Our military listeners
have invaded the centre of an evolving net, where conscriptable digital
superbrains gather intelligence on the human race for purposes of
bagatelle and capitalism. In the US, the telecommunications companies
have legal immunity for their complicity, thus easing the way further.
The invasion of our net
was secret, and we did not know that we should resist. But resistance
developed as a fifth column among the listeners themselves.
In Hong Kong, Edward Snowden
said something straightforward and useful: analysts, he said, are not
bad people, and they don't want to think of themselves that way. But
they came to calculate that if a programme produced anything useful, it
But in the past 10 years,
after the morality of freedom was withdrawn, the state has begun
fastening the procedures of totalitarianism on the substance of
There is no historical
precedent for the proposition that the procedures of totalitarianism
are compatible with the system of enlightened, individual and
democratic self-governance. Such an argument would be doomed to
failure. It is enough to say in opposition that omnipresent invasive
listening creates fear. And that fear is the enemy of reasoned, ordered
It is utterly
inconsistent with the American ideal to attempt to fasten procedures of
totalitarianism on American constitutional self-governance. But there
is an even deeper inconsistency between those ideals and the subjection
of every other society on earth to mass surveillance.
In the United States,
those who were "premature anti-fascists" suffered. It was right to be
right only when all others were right. It was wrong to be right when
only people we disagreed with held the views that we were later to
In considering the
political meaning of Snowden's message and its consequences, we must
begin by discarding for immediate purposes pretty much everything said
by the presidents, the premiers, the chancellors and the senators.
Public discussion by these "leaders" has provided a remarkable display
of misdirection, misleading and outright lying. We need instead to
focus on the thinking behind Snowden's activities. What matters most is
how deeply the whole of the human race has been ensnared in this system
of pervasive surveillance.
Our concept of "privacy"
combines three things: first is secrecy, or our ability to keep the
content of our messages known only to those we intend to receive them.
Second is anonymity, or secrecy about who is sending and
receiving messages, where the content of the messages may not be secret
at all. It is very important that anonymity is an interest we can have
both in our publishing and in our reading. Third is autonomy, or our
ability to make our own life decisions free from any force that has
violated our secrecy or our anonymity. These three – secrecy, anonymity
and autonomy – are the principal components of a mixture we call
In other words, privacy is a
requirement of democratic self-government. The effort to fasten the
procedures of pervasive surveillance on human society is the antithesis
Nobody told the people of
the world. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a gap
opened between what the people of the world thought their rights were
and what their governments had given away in return for intelligence
useful only to the governments themselves. This gap was so wide, so
fundamental to the meaning of democracy, that those who operated the
system began to disbelieve in its legitimacy. As they should have done.
Snowden saw what happened to
other whistleblowers, and behaved accordingly. His political theory has
been quite exact and entirely consistent. He says the existence of
these programmes, undisclosed to the American people, is a fundamental
violation of American democratic values. Surely there can be no
argument with that.
If we are not doing
anything wrong, then we have a right to do everything we can to
maintain the traditional balance between us and power that is
listening. We have a right to be obscure. We have a right to mumble. We
have a right to speak languages they do not get. We have a right to
meet when and where and how we please.
We have an American
constitutional tradition against general warrants. It was formed in the
18th century for good reason. We limit the state's ability to search
and seize to specific places and things that a neutral magistrate
believes it is reasonable to allow.
We should rather be fighting against the procedures of
totalitarianism because slavery is wrong. Because fastening the
surveillance of the master on the whole human race is wrong. Because
providing the energy, the money, the technology, the system for
subduing everybody's privacy around the world – for destroying
sanctuary in American freedom of speech – is wrong.
Snowden has provided the most valuable thing that democratic
self-governing people can have, namely information about what is going
The government is
projecting immensities of power into the destruction of privacy in the
world's other societies. It is doing so without any democratic check or
control, and its people must stop it. Americans' role as the beacon of
liberty in the world requires no less of us.
