Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 413 | Diciembre 2015



They’re always watching us: The end of private life

One Web inventor believes private life “is now an anomaly.” And another of the Internet pioneers is yet more pessimistic: “Our private life has come to an end and it’s impossible to recover” This is a product of the unimaginable digital revolution we live in. And Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are imprisoned for “blowing the whistle.”

Ignacio Ramonet

The idea of a world under “total surveillance” has long seemed like utopic or paranoid raving, fruit of an imagi¬nation more or less obsessed by conspiracy theories. We must, however, acknowledge the evidence: we live, here and now, under the watchful eye of a sort of an empire of surveillance. Unbeknownst to us, we are being observed, spied upon, monitored, controlled and profiled in a file more and more every day.

Each day, new technologies are being refined to track us. Commercial businesses and publicity agencies record our lives. But, above all, under the pretext of fighting terrorism or other plagues (child pornography, money laundering, drug trafficking), govern¬ments—including the most democratic ones—set themselves up as “Big Brother” and don’t even hesitate to break their own laws so they can spy on us better.

The new Orwellian States secretly seek to establish exhaustive dossiers of all our contacts and personal information as they show up on different electronic sites. Following the wave of terrorist attacks that have been striking cities such as New York, Paris, Boston, Ottawa, London or Madrid over the past several years, authorities have not thought twice about taking advantage of the terror felt by shocked societies to increase surveillance and further reduce the protection of our private lives.

The problem is...

Let’s be clear: the problem isn’t surveillance in general but “massive clandestine surveillance.” It’s evident that in a democratic State, authorities count on total legitimacy, based on the law and with prior authorization from a judge, to place any person considered suspicious under surveillance. As Edward Snowden said in an interview that came out in The Nation [October 28, 2014]: “It’s OK if we wiretap Osama bin Laden…. As long as investigators must go to a judge—an independent judge, a real judge, not a secret judge—and make a showing that there’s probable cause to issue a warrant, then they can do that. And that’s how it should be done. The problem is when they monitor all of us, en masse, all of the time, without any specific justification.”

They watch where we go

With help from constantly-improved algorithms, thousands of investigators, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists search and classify the information we generate about ourselves. Satellites and drones with penetrating eyes follow us from space. In airport terminals, biometric scanners analyze our travels and “read” our iris and fingerprints. Infrared cameras measure our temperature. The silent pupils of video cameras scrutinize us along city sidewalks or department store aisles. They also follow our tracks at work, on the bus, in the bank, the subway, the stadium, parking lots, elevators, shopping malls, highways, stations, airports....

With undetectable techniques

It’s worth noting that this unimaginable digital revolution we’re living in, which has changed so many activities and professions, has also totally disrupted the scope of information and surveillance services. In this Internet era, surveillance has become omnipresent and perfectly immaterial, imperceptible, undetectable, invisible. In addition, it’s technically characterized by astonishing simplicity. No more masonry work to install cables and microphones, like in Coppola’s famous movie “The Conversation,” where we could see how a group of “plumbers” presented, in a surveillance techniques fair, rather elaborate “informants” equipped with boxes overflowing with electric wires that had to be hidden in the walls or the ground...

Several resounding scandals from that period—the “plumbers” of the Watergate case in the United States and of “Le Canard enchaîné” in France—humiliating fiascos for the information services offices, showed the limits of these old, easily detectable and easy-to-find mechanical methods.

We all can spy

Nowadays, wire-tapping someone has become disconcertingly easy. First come, first served. A normal, ordinary person who wants to spy on someone can find a broad array of options for sale. No fewer than half a dozen computer spyware programs (mSpy, GsmSpy, FlexiSpy, Spyera, EasySpy) have no problem “reading” the contents of mobile phones: text messages, emails and Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and other such accounts.

With the boom in on-line buying, commercial surveillance has also vastly developed, giving way to a giant market of our personal data, turned into merchandise. Every time we connect to a website, the “cookies” save all the searches we’ve done and help establish our consumer profile. In less than twenty-thousandths of a second, the editor of the visited site sells relevant information gathered by the cookies to possible advertisers. Only a fraction of a second later, the type of publicity that they presume will tantalize us most appears on our screen. And thus we’re definitively nailed.

A surveillance empire

Somehow, surveillance has become both “privatized” and “democratized.” It’s no longer reserved for state information services. At the same time, however, the States’ capacity to do massive spying has grown exponentially. Among other things this is due to their close complicity with the big private corporations that control the computer and telecommunications industries.

Julian Assange said in an interview I did with him for Le Monde Diplomatique in December 2014 that the young corporations like Google, Apple, Amazon and, more recently, Facebook have woven close ties with the state apparatus in Washington, especially with those in charge of foreign affairs.

This security and digital complex (State+security apparatus+the Web giants) forms an authentic surveillance empire whose very clear and concrete objective is to tap the Internet, all of it and all its users. In short, to control society.

Internet is both an ecosystem
and a control tool

For those generations younger than forty years old, the Web is simply the ecosystem that has polished their minds, curiosity, tastes and personality. From their perspective, the Internet isn’t only an autonomous tool to be used for concrete tasks but is also a huge intellectual sphere where one learns to freely explore all kinds of knowledge. Simultaneously, it’s a limitless gathering place, a forum where people meet, dialogue, exchange and acquire—often in a shared way—a culture, knowledge, values.

