What connects Edward Snowden, climate change, GCHQ and lemmings?
In today’s Observer, John Naughton ponders the apathy of the British public to the GCHQ revelations after Edward Snowden let the cat out of an enormous bag (Public apathy over GCHQ snooping is a recipe for disaster). Under the headline, the stand-first tells us: “The lack of public alarm at government internet surveillance is frightening, but perhaps it’s because the problem is difficult to convey in everyday terms”. (Frankly, we should probably be more afraid of sub-editors and their penchant for hyperbole).
Anyway, after setting the stage by describing how, when explaining complex and technical issues to a lay audience, Naughton belatedly figured out that you have to find ways to make arcane subjects relate to the audience’s own experiences, this is how he comes upon his topic:
“One of the things that baffles me is why more people are not alarmed by what Edward Snowden has been telling us about the scale and intrusiveness of internet surveillance. My hunch is that this is partly because – strangely – people can’t relate the revelations to things they personally understand”.
Thing is John, while you might be right about people not understanding quite how intrusive the spying is, I have a different view, based solely on my own reaction. Having worked in IT for many years, including with a security company during the ’90s, I have a pretty clear idea what’s going on, and what it means. I know about government collusion with security firms first hand.
Yet I feel a degree of apathy towards it all, built out of several components. The first component is that this was utterly inevitable. Given the convergence that digitisation brought about, the more of our lives we put on-line, the more of our daily lives are available for exploitation. You only have to consider the intrusive marketing that browsing the web now forces on us, unless we are prepared to take fairly extraordinary steps to prevent it – and that means never buying anything on line.
Search engines reveal and record our innermost fears, desires and perversities. Using a credit card reveals our financial matters to all and sundry with the spare change to buy the records. The hilariously misnamed ‘loyalty cards’ supply information to corporations while shoppers have little or no idea how come they get such very specific, targeted marketing aimed constantly at them. Using a mobile phone or a car GPS tells anyone with access where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re likely to go. Our medical records will soon be available to any chump who wants to look at them, despite any number of assurances to the contrary (none of which I believe for one moment). Councils abuse data collection to harass anyone who comes on their radar. Smart meters will soon transmit our energy usage, and more. And this process – using technology to find out about us – is just getting going.
The second component is that power always seeks control of the masses, which they fear for good reason, and quickly recognises any advantage they might pursue through technology. Phone tapping was last century’s big breakthrough, followed by bugging with miniature radio devices; before that, the only way to eavesdrop on anyone else was from behind a curtain (or in the eaves, as the term reminds us). I also remember something that, rather oddly, is rarely mentioned these days – so quickly do we become inured to the intrusive nature of state spying: the Echelon System, for so long dismissed as paranoid fantasy, until the cracks became so wide that the whole deceitful farrago fell out, and into the public eye. Here’s the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on it (and do I need to point out it’s the usual suspects who built and operated it):
ECHELON, originally a code-name, is now used in global media and in popular culture to describe a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA Security Agreement. (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, referred to by a number of abbreviations, including AUSCANNZUKUS and Five Eyes).It has also been described as the only software system which controls the download and dissemination of the intercept of commercial satellite trunk communications.It was created in the early 1960s to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies during the Cold War, and was formally established in the year of 1971.
But I suspect that the main reason people who understand the scope and intrusion have a laissez-faire attitude because there’s absolutely fuck all we can do about it. I do not believe anything will change. I do not believe any reassurances the government gives us. I do not believe that legislation or oversight will make the slightest difference. I do not believe that in 10 years time, we will be subject to less scrutiny, but more. And I do believe that this is absolutely and irrevocably inevitable.
I believe that there will be a lot of talk, but in the end the whole thing will be covered up, cemented over, and we’ll all go happily back to consuming whatever opiates of the masses make us feel comfortable. While undercover police undermine law and order, while CCTV records ever more of our daily lives, while the media can corrupt pretty much anyone willing to take the money and run; while it becomes ever more dangerous to take a photo while you’re out walking around; while protest and activism are increasingly labelled as threats to security and protesters are subject to more and more surveillance, and while civil liberties are continuously eroded in the name of protecting civil liberties, who in their right mind would believe that any of this will get better – or even define what ‘better’ really is.
Climate change – which I write about for the most part – is coming to a front room near you at a speed nobody reckoned with, and nobody knows how to stop it. The first article I wrote for the Guardian was about civil liberties, after I realised that when threatened, any government will seek to enforce totalitarian, blanket restrictions on the public, their only counter to threats they cannot properly assess, understand or address. The technology of the digital world is a dream come true for the government; the intelligence services, while constantly playing catch-up, do understand the risks, just as the criminal fraternity are slowly learning about it all.
(I have a close friend in the legal profession who regales me with stories about the cases he works on, many of which end up in the Old Bailey. The most consistent idiocy he relates is how many criminals are caught or convicted because they used their mobile phones during the planning or execution of their crimes. My favourite story is the one about the team of robbers who, having broken into the basement of a jewellers, took photos of each other on their phones – after which one of them sent a photo to a mate with the text message ‘we’re on the job’! Too bad they didn’t know the mobile phone mast they were connected through was on the roof of the building they were in!).
Climate change (remember that?) is going to unhinge society. If you read the Pentagon or Joint Chief’s assessments, civil disorder on a global stage is one of the key threats they believe they will have to address in the future. In successive Quadrennial Defense Reviews, including this latest (PDF), they warn of civil disorder placing demands on armed forces that they are neither trained, equipped or funded for. In other words, their assessment now is of threats not only from abroad, but from within – and they fully expect military involvement in domestic law and order in the near future. The security forces clearly mirror those concerns, given the amount of resources they now employ to spy not just on Russia or China, but on me and you.
They also warn that, at the same time, they will face increasing threats overseas from terrorism, fuelled not only by the hostilities we already comprehend (to some extent) but exacerbated by the privations that climate change is going to visit on us all, predominantly on those who are already so distraught they are prepared to blow themselves up to make their voices heard.(A summary of the Pentagon’s latest report is on DeSmogblog and elsewhere).
To read the writing on this particular wall, consider that many analysts believe food shortages fuelled, if not caused, the riots and collapse that characterised the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ (surely a misnomer: for nothing but violence, hatred and destruction grew in that torrid season). Global food shortages are one of the most likely catastrophes that global warming will visit on us.
As if looking into a mirror held up by nature itself, our global society (I find myself reluctant to call it a civilisation this morning) seems to be taking the same erratic course as our weather, growing ever more extreme, unpredictable, its consequences unmanageable, its damage reaching further, its costs multiplying like a biblical plague. In this poor light, I’m sanguine about GCHQ because it’s just playing its pre-destined role in the monumental fuck up we’re dashing towards with all the gay abandon of lemmings who’ve spotted a nice high cliff.
(PS – more keywords than you can shake a stick at in this article. It’s unnerving to think somebody may be reading this soon for all the wrong reas…sorry, got to go, there’s a couple of strange-looking men banging on my front door…)