Security versus privacy, the right to resistance

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Article published in ALAI’s magazine No. 503: Hacia una Internet ciudadana 28/04/2015

It might seem too simple to initiate a reflection on privacy, security and freedom on the Internet with reference to the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001.  Intelligence and terrorism experts acknowledge that 9-11 was "one more day" in a process that had already been brewing for many years[i]; but the date undoubtedly marks a turning point in what has become something recurrent during the last decade: the use by some governments of violent and traumatic events to justify the reduction of freedoms and provoke a collective state of fear, so that citizens end up giving their privacy, which would be unacceptable at other times, for the promise of greater security.


In just over a decade, the United States, using world enemies that are more or less real, and the argument of combating global terrorism, has managed to convey to the entire planet the message that the solution in this increasingly insecure world lies in massive control.  That this has been shown to be a false dilemma, and that increased surveillance of the population does not imply the reduction of terrorist threats, and rather can have highly perverse effects, has served very little.


Being investigated just for using the internet violates basic rights. Anonymity is vital to an open and free society[ii]. We have the right to freely communicate over the Internet without being watched.


The ability to inform ourselves, reflect calmly, take position, set limits which enable us to safeguard individual and collective rights, and demand respect from governments and corporations, will mark the future of our societies and the very survival of democracy.


"Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"


In a September 20, 2001 speech to the US Congress, addressed also to the nation, President George W. Bush unveiled the design of the new scenario: terrorism was a "continuing threat" and the new defense strategy would affect all areas with a global framework, with both visible strikes and other covert and secret operations; "we will come together to strengthen our intelligence capabilities to know the plans of terrorists before they act, and find them before they strike"; and a warning that has managed to penetrate deeply and marked a binary logic which has been difficult to escape: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”


The direct consequence was the flourishing of the private intelligence industry, the creation of products for espionage and massive interception of communications[iii], and the development of a global monitoring system without restrictions.  Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA (US National Security Agency) to check phone and internet records, and the location of large groups of people.  A process that remained secret until the WikiLeaks revelations.


Starting in 2010, the biggest leak of secret documents in history, with more than 250,000 cables or communications between the US State Department and its embassies, and of e-mails of private intelligence agency Stratfor dated 2001 to 2011, revealed the hidden face of a system, that shows little or no respect for human rights and legality, dedicated to spying on politicians, journalists, dissidents and activists, aided and abetted by the silence of the mainstream media.


In June 2013, suspicions become certainties with the revelations of former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden.  These offer proof of the existence of a network of collaboration among dozens of intelligence agencies from various countries to expand and consolidate global surveillance.  Its documents made us aware of NSA programs such as PRISM, which since 2007 facilitated spying on 35 world leaders through their mobile phones, and gives direct access to data from Google, Facebook, Apple and other Internet giants[iv], or Xkeyscore, a program capable of detecting the nationality of foreigners by analyzing the language in intercepted emails, applied in Latin America, especially in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela[v].  Snowden’s revelations also confirm that the cryptography of the global financial system has been broken.


"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", decried professor Eben Moglen[vi] in his article "Privacy under attack; the NSA files revealed new threats to democracy".  Private enterprise has taken advantage of the confusion and shock caused by the discovery of the unpunished use of our data; and governments are also benefiting from it, endangering the survival of democracy itself.  The new situation challenges us individually and collectively: privacy is related to our social environment, it is not isolated to individual transactions we make with others.  When we give away our personal information we are also undermining the privacy of others.  Privacy, Moglen says, is always a relationship between many people, not a transaction between two.


The world is polarized between those who believe that no one can impede surveillance and those who wonder why we should care about this surveillance if we are not doing anything wrong.  And the answer that we owe to ourselves must be: if we're doing nothing wrong then we have the right to resistance.[vii]


Technological autonomy and sovereignty


As the powers that be attempt to control or influence the flow of information on the net in order to consolidate their own position of power, millions of people are involved in creating open, transparent and free spaces, defending the value of the public sphere.


This is about recomposing the net from the interests of "the commons" with technologies that allow those who use them to liberate themselves from dependence on commercial providers and widespread police monitoring.  Stand-alone servers, decentralized networks, peer-to-peer links, knowledge sharing, meeting places, and cooperative work.[viii]


Recovering the value of privacy:


a) claiming the secrecy of the content we communicate and the anonymity of who sends and receives messages, or during our Internet searches.  Encryption is necessary in order to ensure this, both at the moment of transmission and in the storage of local data; and


b) becoming aware of the value of our electronic identity and its impact on our daily lives while avoiding delegating it to the multinationals.  When we are using Facebook or Google we're working for free for the intelligence services, warns Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  "People are just doing billions in unpaid work for the CIA, by putting all their friends in the net, their relationships with them, telling all they are doing."  The technology is being developed to favor mass surveillance and that information is being sold.[ix]


"In the area of food, groups that produce for their own consumption self-organize to deal directly with their suppliers.  So then, why couldn't people self-organize with their technology suppliers, directly purchasing the tech support that they need in their lives, like carrots?", says Alex Haché, developing the concept of technological sovereignty.[x]


Free hardware and software are indispensable, so that anyone can examine the open source code.


And decentralization of the physical infrastructure, so as to make it less vulnerable to surveillance.  Also its location.  The fact that almost all Internet connections pass through fiber optic cables that cross the US has facilitated massive theft of information.  Industrial alliances to create alternative physical infrastructures, and initiatives such as that of Brazil, which has already announced the deployment of its own cable between Fortaleza and Lisbon, are imperative.  The installation, which is expected to be completed in 2016, aims to prevent data from being exposed to interference in US territory.[xi]


The creation of a legal framework which is binding for States and establishes the Internet as an inviolable field is imperative. The public has to demand it, because they have the right to be protected.

(Translation: Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero).


Montserrat Boix, a Catalan journalist, creator of the “Mujeres en Red” (Women in the Net) Internet feminist network. Researcher in cyberfeminism and hacktivism. Professor of ICT and civil society in various M.A. level programs in Spain. Activist in the movement for Free Software and Free Culture.


Article published in: Latin America in Movement 503, ALAI, April 2015.  “Towards a people’s Internet”


[i] José María Blanco. Seguridad e Inteligencia después del 11-S

[ii] Electronic Frontier Foundation. Anonimato y cifrado

[iii] Así se mueve el negocio del espionaje masivo de las telecomunicaciones. Wikileaks publica la tercera entrega de los Spyfiles.

[iv] Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskikll. NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and Others.

[v] Glenn Greenwald, Roberto Kaz e José Casado. Espionagem dos EUA se espalhou pela América Latina

[vi] Eben Moglen (EEUU 1959) is professor at Columbia University, director of the Software Freedom Law Center and collaborator of the Free Software Foundation.

[viii] Alex Haché. Soberanía tecnológica.

[ix] Julian Assange: Facebook and Google are an incredible instrument of mass control.

[x] Alex Haché. Soberanía tecnológica.

[xi] Brazil plans to develop its own submarine Internet cable to avoid NSA interception

Publicado en Revista: Hacia una Internet ciudadana

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