Whatever else last year will be remembered for, it will be known as the year in which a courageous whistle-blower brought home to us the extent to which the most liberating communications technology since printing has been captured.
Although former US National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden’s revelations initially seemed only to document the extent to which the state had exploited Internet technology to create a surveillance system of unimaginable comprehensiveness, as the leaks flowed, it gradually dawned on us that our naive lust for “free” stuff online has also enabled commercial interests effectively to capture the Web for their own purposes.
As if that realization was not traumatic enough, Snowden’s revelations demonstrated the extent to which the corporate sector — the Googles, Facebooks, Yahoos and Microsofts of this world — have been knowingly or unknowingly complicit in spying on us.
What it boils down to is this: We now know for sure that nothing that you do online is immune to surveillance and the only people who retain any hope of secure communications are geeks who understand cryptography and use open-source software.
This is a big deal by any standards and we are all in Snowden’s debt, for he has sacrificed his prospects of freedom and a normal life so that the rest of us would know what has happened to the technologies on we now depend. We can no longer plead ignorance as an excuse for alarm or inaction.
The scale and intrusiveness of the snooping have been shocking, even to technical experts who understood — in principle — what could be done. From there it is but a short step to demonizing the NSA, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, the secret agency responsible for signals intelligence) and their partners in surveillance, but to do so is to miss the point.
Security services are military agencies and they do what military forces do, which is to try to accomplish the missions they have been assigned given the resources they have been allocated. Questions about whether the missions are wise, or if the collateral damage is too high, are above the pay-grade of even the most senior officers.
Since politicians on both sides of the Atlantic insist that everything the NSA and GCHQ are doing and have done is or was done under legal authority and democratic — that is, political — control, it follows that the excesses unveiled by Snowden are the consequences of political judgements and misjudgements. Which means that the only way back to more sensible regimes is also a political one. In other words, this is ultimately about politics, not technology.
Secrecy impales democracies on the horns of an existential dilemma: On the one hand, democracy abhors secrecy because it makes accountability impossible as citizens cannot consent to what is done in their name if they do not know about it. On the other hand, secrecy is sometimes essential because some things have to be covert, such as activities necessary to ensure the safety of citizens. Societies face a choice between sacrificing accountability or sacrificing secrecy.
In practice, democracies have fudged the issue by lifting the veil of secrecy just enough to provide a semblance of accountability. In the US, this takes the form of a secret court, with secret hearings and judgements, and a congressional committee that is pathologically deferential to the intelligence services.