the online freedom that was never there

August 8, 2013

server rack

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.

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  • TheBrett

    It’s just hard to get a nation to scale back from a hegemonic position, even when its resources and relative economic/political/military strength are no longer up to the task. Great Britain was still trying to do the hegemonic thing until the Great Depression, long after they’d been surpassed by the US in economic strength. It’s like a vast nexus of institutional self-preservation, with existing organizations and vested interests for interventions abroad justifying and fighting for the continuation of those interventions, and quite a few people buying into it because they’re humanitarians who think it’s immoral to “ignore” suffering/conflict abroad.

    This was a good post. You’re right that we really need to go to the root of this one, and deal with snooping by the NSA and their ilk by politically restricting their ability to do so if that’s what we choose. That said, I wonder if greater surveillance is just going to be a price we pay for having tons of important processes on the web in a position where they could potentially be attacked. We saw the past waves of new law enforcement pop up as industrial civilization got more and more complex, such as the police, FBI, etc.

    On a side note, Tor doesn’t seem like it would be too much of an advantage in evading an authoritarian government unless tons of regular people were using it as well. Even if said government can’t read your communications with other people, they can still detect that you’re using Tor, and that in of itself might be a red flag for them to grab you and bring you in for questioning.

  • gfish3000

    The Great Firewall of China actually uses attempts to access the web via Tor nodes to patch its own holes. There was a pretty fascinating paper by comp sci researchers who provided a pretty in depth picture of the Great Firewall’s architecture documenting this, I need to find it and do a write-up…

  • TheBrett

    Sounds about right. You’d probably be better off just translating messages into different languages and using phrasing that sounds innocuous to hide what you’re saying. I’m gonna guess that the Great Firewall is biased towards english-language stuff.

  • gfish3000

    Not really. It goes more by IP blocks of what the Chinese telecoms are told to be from troublemakers and keywords typed into search engines. If Americans think Google giving data to the NSA is bad, they give meager scraps compared to what Baidu hands to the CCP on a daily basis.

  • Chris Warburton

    The example of Britain’s overseas activity during a declining empire is an example of Parkinson’s Law ('s_law ). “…the Colonial Office had its greatest number of staff at the point when it was folded into the Foreign Office because of a lack of colonies to administer.”