Julian Assange’s new book Cypherpunks: Freedom and The Future of The Internet, was released on November 26th shortly before the start of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), which is happening right now from December 3rd to the 14th in Dubai. It raises important concerns about modern privacy and freedom of expression.
States have never known more than they do today about their own citizens. Domestic surveillance is a growing practice, and it’s getting cheaper by the year. According to the book Cypherpunks, “you get decent voice-quality storage of all German telephone calls in a year for about 30 million euros including administrative overheads, so the pure storage is about 8 million euros.” The data collected being centralized as it is, it may attract those with questionable intentions; even if the data is not used in the immediate it is stored forever. Imposing greater regulations through international treaties must be done with caution and most importantly, knowledge of the matter. Politicians do not always understand the complexity of modern internet and how telecommunications relate to it. Assange describes his book as “a watchman’s shout in the night.”
As Assange’s book suggests, today there is very little freedom for the ordinary man in terms of privacy or freedom of speech on anything that really matters. Of course, what the common man has to say may not always matter as he pursues interests of modern vanity, but for investigative journalists and advocates of a free internet the system is a threat. On December 9th a group of Arab countries participating in the WCIT-12 talks put forward a proposition that would require countries around the world to further impose regulations upon internet companies, according to the Financial Times, Russia and China backed the idea. This recent move presents a danger of legitimizing surveillance beyond what is already done under government secrecy.
Examples of surveillance are widespread today, and everything is strongly interconnected. Privacy and freedom of expression go hand in hand. Self-censorship is a consequence of reduced privacy. The internet is like a city filled with cameras and people change their behavior when they know they’re being watched. (According to the BBC, ten years ago in the UK the average person was caught on CCTV cameras more than 300 times a day. This CCTV program has never stopped its expansion. Now these cameras are being modernized to high-definition quality capable of recognizing a face in a crowd half a mile away.) The more a citizen’s privacy is invaded the more a state can pinpoint the critics of the system and this seems to have motivated the Bush administration to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct warrantless wiretapping. This has been largely reported in the media as part of American counterterrorism policies. The Obama administration has granted immunity to telecommunications companies that went ahead with warrantless domestic surveillance under Bush, and according to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has increased the practice.
Assange’s book also raises the concern that reducing individual privacy to practically zero via mass surveillance eventually may blur our notion of sovereignty and propel us into a tendency of mass international homogenization. The Anglo-American intelligence alliance already shares data. There are three fundamental ingredients to statehood: control over armed forces within a particular region, communication infrastructure and financial infrastructure. U.S. drone strikes already infringe on the notion of sovereignty, as they are used for targeted assassinations on foreign territory. Arguably when one regulates and monitors communication upon which financial infrastructure rests, one has it all.
How does all of this relate to the ordinary citizen? One may take into consideration that America’s Stored Communication Act has a subpoena called the “2703 (d) order” which grants the government the power to access any information it wants: Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. Many people happily expose details of their lives online without considering that most of the servers in the U.S. and the information are centralized. According to Assange, all of this is accessible to 4.3 million people who have the security clearance to potentially view the private data.
If one has the time one should read the book. Give Wikileaks a chance and ask why on earth do some go through so much trouble using crypto-phones and the Tor browser just to get a message out? “Power to the people!” may end up just being a quote from the past. Civil Liberties are increasingly being curved as the surveillance state establishes itself as today’s reality. Let’s hold it accountable and hold it back from the slope of an authoritarian tendency. Regulations are on the rise.
-Mathieu Paul Dumont
(Featured photo: acidpolly, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 1: Iron Man Records, Creative Commons, Flickr)