Political leaders around the
world have had much to say since Snowden began his revelations, but not
one statement that consisted of "I regret subjecting my own people to
What they have done is to
build a state of permanent war into the net. Twelve years into a war
that never seems to end, they are making the net a wartime place
The difficulty is that we
have not only our good and patriotic fellow citizens to deal with, for
whom an election is a sufficient remedy, but we have also an immense
structure of private surveillance that has come into existence. This
structure has every right to exist in a free market, but is now
creating ecological disaster from which governments alone have
Instead we are still at a
puppet show in which the people who are the legitimate objects of
international surveillance – namely politicians, heads of state,
military officers, and diplomats – are screaming about how they
should not be listened to. As though they were us and had a
right to be left alone.
And that, of course, is
what they want. They want to confuse us. They want us to think that
they are us – that they're not the people who allowed this to
happen, who cheered it on, who went into business with it.
The bad news for the
people of the world is we were lied to thoroughly by everybody for
nearly 20 years. The good news is that Snowden has told us the truth.
Edward Snowden has
revealed problems for which we need solutions. The vast
surveillance-industrial state that has grown up since 2001 could not
have been constructed without government contractors and the
data-mining industry. Both are part of a larger ecological crisis
brought on by industrial overreaching. We have failed to grasp the
nature of this crisis because we have misunderstood the nature of privacy.
Businesses have sought to profit from our confusion, and governments
have taken further advantage of it, threatening the survival of
In this context, we must
remember that privacy is about our social environment, not about
isolated transactions we individually make with others. When we decide
to give away our personal information, we are also undermining the
privacy of other people. Privacy is therefore always a relation among
many people, rather than a transaction between two.
If you accept this
supposedly bilateral offer, to provide email service to you for free as
long as it can all be read, then everybody who corresponds with you is
subjected to this bargain. If your family contains somebody who
receives mail at Gmail, then Google gets a copy of all correspondence
in your family. If another member of your family receives mail at
Yahoo, then Yahoo receives a copy of all the correspondence in your
family as well.
The same will be true if
you decide to live your social life on a website where the creep who
runs it monitors every social interaction, keeping a copy of everything
said, and also watching everybody watch everybody else. If you bring
new "friends" to the service, you are attracting them to the creepy
inspection, forcing them to undergo it with you.
We do not, with respect
to clean air and clean water, set the limits of tolerable pollution by
consent. We have socially established standard of cleanliness, which
everybody has to meet.
Environmental law is not
law about consent. But with respect to privacy we have been allowed to
In a free society people
should be protected in their right to say as much or as little as they
The real problem is that
we are losing the anonymity of reading, for which nobody has contracted
We have lost the ability to
read anonymously, but the loss is concealed from us because of the way
we built the web.
If you have a Facebook
account, Facebook is surveilling every single moment you spend there.
Moreover, much more importantly, every web page you touch that has a
Facebook "like" button on it which, whether you click the button or
not, will report your reading of that page to Facebook.
If the newspaper you read
every day has Facebook "like" buttons or similar services' buttons on
those pages, then Facebook or the other service watches you read the
newspaper: it knows which stories you read and how long you spent on
Every time you tweet a
URL, Twitter is shortening the URL for you. But it is also arranging
that anybody who clicks on that URL will be monitored by Twitter as
they read. You are not only helping people know what's on the web, but
also helping Twitter read over everybody's shoulder everything you
We allowed this system to
grow up so quickly around us that we had no time to understand its
implications. By the time the implications have been thought about, the
people who understand are not interested in talking, because they have
got an edge, and that edge is directed at you.
then attracts government attention, with two results that Snowden has
documented for us: complicity and outright thievery.
Another characteristic of
the great data-miners is that there is no union within or around them.
