Recently, we saw that our e-mail is no more private than a postcard. But, that said, if we do not save our work offline, we may as well be writing on water.

Now, what about governments using the Internet to spy on citizens? I have been meaning for some time to write something about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations. The imminent release of a new Snowden-themed James Bond movie, Spectre, seems as good a time as any.

As the Guardian review puts it, 

Bond is back and Daniel Craig is back in a terrifically exciting, spectacular, almost operatically delirious 007 adventure – endorsing intelligence work as old-fashioned derring-do and incidentally taking a stoutly pro-Snowden line against the creepy voyeur surveillance that undermines the rights of a free individual. It’s pure action mayhem with a real sense of style. 

From the Telegraph review, 

There is an elegantly subtle moment in M’s office towards the start of the film in which both Bond and his boss both look their age: they’re having to contend with younger, nimbler threats from within as well as without. To that end, the British government is developing an international surveillance scheme called Nine Eyes with a view to rendering the (dated, unaccountable) double-0 programme redundant.

Spectre (trailer), based on Snowden’s story No Place to Hide (2014), turns a serious problem for civil liberties into a thriller. So sure, enjoy it, but let’s also back up and look at what Snowden found out.

The 30-year old computer programmer was an employee of Booz Allen, a subcontractor with the American National Security Agency, stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, when he came to realize that the American government was spying extensively on citizens, by monitoring their phone calls and internet use.

In May 2013, abandoning his career, he began copying top-secret documents detailing practices he found “invasive and disturbing”: 

The documents contained vast and damning information on the NSA’s domestic surveillance practices, including spying on millions of American citizens under the umbrella of programs such as PRISM.

For example, among the most important reveals was this:

Secret court orders allow NSA to sweep up Americans’ phone records

The very first story revealed that Verizon had been providing the NSA with virtually all of its customers’ phone records. It soon was revealed that it wasn’t just Verizon, but virtually every other telephone company in America.

Snowden flew to Hong Kong with his trove and on June 5 and 6, 2013, Britain’s Guardian and the Washington Times published them.

He gave as his rationale, 

“I’m willing to sacrifice [my former life] because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

The U.S. military has revealed that it will cost billions to restore the system. The government charged Snowden under the Espionage Act and is attempting to extradite him from Russia, to which he had later fled. Interestingly, according to biography.com,

Before President Barack Obama took office, the act had only been used for prosecutorial purposes three times since 1917; Since President Obama took office, it had been invoked seven times as of June 2013.

Unable to go home, Snowden attended the South by Southwest Festival by teleconference in 2014.

In 2015 Citzenfour (trailer),  a documentary on his find, won an Oscar.

Also, in February 2015, he spoke by teleconference to students at Upper Canada College (Toronto), saying, “the problem with mass surveillance is when you collect everything, you understand nothing,”* and that it “fundamentally changes the balance of power between the citizen and the state.”

Citizens must decide if that is the sort of state we want.

* Note: That observation can be understood in terms of information theory. Three key telephone records, pursued for a reason, may unravel a life-threatening plot. Three trillion is just a mass of data, open to exploitation by anyone who can get access to the system, including criminals and foreign powers, with every conceivable motive.

 

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...