same window into our lives. Every time we connect, we add a little more to what people completely unknown to us, including many in the commercial sector, know about our private affairs. Ironically, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Internet’s invention by Tim Berners-Lee. He has expressed alarm at the weaknesses of his creation. Security analysts, not surprisingly, regard this situation as a gold mine. It is the equivalent, in Rusbridger’s view, of an indiscriminate, silent warrantless search of millions of people. In the terminology of database retrieval, recall is maximised at the expense of precision. The stored data can be revisited to build a retrospective picture of networking and relationships; and where Al-Qaeda is concerned, few people will regret this.

But there will always be the temptation to use such a facility for political advantage: against unionists, civil-rights campaigners and anti-globalisation advocates, for example. Mass surveillance is a generic threat to the liberties of everyone, irrespective of the instances in which it might be justified. Regardless of the upbeat messages broadcast by those engaged in counter-terrorism, terrorists have achieved one major victory. They have persuaded people throughout the free world that there is justification in the perverse curtailment of their liberties in order to preserve their liberty. This has been seized upon by governments, which rarely miss a trick to increase their powers of control (it makes governing that much easier), and the lucrative private-security industry.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that bulk collection will continue, even though he has been advised that the NSA had overstepped its remit. His concept of reform is that some other agency, possibly the unwilling service providers, will hold the data and the spooks will have to apply for judicial approval to use it. This is a safeguard shown to be flawed in other contexts, although it does reinforce the idea of targeting. Critics have justifiably called this a whitewash based on technicalities, soothing branding in order to boost public confidence. American Amnesty International, in a droll critique, called it music on the Titanic.

The Americans are trying to regain the moral high ground having been caught spying on allies such as the Germans and Brazilians, who are now at the forefront of a push towards binding Internet governance reform. The crucial issue is surely how to create a reasonable balance between effective national security and maximum privacy.

What does this mean for South Africa? First, it would be naïve to assume that none of our electronic traffic is stored away in the NSA’s database — an indication of the depth of globalisation. Whatever the resilience of our constitutional rights, territorial limits mean nothing in cyberspace. Second, a facility like Dishfire would be ideal for our security agencies immersed in the ANC faction fighting that has diverted the nation’s attention from pressing issues. What better technique could there be for monitoring the ebb and flow of political intrigue and conspiracy?

• letters@witness.co.za

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