Since September 11, 2001, whenever I was visiting or passing through the United States, I have been subjected to more “random” security checks than could ever be expected by chance alone. Similarly, I have come to expect to be stopped by the Immigration officers about 50% of the time. The TSA are also keen on conducting humiliating pat-downs, and going through the full-body scan scares me silly. Why all of these security measures? I have no idea, I happen to have one of those Latin American looks that could belong anywhere in the Mediterranean, I could be North-African, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, or Egyptian. My passport is also full of stamps from exotic (and dangerous) locations, from Pakistan to Rwanda. I also usually travel on my own, and I guess that I exude a perennial “I am lost” vibe that might trigger suspicion amongst security types.
In short, I do not conform to the norm, and therefore I am usually asked to explain my finances, work situation, family, and travel arrangements; the underlying implication being that my look and life choices make it very likely that I am a terrorist drug-dealing money-laundering anarchist subversive. The level of humiliation suffered at the hands of the TSA and their ilk has left me feeling very cynical when it comes to the United States security agencies, one cannot have any patience with the kind of people who treat visitors this way. So I was not even remotely surprised by the NSA surveillance revelations, I have come to expect that and worst from a country that gives agencies such as Homeland Security and the TSA a green light to treat human beings as nothing better than cattle. I have also come to expect very little of a political system that allows such security apparatus to operate, and which has elevated its own military to the status of demi-gods.
I was also not surprised by the NSA surveillance revelations because they help to make sense of some legislation such as CISPA, which directly attacks encryption intermediary services. In fact, I would not even be surprised to learn that the current Prism leaks are just the tip of the surveillance iceberg.
As horrendous as the revelations are, I am startled by the fact that one important aspect of the whole affair seems to be lost. So the US government is performing surveillance using data obtained from private enterprises, including mobile phone networks, social media, search engines, and other intermediary services. The key point that I have yet to see addressed is the fact that the NSA did not have to build new surveillance mechanisms, they are using existing private data! In other words, there is no privacy already, all of this data is already probably being (mis)used for private purposes. There is no privacy, what shocked people is that the government is taking all of the data that is stored already by private services.
This became evident when reading the response to the leaks from some of the people in my timeline who are the most outrageous over-sharers that I know. It seems like the more someone shares on social media, the more likely they are to complain about privacy breaches. “Shame on you NSA” is followed by a FourSquare check-in and a bunch of geo-tagged Instagram pictures.
Privacy is dead. We killed it willingly. Governments obsessed with security will always try to use all of the data that we are already giving away, be they democracies or more authoritarian regimes.
Is there a solution? Unfortunately, I suspect nothing will change. The UK is already a surveillance society where the presence of a CCTV camera increases property value. The US already allows all sorts of abuses as long as they keep the terrorists at bay. We are also to blame, we are providing most of the data willingly; we are too in love with our shiny mobile phones, too obsessed with our social media, too enamoured with sharing.
We do have a choice. Leave Google, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Waze, Instagram. Ditch the smart-phones. Turn off the GPS. As long as this trove of juicy data is in private hands, it will be misused, be it by the services themselves, or by governments. However, I am not an optimist in this respect, I am ashamed to admit that I am not likely to give up my new phone and turn off any of my social media. I suspect that I am not alone in this decision.
We can have the Internet, or we can have privacy. We can’t have both.