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Mass Surveillance: A Turning Point in Internet History

So far, the debate on mass surveillance has dwelt on the immense resources made available to the agencies (NSA in the US, GCHQ in the UK), on the technological advantage that enables them to access any data and bypass encryption, and on the lack of proper oversight in those two countries. But in order to make their voices heard by their elected representatives, Internet users around the world need to have an even more complete view of the emerging reality: why have these agencies been allowed to stray far beyond democratic principles, and why for so long? Why have oversight and control been so utterly ineffective? The grievous actions of these agencies might well have continued to escape public attention, had they not been exposed by Edward Snowden.

Since he first released Snowden’s findings in The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and his colleagues have continued to update their files about the NSA and the GCHQ. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was recently granted access to the deliberations of FISA, the secret court set up to oversee the NSA. To my knowledge, the only writer to have examined some sociological aspects of the surveillance scandal is Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst at ACLU. On Stanley’s tracks, I shall examine if a sort of “Internet psychology” has condoned this abuse of power, and see if sociology can provide an explanation.

PSYCHOLOGY. It has taken centuries of turmoil, civil wars and revolutions, for our societies to achieve some degree of harmony. And because they retain a collective memory of strife and hardship, modern humans tend to prefer mediation and negotiation to armed conflict. This conciliatory attitude has fostered tolerance, and with it a fairly high degree of trust in institutions which, in turn, provide continuity.

Because of these characteristics, the public generally has a straightforward, sometimes simplistic approach: trust your doctor for medical advice, your mechanic to repair the car, and the executive branch to manage the country. In many countries, the lack of interest in public affairs has been amplified by mass entertainment and mainstream media, usually at the expense of culture, because the latter is more demanding. With such easy access, the public has persuaded itself that judgment, which someone must have taken care of upstream, has become superfluous at the level of the consumer.

All this has a direct bearing on Internet psychology. In the early days, this amazing tool was used by a small number of individuals skilled in mathematics, programming or systems engineering. If anything, they were driven by logic. But now that the Internet has become the first truly global infrastructure in human history, with easy-to-use applications routinely replacing computer programming, there is a pervasive sense of instant availability, effortless use and free-of-charge access to everything.

For decades now, the Internet has been touted as a public tool for education, communication, business and entertainment. But its use as an instrument of sovereignty, though perfectly understandable, has mostly been passed under silence. Those familiar with international relations understand that governments engage in spying (this term is more accurate than “intelligence”, more attuned to academic research and cognitive pursuits). They also know that national security requires surveillance, which is acceptable, provided it is framed by strong legal rules, under constant and effective oversight by the legislative and judicial branches.

Then why have Snowden’s revelations shocked Internet users around the world, even those who are rather well informed? How did this come about? Aided by mainstream media, governments have hidden behind the screen of secrecy to expand budget allocations for surveillance. The leaders of agencies have relentlessly demanded, and often obtained, the extension of their covert actions. And when some whistleblower draws attention to wrongdoing, political leadership and the owners of mass media quickly sideline the offender by accusing him of harbouring some “conspiracy theory”. In societies where mass media play a major role in the formation of groupthink, invoking a “conspiracy theory” is generally enough to discredit the whistleblower, and his findings are simply taken off the news. Before being hailed as a hero, Daniel Ellsberg had been branded by Henry Kissinger as “the most dangerous man in America”, and normally that should have silenced him forever. More than a decade after 9/11, how many US citizens are aware that on that day, not 2 but 3 towers imploded, the third one without having been hit by an aircraft? And in the UK, how many people have read the European Parliament report on Echelon? We live in comfort-seeking societies where most people are afraid of leaving the mainstream: a false dogma provides so much more solace than an inconvenient truth. Today, should the Internet user be satisfied with such low standards?

SOCIOLOGY. In a recent article, Jay Stanley asked “How Can Smart, Ethical Individuals Form Dumb, Amoral Government Agencies?”. He offered 5 reasons: the ideology of the bureaucracy, groupthink, diffusion of responsibility, Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy, and abstraction. I agree with his analysis, but it’s worth considering some wider aspects as well.

1) Accountability is not the default setting of executive power. In fact, those who attain power are immediately given the symbols of absolutism: one of the very first things a newly appointed chief executive is briefed upon is the availability of military force, and if his country is a nuclear power, he is given a “nuclear key”, arguably the most potent and secret item of high office. We learn from history that the executive (whether a monarch or an elected person) has never granted legislative powers out of kindness, but that they were obtained the hard way, often through conflict. There is a sort of “biological constant” which makes executive power loathe to share, and careful to avoid anything which may destabilize it. For many of us, it is a disappointment, but it should hardly be a surprise, that since assuming office, President Obama has implemented many key policies of the Neo-Conservative agenda, thus laying the ground for the massive abuse of power recently exposed by Snowden.