In the eyes of these new generations, Internet is for them what school and the library, art and the encyclopedia, the polis and the temple, the market and the coop, the stadium and the stage, the circus and the brothel, travel and games were for their elders.

It’s so amazing that “individuals, in their delight at evolving in a technological universe, aren’t concerned to find out much less understand that machines are managing their daily life, that every act and gesture is taped, filtered, analyzed and eventually monitored. Far from freeing people from their physical obstacles, the information technology of communication is unquestionably the most incredible tool for surveillance and control human beings have ever created” wrote Jean Guisnel in his prologue for Reg Whitaker’s book Tous fliqués. La vie privée sous surveillance (The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance Is Becoming a Reality).

The sanctuary of private life

This attempt to totally control the Internet represents an unheard-of danger for our democratic societies: “To permit surveillance to take root on the Internet would mean subjecting virtually all forms of human interaction, planning and even thought itself to comprehensive state examination,” argues Glenn Greenwald, the US journalist who published Edward Snowden’s revelations in his book about the Snowden case [No Place to Hide].

This is the big difference with the surveillance systems that existed before. We know from Michel Foucault that surveillance occupies a central position in the organization of modern societies. These are “disciplinary societies” where those in power, through complex surveillance techniques and strategies, seek to exercise the greatest social control possible.

The State’s desire to know everything about its citizens is politically legitimized by the promise of greater effectiveness in the bureaucratic administration of society. The State claims it will be more competitive and thus will better serve its citizens if it knows them better, as profoundly as possible.

By becoming more and more invasive, however, the State’s intrusion has, for some time now, ended up arousing increasing rejection among citizens who appreciate the sanctuary of private life.

The government’s enemy
is its own population

As far back as 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville was already pointing out that the modern democracies of the masses produce private citizens whose main preoccupation is protection of their rights. This makes them particularly sensitive and hostile to the State’s intrusive and abusive intentions.

This tradition is currently extended by “whistleblowers” such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, both fiercely persecuted by the United States. In their defense, the great US intellectual Noam Chomsky told me in an interview for Le Monde Diplomatique in April of this year that their struggle for free and transparent information is an almost natural one for these whistleblowers. Will it be successful? That depends on the people, he responded. Snowden, Assange and others are doing what they do as citizens. They are helping the public discover what their own governments are doing. Is there any nobler task than this for a free citizen? Yet it’s severely punished. If Washington could get its hands on them, it would be worse. Chomsky said the United States has an espionage law that dates back to World War I, which Obama has used to prevent the information put out by Assange and Snowden from reaching the public. The government will try everything, including the unspeakable, to protect itself from its “main enemy.” And any government’s “main enemy,” Chomsky concluded, is its own people.

They desecrate our privacy

In the Internet era, control by the State has reached absurd dimensions, given that one way or another we entrust our most personal and intimate thoughts, both professional as well as emotional, to the Internet. So when the State, with the help of super powerful technologies, decides to scan our Internet use, it not only goes beyond its functions, but also desecrates our intimacy, literally stripping our spirit bare and looting our private life.

Without knowing it, in the eyes of the new “Surveillance States,” we become clones of the hero in the Peter Weir film, “The Truman Show,” directly exposed to the gaze of thousands of cameras and wiretapped to thousands of microphones that exhibit our private life to the planetary curiosity of the information services.

In this respect, Vince Cerf, one of the inventors of the Web, considers that private life is an anomaly in this era of modern digital technologies. And Leonard Kleinrock, one of the founders of Internet, is even more pessimist, positing that basically “the loss of privacy is a done thing” and is impossible to recover.

Freedom in exchange for security

On the one hand, many citizens are resigned to the end of our right to anonymity as if it were some sort of fatality of the era. On the other, this concern for defense of our private life can seem reactionary or “suspicious” because supposedly only those who have something to hide try to avoid public control. Therefore, people who figure they have nothing to censure or hide aren’t as hostile to state surveillance, especially if, as is promised and constantly repeated by authorities, it’s accompanied by a substantial gain in matters of security. However, this discourse of “Grant me a little of thy liberty and I will return one hundredfold a guarantee of security” is a scam. Total security doesn’t exist. It’s a hoax. “Total surveillance,” on the other hand, has become an undeniable reality.

Faced with this security scam—the same old story we’re constantly told by those in power—we need to remember the warning given to us by Benjamin Franklin, one of the authors of the US Constitution: “People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.”

That precept, perfect for current times, should encourage us to defend our right to a private life, as the main function of that right is nothing more than to protect our intimacy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an Enlightenment philosopher and the first thinker to “discover” privacy, gave us the example. Was he not the first to rebel against the society of his times and against the inquisitive desire to control people’s conscience?

Towards new forms of totalitarianism

In her book The Human Condition, contemporary philosopher Hanna Arendt underscores that the end of private life could be an authentic existential calamity. With amazing perception, she points out the dangers faced by the democracy of a society when the difference between private and public life is not well defined, which, according to Arendt, would mean the end of people’s freedom. And it would drag our societies implacably towards new forms of totalitarianism.

Ignacio Ramonet is the former editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique and currently director of its Spanish edition. This text is from the blog “Dominio Público” under the title “Los nuevos Estados de vigilancia.” Translated and subtitled by envío.

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