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Global Surveillance: Towards Convergence?

Built for the most part during the Cold War, surveillance systems on a global scale were considered a vital necessity with the onset of nuclear weapons, if only to keep Mutually Assured Destruction at bay. Today, these systems are also used for domestic surveillance and universal data harvesting, including on one’s own citizens. Should we still consider these systems with the same reverence as if we were, say, in the midst of some Cuban Missile Crisis? Internet specialists have addressed some of the questions posed by this blanket surveillance (among others, in CircleID: Geoff Huston and Roy Balleste).

In the Soviet Union, military power and ideological control relied on a vast network of listeners and analysts, of multilingual chauffeurs and fellow travellers across the globe. In the United States, the ayatollah Joseph McCarthy saw in the West-East confrontation an opportunity to use Cold War methods on home ground to eradicate anything close to “socialism”, shore up religious persuasions, nurture capitalism and pave the way for global financial dominance. And today, countries with interests around the world use the Internet as a conduit for influence and power, when it is not for their covert actions.

Over the years, individuals have assumed the high-risk role of whistleblowers because their duties made them aware of the dire consequences of public policy: Daniel Ellsberg (The Pentagon Papers 1971) contributed to shortening the US occupation of Vietnam. More recently, whistleblowers have emerged because the Internet provided access to confidential data which they considered of crucial importance to their fellow citizens; others exposed the massive and systematic electronic surveillance by the US, including of its own citizens at home and abroad; and the dissemination of information about Prism and Echelon has put into question the very notion of being an ally (the UK claims to be a full member of the European Union, yet it is one of only 5 beneficiaries of Echelon). Such whistleblowers are reviled by some and hailed by others: Sibel Edmonds, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and recently Edward Snowden (and those who helped them: Sarah Harrison from WikiLeaks aided Snowden during his travails in Hongkong and Moscow; Glenn Greenwald, a journalist with The Guardian, published Snowden’s story as it unfolded).

This form of unmediated transparency, possible only in democracies, has always been the nightmare of theocracies and other single-party regimes. In its terminal stages, the USSR could do nothing against the humble fax machine, which turned out to be an essential vicar of Perestroika. Turning to Asia, one cannot help but wonder what would have been the outcome of Tian’anmen if, in 1989, global social networks had been available on the same scale as today. More recently, and true to their messianic inclinations, our Western democracies gave verbal encouragement to movements of self-liberation in the Near- and Middle-East, while underlining the role played by (Western) social media in these upheavals.

But now we are witnessing a regrettable convergence: established democracies are resorting to the methods of regimes they have long criticized, and they do this with a sense of righteousness, in the name of a “global war on terror”. For anyone interested in US current affairs, it is disturbing to see that President Obama is implementing parts of the Neo-Con agenda that even the Cheney Administration had not achieved (Patriot Extension Act 2011; maintaining Guantanamo; Boundless Informant; comforting current NSA and related practices without effective oversight). Some day, US citizens will have to come to grips with the growing contradiction between the lofty principles upon which their country was founded, including the “Wall of separation” between state and religion (Jefferson 1802), and this century where the President concludes his swearing-in with an astounding “so help me God”. in the Middle East, bigots point at the caption “In God we trust” (printed on every US banknote and adopted as the national motto of the USA as late as 1956), to better impose their bleak obscurantism in madrassas. This convergence holds more dangers for democracies than for theocracies. It is deeply disturbing that the United Kingdom’s GCHQ secretly accepted £100 million from the NSA, the US agency seeming to consider that massive global surveillance could be carried out without bothersome legislative and judiciary oversight in Britain, the country which schoolchildren around the world know as the cradle of parliamentary democracy.

A naive posture has no place in this debate: countries who can afford it usually have agencies that gather information and try to influence decisions in other countries. But recent developments should lead us to examine several points:

1) By eschewing principles for the sake of “operational efficiency”, democracies may lose the very core of their social cohesion and political stability. Established democracies have become complacent about their own practices, and it is high time that surveillance be effectively subordinated to judiciary and parliamentary control, rather than left to the sole judgment of the executive.

2) Technical entities such as ICANN should be more open about considering user rights as paramount, because the separation between the technical and the governance aspects of the Internet no longer has the same justification as when Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn et al invented TCI/IP. This challenge has just been taken up by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) at its Berlin meeting, where it decided to devise a reliable method to protect the privacy of the general Internet user. The IETF shows the way forward: it is not taboo, even for a technical body, to consider user privacy as important as engineering challenges or business opportunities .

3) The public debate has long avoided considering Internet privacy as a priority. It is time to recognize that the rape of personal identity and privacy has become a widespread and unpunished crime, and as such requires firm corrective legislation and processes. Awareness has been raised by some great Internet names: most recently, Tim Berners-Lee and his World Wide Web Foundation issued a statement on “Surveillance laws: time to reform the status quo”. The efforts of W3C, ISOC, the Council of Europe and others now need to be gathered in a meta-platform, in order to impact public policy.

The above article is also posted on the author’s private blog.

By Jean-Jacques Subrenat, Ambassador (ret.)

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