So, it has been revealed, in the last week or so, that US security services have been colluding with private companies to keep an eye on the general public. The PRISM program, in case you’ve been too busy watching Made In Chelsea, is a surveillance program run by the American National Security Agency (NSA). Remember the guys who chased Will Smith across Washington in that film, Enemy Of The State? Yeah, them. They have been working with their UK counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in an extraordinary case, easily worthy of a movie.
The general premise of PRISM has long been the object of aimless rambling from paranoid bedroom stoners. However, the recent revelations have proven to be a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream (The title of a recent post in the ‘Conspiro’ section of Reddit gloated: “it's funny because we've been right all along”). PRISM is thought to be essentially a ‘dragnet’ program, taking advantage of the fact that most of the world’s internet infrastructure is based in the USA to spy on pretty much all of it, without targeting specific individuals. Instead, everyone’s information was taken. The intelligence agencies used information from a number of online communication companies, who claim to respect our privacy and protect our information. These companies included Google, Facebook, Skype, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft, among others. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Edward Snowden is the man who, with the help of the Guardian and The Washington Post, alerted the world to the existence of PRISM. He has an extensive resume in security and online surveillance. As a whistleblower, his credentials are sound: he worked for both the NSA and CIA, and was granted high level security clearance.
According to Snowden, ‘intelligence’ taken includes emails, passwords, phone records, credit card details, practically any information at all given to the world wide web, at any time, any place. He claims the NSA have been hacking “everyone, everywhere”. It is Big Brother for the twenty first century.
Snowden was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, but has since gone underground. While observers have noted the proximity to China, Snowden has expressed a desire to claim asylum in Iceland. This seems unlikely, as to do this, you must already be in Iceland, thousands of miles away. The government of Iceland has also expressed a desire to strengthen ties with the USA, which does not bode well for any international fugitives who have seriously pissed off the government and intelligence services of the world’s most powerful nation. On being asked what he expected for the future, he answered “nothing good”. Almost a real life version of a nerdy Jason Bourne, his fate remains uncertain. But, despite the odds being stacked against him, there may be a silver lining. Going public has ensured that he has received worldwide recognition and praise, including from Ron Paul and Julian Assange. Ironically, much of this praise among the general public will have been driven by social media, the very platforms being spied on by Big Brother.
But should we be surprised? The theme of security vs. privacy is not a new one. In the West, particularly since 9/11, we have seen (or not seen) the ongoing encroachment of civil liberties in our societies. The controversial Patriot Act, introduced by the Bush administration in 2001, saw the introduction of ‘roving wiretaps’ and National Security Letters, making it far easier for organisations such as the FBI to spy on ordinary citizens. This may have been done by looking at their emails, computer history, phone records, credit and banking history. In the UK, we have also seen an erosion of civil liberties in the last decade or so, stemming from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, allowing the state to access and monitor communications and communication data. This is not to mention proposed compulsory ID cards, vast numbers of CCTV and the extension of detention without trial.
However what makes PRISM different, and so explosive, is that while the above schemes have been publically legislated and discussed, PRISM took place in the shadows. No one really seems sure, yet (outside the security services and highest echelons of government), who knew what. In a sinister twist the companies alleged to be involved have yet to properly acknowledge any knowledge or compliance with a state run intelligence program. It’s all very smoke and mirrors. Pixelated.
But, while this is not right, we should not be surprised. It is a natural progression. The security services must keep up with the times, this is obvious. There are genuine threats to security out there, foreign and domestic. It is only logical that those who would threaten our safety would exploit the internet to their advantage. Therefore, it is only logical that those who are supposed to protect us from these threats follow suit. Ironically, those who strive protect us from threats to our safety are probably the most significant threat to our liberty.
The internet and social media plays an increasingly important role in society, and in our daily lives. We volunteer masses of personal information, sometimes for fun. Social media in particular is easy to access. It has been known for some time that employers will sometimes check the Facebook pages of prospective employees to check their ‘suitability’ for the role. The establishment is now well versed in the power of social media: most MPs are on Twitter, although for some of them, this has been to their chagrin.
If the security services were not interested social media before the Arab Spring (though they probably were) they definitely would have been after. Many of the initial protests, organisation, support and solidarity were driven by social media. If social media can empower a population and serve as a catalyst for one of the most significant socio-political events of the twenty first century so far, particularly in such a volatile region, it is obvious that it would be of interest to the intelligence agencies. The CIA and NSA are not known for their restraint, nor their avid concern for civil liberties.
It doesn’t make it right, but as more and more of our lives, society, popular culture and economy takes place online, so the security services will follow.