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Lessons of the Snowden Revelations

If Edward Snowden’s goal in blowing his whistle was to spark a public debate about privacy and surveillance, he has marvelously succeeded.

Everybody’s talking about Snowden, his revelations and their significance. The talk, predictably, is contentious and divided. But government officials and their subservients in the mainstream media aren’t participating in a debate; they are attempting to avoid one. The amount of distracting, disingenuous and disnformative noise sparked by this story would drown out any serious debate.

Government officials and press pundits have already convicted young Snowden of treason because he’s “aided the enemy” by damaging our surveillance capability. Some confused (and perhaps frightened) “opinion givers” have walked a thin (and not very straight) line by supporting his whistling on U.S. surveillance but sharply, and nonsensically, denouncing his “revelations” on U.S. spying on China. A chorus of bloggers, talk show guests and pundits routintely toss up nasty, personal insults about Snowden’s education, girlfriend, sexuality and courage.

It’s all nonsense. The Chinese have been accusing the U.S. of spying on them for a long time, citing very specific evidence, so Snowden hasn’t revealed anything to them. As for the “wrecking our protections” argument: given the scope of this data capturing, any person looking to commit a crime knows his or her communications are going to be intercepted. The revelation is that the United States is capturing all the data on the Internet. What are terrorists going to do once they read that? Stop using the Internet?

In supporting this illogical contention, Obama reps are claiming PRISM has been effective in preventing terrorism but nobody can say how. In a Monday night interview, the President told Charlie Rose: “…you’ve got a guy like Najibullah Zazi, who was driving cross-country trying to blow up a New York subway system….” This is one of the main arguments being used to defend the NSA but it’s totally bogus. As the Associated Press reported [1]Zazi, now a convicted terrorist, was discovered when British intelligence seized his computer and found an email that revealed his plot. That’s why the President was careful not to directly state that there was a connection. “In using Zazi to defend the surveillance program,” AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman wrote, “government officials have further confused things by misstating key details about the plot.” From President Obama’s carefully worded statement, it’s clear he’s very conscious of the confusion he’s creating; it’s his plan.

But why? What is the purpose of this forged confusion? It’s to hide the most important truth: we, the people of the United States, are the real target of this surveillance and the surveillance is part of a long-term strategy of control.

The President’s insistence that no citizens of this country are “targeted” by the on-line snooping is now accompanied by a soberly-toned assurance that this is a “conversation” we need to have. But without Snowden’s revelations we would never have had a conversation because the government lied about these programs’ existence. Not even a week before the explosion of information about surveillance, National Security chief James Clapper told the Congress that no Americans were ever spied on. He had to squirm a few days later when asked by reporters to explain his bald-faced falsehood.

First off, talking about “targeting” on the Internet is absurd. The Internet is borderless — that’s its power and purpose. You simply can’t write an email confident that it won’t be read by someone overseas. Even if you’re not writing to such a person, the email can be forwarded or read by someone who is corresponding internationally. By the same token, there is no way you can prevent receiving an email from someone from another country. Once you are receiving email from overseas, you can be picked up by PRISM and you don’t know if you’ll then be part of an investigation because you don’t know who is being investigated.

The “no Americans targeted” spin has another purpose: to de-emphasize the fact that all Internet information is being gathered. As journalist Glen Greenwald made clear [2] in a piece published in early May, the only reason for the construction of the NSA’s new data facility [3] in Utah is to grab all information on the Internet — you need to do that to make such a huge installation cost-effective.

The infamous “PRISM” program isn’t a data gathering program; it’s a filtering program. Data gathering is done by larger programs that pull everything. Bloomberg’s Michael Riley reported [4] that the government routinely swaps information with thousands of companies in exchange for favors. These “trusted partners” (as they’re called) can deliver the entire Internet to the government by using off-shore servers and special agreements between them and other government branches (like the military). In that way, they don’t have to go to court for the data.

