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The Snowden Controversy and Our Legacy of Choices

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In one of the most innovative uses of the bizarre rules of international travel, whistle-blower Edward Snowden sits in an airport transit lounge outside the customs barrier that is Russian enough to not invade but not Russian enough to claim the Russians are hiding him. He has now reportedly applied for asylum in Russia.

The coverage of his asylum applications and whereabouts, linked with a torrent of public attacks against him from politicians and pundits, have come close to derailing the discussion of the real issues his revelations raise: we are ruled by people who have no faith in democracy and they are able to spy on us because of choices about the Internet that we have made.

Those are issues worth discussing but, as usual, noise is making productive conversation difficult.

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Dropmire Graphic and German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: ....the cold war. by Released to Commons by BBC


We got another glimpse of that late last week when several European governments erupted in outraged protest that the United States has apparently been conducting intense surveillance on their U.S. embassies and U.N. missions through phone taps and Internet-data capture. The operations, with code-names like "Dropmire" and "Powell", have reportedly targeted 38 nations' U.S. and U.N. operations using all kinds of surveillance, prompting some European officials to compare it to "the cold war".

If the "outrage" were genuine, one could argue, these countries would be lining up to give Snowden asylum. After all, his revelations were of significant service to them in exposing what the US was up to behind their backs.  Germany and France, two of the most vocal protestors, certainly have both the authority and power to do that and such an action would probably be very popular in their countries. It's not advisable to hold one's breath on this one. The torrent of rage and outrage seems to be as misdirecting as the anti-Snowden campaign in this country.

"State-side", politicans from both parties complain that Snowden gave information to Chinese and Russian governments. Some accuse him of treason because he violated the "oath" he took for his job. And most recently, as FAIR points out, a cabal of unnamed government officials are screaming about how Snowden messed up their intelligence work and terrorists are now "changing" their Internet practices to avoid capture.

These statements are pathetic. The Chinese and Russians have known about the surveillance (and complained about it) for years now. Snowden worked for a private contractor and probably took no "oath" for security clearance and even if he did take an oath, treason involves helping a declared enemy during a war -- it's almost never prosecuted because our government no longer declares wars. Finally, the Snowden revelations are that these surveillance programs capture the entire Internet. You can't escape them if you use the Internet. What's al Quaida going to do to, use telepathy?
 
Some saner voices caution the world not to let the controversies around young Snowden hide the fact that his revelations, essentially unchallenged by the government, mean that we are being governed by people who are committing one of the most criminal acts a government can commit under our constitution: conducting blanket surveillance on all its citizens. The situation transcends debate. There is no nuance or "balance" or presence of "competing interests" to talk about here. That laws passed in the last decade to sanction such actions means only that the Congress has legislatively crippled democracy and freedom.
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That's why the government has hidden its actions from the American people. President Obama's insistence that we should have a "national conversation" about whether these measures are necessary obscures the fact that his administration hid this from us and even denied before Congress it was happening. The President's lame argument that citizens aren't being "willfully targeted" begs the question: once they have the information, they can decide that you're a target and they will as the political situation in the country polarizes and intensifies.

The point isn't how the government is using the information right now; it's that it has it in the first place.

Yet, while this crime that should be the critical news, there is another layer to this story that has completely escaped attention. It's hidden, not by the statements and PR manipulations of the government, but by the lack of importance most people give it, fostered over years of cultural manipulation by corporations and governments.

We are in a kind of "user prison" on the Internet, dependent on software that is owned by corporations who have no right to own it and who are, essentially, part of the repressive systems the government has put in place.

The best illustration of this might be your own Internet routine. If you're like most users, including progressive activists, the first thing you do when you log onto the Internet is get your email. Most activists use Gmail to do that or at least receive email from people who do. It's simple and convenient and reliable. It's also owned by Google, which is one of the companies from which the government captures all email. In fact, Google openly admits that it is logging, capturing, and analyzing mail from all Gmail accounts and it altered its user agreement so you, possibly without realizing it, okayed that intrusion.
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If you trace the rest of your activities on the Internet, you'll notice that a significant percentage of the software you use is owned by one of the target companies identified in the PRISM program. Your posted videos (and those you watch) on Youtube, exchanges with friends on Facebook, participation in message boards sponsored by a wide variety of "message-board hosts", email-list participation and visits to websites (both usually maintained by one of the Internet "provider" giants like Dreamhost) -- all of this can, and probably is, captured. Your phone calls are logged and the callers, locations, and durations are entered into a huge, searchable database and your cell-phone calls are logged with the cooperation of the major cell-phone companies you probably pay monthly fees to.

None of this is strictly illegal because these companies give up the information. All the major communications and Internet companies have a "favored partner" relationship with the United States government trading access to their data and information for prefential treatment or some other favor our "transparent" government isn't telling us about. The government also routinely goes to the FISA secret court for court orders, thousands of them a year, which are almost always granted.

This gloomy picture is made darker by the fact that it didn't have to be this way and still doesn't. There are powerful and efficient alternatives to all these services that function based on Free and Open-Source Software provided by organizations that not only have no relationship with the government but scrupulously protect data from the government's snooping eyes.

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.

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I was told never to put anything in writing that I... by Doc McCoy on Saturday, Jul 6, 2013 at 2:31:06 AM