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The Snowden Controversy and Our Legacy of Choices

by ALFREDO LOPEZ

In one of the most innovative uses of the bizarre rules of international travel, whistle-blower Edward Snowden sits in an airport transit lounge outside the customs barrier that is Russian enough to not invade but not Russian enough to claim the Russians are hiding him. He has now reportedly applied for asylum in Russia.

The coverage of his asylum applications and whereabouts, linked with a torrent of public attacks against him from politicians and pundits, have come close to derailing the discussion of the real issues his revelations raise: we are ruled by people who have no faith in democracy and they are able to spy on us because of choices about the Internet that we have made.

Those are issues worth discussing but, as usual, noise is making productive conversation difficult.

We got another glimpse of that late last week when several European governments erupted in outraged protest that the United States has apparently been conducting intense surveillance on their U.S. embassies and U.N. missions through phone taps and Internet data capture. The operations, with code-names like “Dropmire” and “Powell”, have reportedly targeted 38 nations’ U.S. and U.N. operations using all kinds of surveillance prompting some European officials to compare it to “the cold war”.

If the “outrage” were genuine, one could argue, these countries would be lining up to give Snowden asylum. After all, his revelations were of significant service to them in exposing what the US was up to behind their backs. Germany and France, two of the most vocal protestors, certainly have both the authority and power to do that and such an action would probably be very popular in their countries. It’s not advisable to hold one’s breath on this one. The torrent of rage and outrage seems to be as misdirecting as the anti-Snowden campaign in this country.

“State-side”, politicans from both parties complain that Snowden gave information to Chinese and Russian governments. Some accuse him of treason because he violated the “oath” he took for his job. And most recently, as FAIR points out a cabal of unnamed government officials are screaming about how Snowden messed up their intelligence work and terrorists are now “changing” their Internet practices to avoid capture.

These statements are pathetic. The Chinese and Russians have known about the surveillance (and complained about it) for years now; governments routinely . Snowden worked for a private contractor and probably took no “oath” for security clearance and even if he did take an oath, treason involves helping a declared enemy during a war — it’s almost never prosecuted because our government no longer declares wars. Finally, the Snowden revelations are that these surveillance programs capture the entire Internet. You can’t escape them if you use the Internet. What’s al Quaida going to do to, use telepathy?

Some saner voices caution the world not to let the controversies around young Snowden hide the fact that his revelations, essentially unchallenged by the government, mean that we are being governed by people who are committing one of the most criminal acts a government can commit under our constitution: conducting blanket surveillance on all its citizens. The situation transcends debate. There is no nuance or “balance” or presence of “competing interests” to talk about here. That laws passed in the last decade may sanction such actions means only that the Congress has legislatively crippled democracy and freedom.

That’s why the government has hidden its actions from the American people. President Obama’s insistence that we should have a “national conversation” about whether these measures are necessary obscures the fact that his Administration hid this from us and even denied before Congress it was happening. The President’s lame argument that citizens aren’t being “willfully targeted” begs the question: once they have the information, they can decide that you’re a target and they will as the political situation in the country polarizes and intensifies.

The point isn’t how the government is using the information right now; it’s that it has it in the first place.

Yet, while this crime that should be the critical news, there is another layer to this story that has completely escaped attention. It’s hidden, not by the statements and PR manipulations of the government, but by the lack of importance most people give it, fostered over years cultural manipulation by corporations and governments.

We are in a kind of “user prison” on the Internet, dependent on software that is owned by corporations who have no right to own it and who are, essentially, part of the repressive systems the government has put in place.

The best illustration of this might be your own Internet routine. If you’re like most users, including progressive activists, the first thing you do when you log onto the Internet is get your email. Most activists use Gmail to do that or at least receive email from people who do. It’s simple and convenient and reliable. It’s also owned by Google which is one of the companies from which the government captures all email. In fact, Google openly admits that it is logging, capturing and analyzing mail from all Gmail accounts and it altered its user agreement so you, possibly without realizing it, okayed that intrusion.

If you trace the rest of your activities on the Internet, you’ll notice that a significant percentage of the software you use is owned by one of the target companies identified in the PRISM program. Your posted videos (and those you watch) on Youtube, exchanges with friends on Facebook, participation in message boards sponsored by a wide variety of “message board hosts”, email list participation and visits to websites (both usually maintained by one of the Internet “provider” giants like Dreamhost) — all of this can, and probably is, captured. Your phone calls are logged and the callers, locations and durations are entered into a huge, searchable database and you cellphone calls are logged with the cooperation of the major cell phone companies you probably pay monthly fees to.

