End of the Age of Innocence

2013 was a Year of Revelations. Of those that will have recurring repercussions, the revelations of Edward Snowden must take the prize. Not just for the scope of the surveillance revealed, but perhaps especially for the “workaround” of safeguards and oversight that are implied. For example, as the (Wall Street Journal 10 January 2014) pointed out, the “five eyes” of the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand enabled “the US agency to use its British counterpart to spy on American citizens without breaking any federal laws.” This (N-1)N formula offers twenty ways to circumvent national laws protecting citizens in each of these countries. Needless to say, in many other countries such workarounds are hardly necessary, making it even more difficult for citizens to influence the future behaviour of security agencies.

President Obama’s proposals to reform the way the National Security Agency (NSA) goes about its business were outlined in a speech on Jan 17. Top of the list was the suggestion that all records of phone calls by US citizens be stored outside of government control and that monitoring the calls of leaders of other countries would be rather more selective than it is at present, but with no reference to members of foreign governments. He went on to point out that any foreign government with the capability was already doing likewise and for that reason “Blackberries and iPhones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room.” Does this imply Congress could lift its prohibitions on Huawei without repercussions?

The idea of storing call records outside of direct government supervision may sound a step forward for those who fundamentally mistrust government, which is clearly a growing proportion of citizens in most countries; but a massive step backwards for those who might note that that is exactly where Edward Snowden came into the game. Outsourcing security does have something of an oxymoronic ring about it.

There is an old joke about two mafia dons talking to each other by telephone. One advises the other to “keep your voice down, this line may be tapped.” The equivalent today might be “keep the text short, someone else may be reading this.”  The revelation that over 200 million text messages a day are stored suggests that the storage of phone records may not be the big issue in a digital age.

No one can seriously question the growing need for, and complexity of, surveillance against terrorism. It’s a “no brainer”. The problem does not lie there, it lies in the credibility of assurances that governments do not over step genuine national security requirements, and about how national security is defined. Indeed, how terrorism is defined. As is often the case, yesterday’s terrorist is today’s statesman. And how many “dissenters” in Western democracies and “dissidents” in totalitarian states are regularly spied upon? How often do governments authorize the surveillance of foreign business people, diplomats, ahead of international conferences, etc. Denials now ring hollow, even for the most trusting and gullible of citizens. So the most important part of President Obama’s message was how to make an essentially secret process more transparent?

And that is exactly the point: it is trying to square a circle. There is no satisfactory answer, and there never will be. We have finally reached the end of the age of innocence. Welcome to the brave new world of 2014, the Year of the Horse. But note, it’s a wooden Horse this year, so beware gifts from the Greeks, they may be a security risk.

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