So What Do We Do Now? Living in a Post-Snowden World

Posted on January 1, 2014


As the avalanche of Snowden revelations resumes after it’s brief organizational regrouping and holiday hiatus a few learnings and even more direct and pertinent questions are starting to emerge.

Evgeny Morozov in an otherwise interesting piece in the Financial Times is surely incorrect in his bald statement that “Snowden now faces a growing wave of surveillance fatigue among the public”.  The emotion isn’t “surveillance fatigue” but rather shell shock at the revelations as they keep coming, in wave after uncomfortable wave.  The first reaction of course was shock (and awe), the second was a feeling of anger and rising resistance. But as the revelations have kept coming, each one more disturbing than the last; but now shifting from pointing to quantity of surveillance (everything, everyone, everywhere, forever), to quality (from metadata to communications content to networking to instantaneous full-spectrum profiling); the emotion is now–what on earth can we do–this is impossible, democracy or even any form of popular sovereignty is at immediate risk, but what on earth can we do?

The techies who started off shocked and appalled and over-all angry (at feeling personally and professionally betrayed) and vowing (or at least those whose organizational or corporate affiliations didn’t leave them irretrievably compromised) vowed to fight back and there were heated discussions in various tech forums of various technical strategies for turning the surveillance tide.

But the revelations have just kept on coming and the tech community like everyone else recognizes the scope and depth and ultimately overwhelming power of an agency with access to the full might and resources of the richest, most powerful country on earth led by a President who himself seems to be either in thrall of the surveillance machine or indentured to it for reasons we may never know. They, now equally, stand blinded by the headlights of a headlong careening tank, are recognizing with appalled self-incriminations what a horror they have allowed and contributed to being born.

Quite clearly technical solutions won’t work (or at least won’t scale) if the dominant power doesn’t want them to work, and anyway who would trust that anti-surveillance solutions were working after all we know of how the corporate sector and the tech community has been (willingly or or no) brought in as semi-aware co-conspirators.

And by now, it appears reasonably evident (based on the overall indifference to doing anything much, by the political MasterClass in DC and elsewhere) up and down the decision tree and including its FiveEyes handmaidens, that the decisions have been made not only that resistance measures won’t be allowed to work but that they will be actively resisted and “attacked” with all the forces and resources that have already gone into building the existing machine.

Even the corporate sector (US) has become extremely uneasy at the damage that has and is being done to their reputation for trustworthiness and reliability and with that damage would appear to be escalating costs and penalties.

Even the cyber-libertarian pro-US chorus has gone silent — recognizing as they had no choice but to do, the most fundamental of contradictions between freedom and surveillance. Some of course, are opting for the… “but your guys are worse” argument (but without having any idea of whether there is any ‘your’ as in “your guys” anywhere to speak of). Is anybody anywhere (except in Fox News fantasies) coming to the support of Russia or China or Saudi Arabia as an alternative in all of this.

And of course, the cyber crowd has spent the last 20 years systematically denigrating and tossing rocks into the spokes of any regulatory or governance vehicle that might, however remotely, be able to mount a framework that could tame the surveillance juggernaut…So, at the end of the day who is there to call when there is an existential threat to the very foundation of Western values and democratic processes. Ghost Busters? Even they seem too busy warding off other threats from “real” aliens to the existential well-being of the Western world.

The international community might, just might be able to do something, if they were to gang up on the US (as seemed possible, if only briefly, following President Rousseff’s speech to the UN General Assembly). But as “saner heads” and diplomats are coming into the game that seems to be fading into the dusty hallways of the UN, likely never to be heard from again.

There is still some hope from President Rousseff’s meeting in Brazil in April but the apparent lacklustre interest from other of the world’s leaders — they themselves presumably being compromised up the yin yang and in their hearts having as little interest in retaining even the possibility of a functioning democracy as those Stasi folks in the NSA and surrounds; alongside the ceding of a co-management role in the conference to ICANN, itself a potentially compromised player in the global Internet governance (if not directly surveillance) game; leaves the responsibility of making an effective case on behalf of global democracy to Civil Society and the Technical Community both of which themselves have yet to have fully (or in most instances even partially) redeemed themselves let alone publicly turned their back on their full-throated (and deeply misguided) alliance with the US and its allies in the “Internet Freedom” crusade at the 2012 Internet Governance Forum and the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT); this “crusade” in retrospect seemingly at least circumstantially to have been a tactic to ensure that all possible policy-based opposition to Internet mass surveillance was made either unlikely or ineffective.

Let’s be clear. We are talking about the future of the world as we have come to believe it might be–democratic, with freedom of expression and of thought, with an openness to popularly initiated and supported change, with increasing accountability and transparency of the governors to the governed, where governmental as other action is responsive to the rule of law and all the other things that the various Western government sponsored training programs in democracy go on about at such considerable length.

Whether or not our world will become a version of Orwell’s 1984 (some very knowledgeable people think that we are already over that edge)…

Whether we will live in a world where one country and its 4 allies have access to all worthwhile information which allows them to seemingly at will control any possibility of dissent (even before it happens), control the inputs into and outputs from elections or any form of political campaign, control financial markets and bank accounts, control the behaviour of individuals and ultimately groups; and that’s for starters–those are things we can interpolate based on what we know, not as would surely be more realistic, interpolating from what else we can foresee–these guys as we all know, have access to effectively unlimited financial resources and the brainpower that goes with it.

Most certainly this is not Lenin’s question “What is to be done” which was rhetorical (he already knew very well what had to be done and had the will to find (seize) and apply the resources to do it).  No, our question is much more problematic–we don’t know what to do, and we clearly don’t have the will or the resources to do it even if we knew what the solution was.

Over it all of course, there is the reality that the possibility of concerted action is foreclosed on by the rather surprising political identification with and ultimately support for the surveillance apparatus by the centre–left and right–both evidently gaining too many benefits from the status quo to even contemplate rocking the boat even in the service of the democracy to which they so loudly and regularly pledge allegiance.

It appears that it is only at the fringes on the right and on the left (and of course, among those who have an inkling of the reality and significance of what is going on–most notably the technical community) that there is any real alarm and desire to do something … anything that might work.  But even here, the right is too deeply enthralled by the logic of their position to even contemplate alternatives (governmental based) that might work. And the left is too weakened after vicious assaults over the last decade to launch any worthwhile opposition.

So what are we to do…