None of this is strictly illegal because these companies give up the information. All the major communications and Internet companies have a “favored partner” relationship with the United States government trading access to their data and information for prefential treatment or some other favor our “transparent” government isn’t tell us about. The government also routinely goes to the FISA secret court for court orders, thousands of them a year, which are almost always granted.

This gloomy picture is made darker by the fact that it didn’t have to be this way and still doesn’t. There are powerful and efficient alternatives to all these services that function based on Free and Open Source Software provided by organizations that not only have no relationship with the government but scrupulously protect data from the government’s snooping eyes.

A brief aside to explain the difference between FOSS and proprietary software: FOSS software costs nothing to acquire and has open code that can be altered and revised; it’s usually the product of the labor of many developers, sometimes thousands working world-wide. Proprietary software is the kind the companies sell you and it’s usually based on FOSS designs and code that is then changed enough to be legally “different” and marketed as companies usually market. The difference is more than a dollar sign; it has to do with the way people see work and its product — as something to be shared through collaboration or sold for profit.

While it’s true that no democratic government should be spying on its citizens, it’s also true that we have let down our guard viewing the government as a neutral force in communications rather than an intrusive, repressive force against which we have to protect ourselves. The framers of the Constitution understood how important this self-protection is. The constitution is an intellectual see-saw of competing rights and privileges stabilized by a series of “checks and balances”. If they thought the government was as benevolent as many Americans apparently do, why would they have even established the “checks and balances” concept?

Those checks and balances are dysfunctional and nowhere is this clearer than in the intensified relationship between corporations and the government. If it’s true that the government has long served the needs of corporations under the blanket of “protecting people’s rights”, there is no doubt that the blanket has been ripped off. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision demonstrates that the government doesn’t care that you realize it serves corporations and, when it comes to technology, the “service” is over the top.

Through its funding of coercive educational systems, the government has pushed people from an early age to use proprietary software. Politicians all use and advocate it, government agencies all use it and large visible news organizations (the information corporations) all use it. Most people probably don’t realize that there are better, free and more stable alternatives to Windows and MacIntosh OS that are easy to install. Many people think that they have no option to the kind of intrusiveness they have to endure using the apparently seamless and highly reliable Gmail. Think about it: as long as you’ve been using computers, you’ve been taught that your choices are Windows or Mac, Explorer or Gmail and that there are no alternatives to Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.

This is a huge and vicious lie. All of these are corporations that make money, one way or the other, off what they offer you. They have built their products on software and protocols written by large numbers of developers (most of whom worked on those protocols for free). They use outdated and unfit copyright laws (enforced by phalanxes of high-paid lawyers) to legitimize their theft. And the products they end up marketing are usually buggy and unimaginative.

In exchange for government support, these companies give up data — all of it, as the Snowden revelations make clear. You use their software, they capture your data and then give it to the NSA, FBI or CIA.

The recent “foreign spying” revelations make the picture more frightening, particularly for progressive activists. Activists based in the United States who are working with activists in other countries will often email or call foreign embassies or interest sections. Many of the Social Justice organizations and human rights coalitions in this country focus some attention on the United Nations and so their emails and other Internet data are sent to those offices. This is all being captured and analyzed.

While these two issues — proprietary software and foreign spying — may seem like separate issues, they are linked on the Internet. The purpose of the Internet is to facilitate communications among the world’s people. It’s a system that has arisen in defiance of the divisive conflicts and hostile relationships governments create, divisions that have nothing to do with what these countries’ citizens want and need. With a world whose food, water and resources are made borderless by the mindless exploitation of most of the world by a few large countries, the quest for our human survival requires international collaboration in every respect. We have to reverse what these scoundrels have created and plan our survival as a world rather than a bunch of battling countries.

The Internet is a first step to doing that. But companies that sell software don’t encourage that kind of collaboration. They sell software based on elaborate marketing plans that emphasize service to rich areas of countries, ignoring sectors and countries without the necessary communications and electricity infra-structure to make Internet communication possible. Rather than prioritizing “wiring” the world, they emphasize selling to the world already wired. Now we’ve learned that they also act as spy agencies for the U.S. government in many of the world’s countries, deepening the paranoia and sharp competition that drives us in a direction that’s opposite of where we should be going.

This doesn’t break down borders; it reinforces them. What we now know about Internet espoinage should tell us that breaking down those borders is our job.

You can start with a search of alternatives to FOSS and corporate hosting, take a look at this list from Tokyo-based web developer Peng Zhong. A frequent disclaimer: My organization May First/People Link provides alternative service and data protection (as do many others, some of the above list).

Alfredo Lopez is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent three-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

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