On October 25th we attended an event at the Norrsken Foundation in Stockholm, where Edward Snowden was a featured keynote speaker, via live video from Moscow.
Edward Snowden was not new to this, nor to speaking to a Swedish crowd. In 2014, he addressed the Swedish parliament by video, also from Moscow, after being given the Right Livelihood Award for revealing to the world the extent of U.S. government surveillance. He received several standing ovations that day, with the hope that he might one day be free to travel to Sweden to receive the award in person.
Technologist and former CIA officer and NSA contractor, Snowden was dubbed the Whistle Blower in 2013, when he provided the press with classified evidence that the U.S. government was secretly operating a global system of mass surveillance – one that was in violation of human rights and international law. Because of this, Snowden has been in exile in Moscow, pursued by the United States government on criminal charges.
Just four years after Snowden’s address to parliament, technology has hurled us forward into what we believe is an even graver reality. We all know the speed with which we have changed as a society, more and more divided by our values and our politics and our religions, fueled in large part by what we see and hear on social media. But also, it seems, we are divided by what we believe is true, rather than what is actually truth. To what extent is this the direct result of technological tools used to watch and manipulate us?
Edward was, as always, very eloquent, structured and inspiring. He made salient points. Here is a summary of our takeaways and what inspired us to continue our work to get people to understand and act before its too late.
1. People do not understand how pervasive, ubiquitous and invasive surveillance is, even today, he said. The capabilities of surveillance that he disclosed (as the Whistleblower he was dubbed back then) were those in place in 2013 (gosh – time flies) and these tools have since multiplied and gotten much more sophisticated. There is no control, and a lot of resources are going into the effort.
2. Privacy does not mean that you are hiding something; it means that you protect a value! A loss of privacy means that power is shifted from you to others, others outside of your control – anyone’s control. Your persona, your actions, your interactions, your thoughts represent a value that should belong to and be controlled by you. However, through the inverted, pivoted, perverted Internet of today, this value is transferred from you to organizations and governments that do not have people’s best interest at heart. Rather, it is to either to make money off you, or to control your behavior. You are being productized and controlled and thus your value is lost to you.
3. Privacy is the root right. It is the mother of all other rights. Without privacy, no other civil and political right has any meaning, and cannot be enjoyed. That is why it is so vital and worthy of protection. If you don’t have the right to privacy, then you do not need to right to a fair trial either, the right of free assembly, the right to freely enjoy your possessions and home, to do what you like.
4. The claim that surveillance helps protect us from terrorism is false. In any case, there are less terror incidents now than in the 70s and 80s, and tracking down perpetrators of terror has been achieved by old fashion and traditional police methods in all instances, including in Paris, London and Belgium. Dangerous terrorists do not use methods of communication that can be intercepted in any case. They are not that stupid! The massive damage that mass surveillance is causing must in any case be weighed against very meager gains. The reason so many resources go into surveillance, is not for protection against terrorism, but because there are massive advantages in the intelligence gathered for commercial reasons and for population/political control.
5. The frictionless provisioning of social media (i.e. the way you are guided and fooled into easy opting for privacy settings that benefit the advertising model) is front-loading the benefits and back-loading the costs, in that the enjoyment is instant, but the costs are hidden and can only be understood later when you have become a product and you have lost all control over your data and your privacy. While an important and significant step, GDPR does not protect us, it merely slightly slows down the slide into hell. Much more powerful legislation needs to be put in place.
6. The social contract and trust is broken by social media, fake news and the commercialization of your private life. When trust is gone, you regress and end up in tribalism. When everyone cheats everyone else, then it is everyone for him/herself and the only people you trust are in your ‘tribe’. Members of tribes band together over superstition and stories/narratives created to force ties between the tribesmen, only loosely connected to reality and truth – if at all. Tribes war and destroy each other. Society will start to fall apart. Trump is breaking the social contract with his people because he is lying about just about everything (‘alternative facts’) but he feed out ‘tribal stories’ and we can see the evidence in polarization, lack of bipartisan compromises, mutual rejection and the other ‘tribes” narrative and no middle ground where cooperation can take place. It is always winner-takes-it-all.
7. People say that China is something else, that they are different, that they are not like us. What develops there is not relevant to us. This is a false and very dangerous misconception. Many of China’s social credit score functions are already entrenched in western social media and the surveillance conducted in the rest of the world. The Chinese social credit score system is a warning! It is on its way if we don’t take action and radically change the way social media and the Internet is operated today!
8. To use safe browsers, install tracking blockers and most importantly, encrypt your Internet traffic is a civic duty. Real anonymity and privacy can only be achieved by numbers, meaning that every stream that is encrypted raises the cost of surveillance and tracking. If only a few use VPN and TOR, for example, it is still possible to see who is having a connection with whom, even if the content is not easily accessible. If everyone exercises their right to privacy, no one will have the resources to track or crack what’s going on.