2) Like religious dogma, secrecy thrives on its own rules. Political power has always considered secrecy as a key element to resist the test of time, democratic demands, or an uprising. At the present time, it is truly disturbing to see that the US and British executive branches have gone to great lengths to make that secrecy more inscrutable, even against the basic requirements of democracy. Those who promote the uncontrolled expansion of surveillance, usually find inspiration in religious dogma, which always considers itself as the ultimate source of wisdom and justice. It is secrecy as a value in itself, which seems to have driven the surveillance agencies to sideline judicial control and parliamentary oversight. The sheer magnitude of this deception creates a sort of convergence between established democracies and the very dictatorships they regularly, and rightly, criticize.

3) This is a turning point in the history of the internet. A naïve approach has no place in the current debate: competition is not for the faint-hearted, fierce competition begets harsh tricks, and governments all spy on one another. But the malpractices exposed by Snowden cannot be left unchecked, lest they undermine the very foundations of our democracies. People have expressed indignation, and rightly so, but that is no longer sufficient. We need to impress upon our elected representatives that it is time to make Internet governance work for civic and human rights, as well as privacy. It is time to harden the legal tools with which abuse of power can be curtailed, and executive branches made accountable on a regular basis. Let us follow up on the (ISOC) Internet Society’s recent statement, and make this one of the major public causes of our time. We owe it to the next generations of Internet users worldwide.

This article is also posted on the author’s personal blog.

By Jean-Jacques Subrenat, Ambassador (ret.)

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Good luck getting governments with representative democracy Avri Doria  –  Sep 17, 2013 4:41 AM

Good luck getting governments with representative democracy to do anything about accountability.  Let alone those who don’t even pretend to represent the people.  When the only accountability is elections, Tweedledum will replace Tweedledee in permanent rotation.

As more and more Governments are outed as members of the Super Snooper club, looking for answers in Government action is unlikely to improve this at all.  Ever.  We need to find our answers elsewhere.

That's part of the debate, Avri! Jean-Jacques Subrenat  –  Sep 17, 2013 5:30 AM

- But democracy, in spite of its imperfections, allows a degree of human and civic rights, freedom of thought and expression. On the contrary, a single-party political system, or the role of “revelation” in religious persuasions, do not permit this degree of liberty.
- So the problem for Internet users today is this: there’s no use taking North Korea as our starting point (or model); citizens of imperfect democracies (that’s your case and mine) had better start with one of the existing, acceptable models, and improve that. You say “we need to find our answers elsewhere”: I’m eager to hear your views on this. In most countries of the European Union, this is the kind of challenge the executive branch rarely takes up on its own, so Internet users/citizens need to oblige their elected representatives (legislative branch) to take notice, and they can then steer the executive towards a better course.

By elsewhere I mean the technical side. Avri Doria  –  Sep 17, 2013 11:21 AM

By elsewhere I mean the technical side. At this point we need technical solutions that make it impossible, or at least, ever more difficult, for governments to abuse the privacy rights of people on the Internet. Certainly we need to work on policies in our Internet governance organizations that motivate, assist and maintain the technical solutions. But if it is possible to collect information, legally or otherwise, governments will do so. I do not mean to say we should not try to control our runaway governments, or that we should not find ways to punish the renegade government officials. But rather that the dynamics of governments that we give ever more power to in the name of protecting the people or the nation's businesses, will always do everything they can think of to spy on the people (whether their own or those of other places) in order to fulfill that duty. And by elsewhere I mean education, so that the people on the Internet know how to best protect their own privacy. And possibly we could, as a people stop asking governments to protect us from every scratch and bruise, but that isn't likely, because every time we get hurt, or insulted, or bullied, or perved, we will raise a hue and cry, as to why the government did not protect us. So sure we should leave no stone unturned and should try to steer governments, especially those with this weak form of democracy we call representative democracy, but in that we will need luck, as I said in my first note. In the meantime, we need to learn how to protect ourselves from our governments on the Internet.

Yes, we also require technical safeguards, education, civic action. Jean-Jacques Subrenat  –  Sep 18, 2013 1:07 AM

Avri +1.
I was not suggesting that pressuring our elected representatives was the ONLY way forward. I agree with your definition of “elsewhere”:
- technical safeguards: IETF is working on standards with which users could better ensure their privacy, whatever the attitude of their public authority (this is important, at a time when the USG’s behaviour brings it closer to China and Iran than to Finland or Switzerland). For those of us who are not members of IETF, how can we contribute?
- Education: this is essential. There are many examples, such as Global Voices Advocacy. In a modest way, this LinkedIn thread too.
- No to “nanny government”: I agree. Each user needs to educate her/himself about privacy and other risks on the Internet, choose suitable protections, and act responsibly. But that does not exclude us demanding accountability from our elected representatives, because whether we like it or not, in our countries Internet privacy and rights are governed by legislation and processes: we want these to be far more efficient than they are at present.

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