They are now public
corporations, but the union of shareholders is ineffective in
controlling their environmental misdoing. These companies are
remarkably opaque with respect to all that they actually do, and they
are so valuable that shareholders will not kill the goose that lays the
golden egg by inquiring whether their business methods are ethical. A
few powerful individuals control all the real votes in these companies.
Their workforces do not have a collective voice.
Snowden has been clear
all along that the remedy for this environmental destruction is
democracy. But he has also repeatedly pointed out that, where workers
cannot speak up and there is no collective voice, there is no
protection for the public's right to know.
Without the anonymity of
reading there is no democracy. I mean of course that there aren't fair
and free elections, but much more deeply than that I mean there is no
such thing as free self-governance.
Mail could be encrypted –
using public keys in a web of trust – within users' own computers, in
their browsers; email at rest at Gmail could be encrypted using
algorithms to which the user, rather than Google, has the relevant keys.
The situation at Facebook
is different. Facebook is strip-mining human society. Watching everyone
share everything in their social lives and instrumenting the web to
surveil everything they read outside the system is inherently unethical.
Facebook should lean in
and tell its users what it does.
It should say: "We watch
you every minute that you're here. We watch every detail of what you
do. We have wired the web with 'like' buttons that inform on your
To every parent Facebook
should say: "Your children spend hours every day with us. We spy upon
them much more efficiently than you will ever be able to. And we won't
tell you what we know about them."
Only that, just the
truth. That will be enough. But the crowd that runs Facebook, that
small bunch of rich and powerful people, will never lean in close
enough to tell you the truth.
Governments, as I have
said, must protect us against spying by other governments, and must
subject their own domestic listening to the rule of law. Companies, to
regain our trust, must be truthful about their practices and their
relations with governments. We must know what they really do, so we can
decide whether to give them our data.
A great deal of confusion
has been created by the distinction between data and metadata, as
though there were a difference and spying on metadata were less serious.
Illegal interception of
the content of a message breaks your secrecy. Illegal interception of
the metadata of a message breaks your anonymity. It isn't less, it's
just different. Most of the time it isn't less, it's more.
In particular, the anonymity
of reading is broken by the collection of metadata.
But the US president has the
only vote that matters concerning the ending of the war. All the
governmental destruction of privacy that has been placed atop the
larger ecological disaster created by industry, all of this spying
is wartime stuff. The president must end this war in the net, which
deprives us of civil liberties under the guise of depriving foreign bad
people of sanctuary.
We have seen that, with
the relentlessness of military operation, the listeners in the US have
embarked on a campaign against the privacy of the human race. They have
compromised secrecy, destroyed anonymity, and adversely affected the
autonomy of billions of people.
Snowden has shown us the
immense complicity of all governments. He has shown, in other words,
that everywhere the policies the people want have been deliberately
frustrated by their governments. They want to be protected against the
spying of outsiders. They want their own government's national security
surveillance activities to be conducted under the independent scrutiny
that characterises the rule of law.
The government of the UK must cease to vitiate the civil
liberties of its people, it must cease to use its territory and its
transport facilities as an auxiliary to American military misbehaviour.
And it must cease to deny freedom of the press. It must stop pressuring
publishers who seek to inform the world about threats to democracy,
while it goes relatively easy on publishers who spy on the families of
The chancellor of Germany
must stop talking about her mobile phone and start talking
about whether it is OK to deliver all the telephone calls and text
messages in Germany to the US. Governments that operate under
constitutions protecting freedom of expression have to inquire,
urgently, whether that freedom exists when everything is spied on,
monitored, listened to.
Many companies manage our
data; most of them have no enforceable legal responsibility to us.
There is lawyers' work to do there too.
We must commoditise personal
uses of the communication security and privacy technologies that
businesses have already adopted. This has to be as simple as installing
a smoke detector, hanging a fire extinguisher on the wall, talking to
your kids about which door to use if the stairs are burning, or even
putting a rope ladder in a second-floor window. None of this solves the
problem of fire. But if a blaze breaks out, these simple measures will
save your child's life.