There is now no question that all Internet data is subject to collection and much of it is being stored. Obama’s defense is that only a small percentage of it is being looked at by the NSA, as he told Rose, and all the stored information (which includes all email, video, photos and message board posts) can only be examined by NSA after an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

More nonsense. Since much of this data comes from other government agencies (not related to NSA investigations), it can be examined without a judge hearing about it. Besides, FISA proceedings and orders are completely secret. In the Monday night interview, Charlie Rose asked the President if any such requests had been turned down by FISA. “First of all Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small….” the President answered. During its entire history the FISA court has turned down 11 requests out of more than 33,000. That’s a bizarre definition of “surprisingly small”.

We also now know that Verizon gives the government records of all phone calls — people, places and times — under a court order so secret the telephone giant can’t even confirm it. We don’t know how long this has been going on (since Verizon is legally gagged) but it’s probably several years. To nobody’s surprise, the government won’t say if other phone companies are involved but logic says that most, including cell phone companies, are. You don’t take Verizon to court and ignore the rest. The Administration’s assurance: only a small percentage of calls are actually listened to.

Well, maybe…for now. But who is to say what will happen next year or in five years? How can you be sure that a completely legal communication won’t become part of some future investigation as political and legal environments shift? The point isn’t what they do with the stuff; it’s that they are capturing it. Because this isn’t about evidence; it’s about privacy. And privacy is the major victim of the entire attack , making this an attack on U.S. citizens.

The army of politicians and pundits has framed the privacy issue in a frivolous way. Given the dangers of the world — their argument goes — is your right to talk to your friends, shop, or read texts without surveillance more important than protecting your life?

That kind of personal privacy is important and is, in fact, part of the protection of your life. But it isn’t the main issue. In the Constitution, privacy goes hand in hand with the “right of petition” — the right to demonstrate, organize and speak out against the government and its policies. You have the right to meet, plan and organize without having the government looking over your shoulder (or tracking your calls and stealing your email) because all power in the government’s hands can and eventually will be abused in the absence of strong “checks and balances”.

The great revelation in these great revelations is that there are no longer “checks and balances” and there is no more privacy. That is a long-term, crippling blow to any progressive resistance or organizing in this country.

Those who have doubted that the government has a long-term strategy for control of information and communications should now be convinced. There is no practical purpose for such a massive and resource-gobbling surveillance and analysis program other than complete control.

It’s sometimes difficult for people to comprehend what a threat the Internet is to the world’s governments. It respects no national boundaries, provides a flood of information that destroys all disinformation campaigns, brings people into contact in ways unexperienced up to now, establishes non-commercial alternatives for just about everything that is sold and, perhaps most threatening, it allows people communicate and organize massively, quickly and effectively, creating an alternative society in which all voices can express ideas and everyone can listen to everyone else.

The world’s rulers don’t know what to do about that. Each country’s government has its own approach. The Chinese and several Arab countries practice an absolute but unavailing censorship. Others open things up freely and then closely monitor what’s said. In the United States, the goverment believes that control can be exercised through capture. If, in the future, you do something that they consider dangerous, they have all your communications since about 2009. Now all you have to worry about is what, in the future, they will consider dangerous.

Is it dangerous when persistent unemployment coupled with deadly cuts in social safety net programs (all of which are hitting now) force masses of people into the streets as they have in dozens of other countries this past year? Is it dangerous when people in this country start taking over Congress (which has a lower than 10 percent approval rating) as some have already done in state legislatures? Is it dangerous when people, frustrated by the inhumanity and brutality of their local leaders, start taking over cities? Or is organizing that may lead up to that kind of thing “dangerous”? Or, in fact, is my mention of it just now a clear and present “danger”?

These questions can be summarized by another: what will it take to get a government to declare this a police state?

Remember that the answer may be very different for Barack Obama than for an extreme right-wing President. That makes it difficult to answer a question already made challenging because we’re never had to answer it as a practical matter. We in the Left have long worried about “police state tactics”. Now we have to confront the police state structure. It’s here and it can morph into a real police state with very little effort. Opposing and dismantling it should now be among our top priorities.

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

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

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