Who Watches the Watchmen?

If you only read one more story on NSA, Snowden and surveillance, let it be Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s detailed account in the November issue of The New York Review of Books. The Guardian was one of the few news organisations trusted with Edward Snowden’s material and Rusbridger both shares the story, discusses the press ethics, legal aspects, government response and the necessity of secret services. The Guardian was forced by the UK government to destroy a laptop computer containing files from Edward Snowden, an event that has caused many newspapers around the world to criticise the UK for lack of respect for the free press. Rusbridger points to the futility of the act, as copies of these files exist in many other places. That is the irony, that the perfect surveillance machine that is the internet, also makes it so difficult to contain the secrets of those collecting that information. Rusbridger also argues against the claim that without secret services having access to electronic communication, the world would “go dark”. It seems this case has been made since the 90’s by security agencies, with ever increasing access to information as a consequence. Never enough, seems to be the credo for such organisations, and to be honest they are probably right – considering only the task at hand: protecting national security, more information is always better. The problem is that other priorities conflict and in normal circumstances there would be democratic review and restriction, but these are secret services so there is a built-in lack of transparency.

Rusbridger does not make this explicit, but from Netopia’s point-of-view these is a good illustration of a technological imperative: if technology makes something possible, then it must be realised. If security agencies can collect all the information in the world, then they must – the argument goes. But technological imperatives are absurd, we don’t want everything that can be done with technology to actually become reality. American writer and Silicon Valley visionary Jaron Lanier brings the example of hacked pace-makers – the world is much better off without the opportunity to stop somebody’s heartbeat from a distance. Or the extreme of gun control, most people would prefer that not everybody carry guns even if that is technologically possible. We put all kinds of restrictions in place on technology in order to balance different priorities and have a functioning society. Cars can go faster than 200 kph but we set speed limits on most roads. Access to hazardous chemicals is restricted. You must have  a license to practice many jobs. Our world is full of compromise and offset, and democracy is the system for making these judgement calls. Alan Rusbridger seems to say that the answer is putting security agencies on a shorter leash.

NSA, GCHQ and others also weaken encryption, making communication vulnerable also to other threats. This is a problem of course, who hasn’t received phishing attempts in their e-mail? There is no shortage of malicious interests trying to get hold of our personal information. But it seems encryption, anonymity or invisibility is an insufficient response to privacy online. Even with encrypted e-mail, the headers are still visible. Invisibility programs are cracked sooner or later. One day, someone might have enough computer power to analyse all data online. So we have the option of giving up privacy altogether or stop using online services, at least for some purposes. But there is a third way: we can use democracy as a tool, to make sure the rights and values we agree on are respected online . That means stricter regulation on security agencies, but also stricter governance of private companies that handle our data traffic and personal data. We must stop regarding the internet as a place outside the law and start treating it as a part of society.