The Fettered Internet Part 1 – Five things you should know about surveillance

Technology and its impact on our psychology has been one of my pet subjects lately. I wrote this post on the brilliant book by Nicholas Carr on ‘What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains’ apart from this post on front-facing camera and most recently on selfies.

One of the most insightful books that I have come across on this subject in the recent past is Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Jeremie Zimmerman and Andy Muller-Maguhn. I read the book a second time over the weekend and this time I took some notes on my phone for this post. The book is essentially a dialogue between the 4 authors who are a group of thinkers and cyber-space activists on the politics and economics of privacy, surveillance and censorship on the internet and how states across the world alongside private corporations are colluding to ‘control’ lives of people and threatening what we considered ‘free’ internet. The book outlines the major issues and speaks about how cryptography can offer people a chance to retain their freedom.

The points made in the book are extremely pertinent especially given the increasingly ‘virtual lives’ we lead. Instead of one long post, I am breaking this into a series of posts.

In this first post, I ll set the context shared in the book and focus on 5 reasons why surveillance today is so dangerous.


“The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The internet is a threat to human civilization.”

Human life has always been at the cusp of shifting power balance throughout its history. Religion and the State have been the traditional coercive forces who have held control over the masses. They have held control over physical resources such as land, money and colluded with those with similar access on oil wells, plantations to ensure that the power balance remains in their favour. Most importantly they held control over intellectual resources such as knowledge, access to new ideas and means of communication to spread the same. As the authors share:

 Factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application, and avoidance, of violence. Land ownership, property, rents, dividends, taxation, court fines, censorship, copyrights and trademarks are all enforced by the threatened application of state violence. Most of the time we are not even aware of how close to violence we are, because we all grant concessions to avoid it. Like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness. In the new space of the internet what would be the mediator of coercive force?

The internet held the promise of a new level playing field where an equal access to the intellectual pool (access to best ideas, ‘free’ communication, one-to-many collaboration) meant a whole new world of possibilities and potential as an ‘individual’ over your own destiny. However, this is a dream that today stands threatened by a new seismic shift being caused by some of the traditionally powerful (state, private corporations) and the neo-powerful (data companies) who ‘control’ the access to the infrastructure through which this knowledge is created and shared. The authorities who hold the switch to fibre optic cable lines, satellites and computer servers are gaining monstrous scale and this growth is ironically being fuelled by us – who just can’t have enough of ‘sharing’ the most private aspects of our lives and thoughts on Facebook and Twitter or worse turn-in all our concerns, worries, fears by ‘asking’ Google.

It’s no longer Science Fiction.  We are all in the house of ‘Big Boss’

The authors discuss how the people in power see internet as an illness that would “affect their way of governance”. The “medicine” they have found to this illness is surveillance:

The state would leech into the veins and arteries of our new societies, gobbling up every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever. It would go on to mine and mine again this treasure, the collective private intellectual output of humanity, with ever more sophisticated search and pattern finding algorithms, enriching the treasure and maximizing the power imbalance between interceptors and the world of interceptees.

They look at the internet like an illness and ask their consultants, “Do you have some medicine against this thing out there? We need to be immune if this affects our country, if this internet thingy comes.” And the answer is mass surveillance. It is, “We need to control it totally, we need to filter, we need to know everything that they do.

Five aspects of surveillance in 21st century which make it deeply disturbing

  1. Mass commercialisation of surveillance – unlike in the past where only a select few had the means to ‘intercept’ like the Americans, the British, the Russians, the Swiss and the French, today nearly EVERY state is accessing systemically the lives of its people, from the mighty China to even a small nation as Libya . It’s real cheap to snoop over ‘everybody’ than even bother following select targets.  Consider this:

…you get decent voice-quality storage of all German telephone calls in a year for about 30 million euros including administrative overheads, so the pure storage is about 8 million euros. JULIAN: And there are even companies like VASTech in South Africa that are selling these systems for $10 million per year.

We’re now at the stage where just $10 million can buy you a unit to permanently store the mass intercepts of a medium sized country.

2. Everybody is under watch – previously a person was put under watch when he was ‘suspected’ of something or was in a powerful position that made him a ‘target’. Today everybody is a ‘target’ or a ‘suspect’ because technology makes it ‘efficient’ to intercept everything and store it permanently and then ‘sort’ that data in future. From your financial transactions, political beliefs to all your private and public conversations are being ‘tracked’ today by companies ranging from mobile operators, credit card and social networks

 3. Not only your ‘public’ data your most ‘private’ data is being intercepted – as one of the authors shares aptly: 

And it’s totalizing now, because people put all their political ideas, their family communications, and their friendships on to the internet. So it’s not just that there is increased surveillance of the communication that was already there; it’s that there is so much more communication. And it’s not just an increase in the volume of communication; it’s an increase in the types of communication. All these new types of communication that would previously have been private are now being mass intercepted

4. There are tanks in our bedroom. We just can’t see them yetone of the grimmest aspects of surveillance today is that much of this is being conducted by military organisations. Again the economics of it have a major role to play – compared to traditional military budgets, “cyber warriors or mass surveillance are super-cheap”:

When you communicate over the internet, when you communicate using mobile phones, which are now meshed to the internet, your communications are being intercepted by military intelligence organizations. It’s like having a tank in your bedroom. It’s a soldier between you and your wife as you’re SMSing. We are all living under martial law as far as our communications are concerned, we just can’t see the tanks—but they are there. To that degree, the internet, which was supposed to be a civilian space, has become a militarized space.

5. Deliberate complexity in technology, hence users don’t question what they don’t understand – from aeroplanes to mobile phones, nearly everything in our life is nothing but a ‘computer’ and the technology behind most of it is not “not intended to be understood. That’s the case with proprietary technology.”  This can be dangerous:

 “…it is important to understand these systems, because when we don’t understand them there’s a general trend to defer to authority, to people who do understand them or are able to assert control over them, even if they do not understand the essence of the thing itself.”

In the next post, I will cover some of the other key themes such as  ways to tackle surveillance, how private corporations are complicit and the ‘economics’ of control.

Do share your thoughts.

About amita

Professional trajectory - Literature. Public Relations. Social Media. Personal - learning to cook, hopefully drive, figure whether to renew HBR and discipline myself into focusing on important and not urgent.
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