Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? It’s not paranoia. You are…
Edward Snowden, formerly a systems administrator for America’s National Security Agency (NSA), has been called hero, patriot, and traitor. In 2013, he leaked classified government information about multiple global surveillance programmes operated by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance. The documents revealed that the NSA and Five Eyes—which consisted of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand—were spying on their own and each other’s citizens and sharing the information.
Big Brother is real
The novel 1984 by George Orwell introduced us to the character and concept of Big Brother. In the novel, Big Brother is the purported leader of a totalitarian state whose citizens are under constant surveillance by the authorities. The book gave us the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”, which has come to be associated with prying by authority figures, and in particular, illicit mass surveillance by government. The reality TV franchise Big Brother is based on the novel’s concept of being watched constantly, going about your day-to-day life.
Conspiracy theories about mass surveillance have been commonplace since the novel’s publication in 1949. But the idea that we’re being watched by the elusive ‘They’ has long been shrugged off as the fancy of the paranoid.
Not anymore. Mass surveillance really happens, and it’s worse than we think.
Shock state snooping
When Edward Snowden joined the NSA, he learned about their colossal surveillance capabilities, including their ability to map the movement of everyone in a city using a unique identifier in their electronic devices. They also logged nearly every telephone call made by Americans, and bugged European Union offices in Washington and Brussels.
Later, while posted to the NSA’s information-sharing office in Hawaii, he discovered that the content of millions of emails and phone calls made by Arab-Americans was being handed over to the Israelis. He also learned that the NSA was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals in case it could be used against them.
Snowden complained to his superiors about these illegal surveillance activities, but nothing was done. So he started building a collection of evidence that he would later leak to the media.
James Clapper’s pants on fire
The trigger for Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle was seeing the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lie under oath to Congress. On 12th March 2013, Clapper was asked the following:
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions, of Americans?”
“No, sir. Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
That generous portion of smelly baloney was the last straw for Snowden. In May 2013, he fled to Hong Kong with the evidence he’d gathered and started having meetings with journalists. The truth started trickling out.
“Collect it all, know it all”
We now know that the NSA was using a clandestine surveillance programme called PRISM to collect emails, live chats and search histories of millions of Americans through Google and Facebook. We know that secret court orders allowed the NSA to spy on French citizens’ phone calls and internet records, and that the NSA colluded with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to spy on users of Second Life, Xbox Live and World of Warcraft. And we know that the NSA tapped the phones of 122 world leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Worse, the NSA was planning to expand its surveillance activities. Chillingly, leaked slides revealed their stated objectives being to “sniff it all, collect it all, know it all, process it all, and exploit it all”.
Snowden was charged with espionage and theft and his US passport was revoked. He was eventually granted asylum in Russia, where he remains.
Unsurprisingly, his disclosures sparked tensions between the US and the allies it had spied on, including France, Brazil, Spain, China and the UK. A number of politicians have claimed a negative impact on the NSA’s ability to detect and evaluate terrorist activities. A British foreign policy think tank called the Henry Jackson Society has said the same thing about Britain’s ability to fight terrorism.
At the same time, The Washington Post reported in July 2014 that 90% of those placed under surveillance in the US were ordinary Americans and not the intended targets. And not all politicians are shouting “Traitor!” above all else. Former vice president Al Gore said this:
“Snowden has clearly violated the law so you can’t say OK, what he did is all right. It’s not. But what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the US constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed. In the course of violating important law, he also provided an important service. … Because we did need to know how far this has gone.”
The fallout from Snowden’s disclosures has not just been political. It’s been economic too. The US computing industry took a huge hit as droves of international customers abandoned US-based tech companies because of privacy concerns. Meanwhile billions of dollars have been spent on encryption features and security measures to prevent state snooping in the future.
A proven conspiracy theory
In February 2015, Snowden himself wrote about the effect of the leaks and said:
“The biggest change has been in awareness. Before 2013, if you said the NSA was making records of everybody’s phone calls and the GCHQ was monitoring lawyers and journalists, people raised eyebrows and called you a conspiracy theorist. Those days are over.”
All this brings new meaning to author Joseph Heller’s famous quote: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” In this case, he’s absolutely right. Big Brother really has been watching us. Whether you think Snowden has done more harm than good in revealing the extent of Big Brother’s spying depends on your point of view.
I for one think he was right. The law’s the law. Nobody’s above it. Not the NSA. Not the GCHQ. And Snowden’s disclosures sparked an important and much-needed debate on privacy, secrecy and the abuse of power.
Next week: did a Japanese department store confuse Jesus with Santa?