Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Leading Authors in the World Now Come Down on Surveillance State

Author composite including Tom Stoppard
Some of the 500 leading authors who've forcefully come out against mass surveillance as "theft".

For some time I had been wondering exactly when the writers-authors of the world would get involved in condemning mass electronic surveillance - as revealed by Edward Snowden. After all, as they have e-books and Nook books circulating-  they would also be coming under state scrutiny, perhaps to the extent of being placed in the NSA's Main Core as "enemies of the state" if certain writings seemed to be overly sympathetic to terrorism.

Well, at last they have come out and warned that spy agencies such as the NSA and Britain's GCHQ  are undermining democracy and must be curbed by a new international charter.The signatories, who come from 81 different countries and include Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo ('Libra'), Orhan Pamuk, Günter Grass and Arundhati Roy, say the capacity of intelligence agencies to spy on millions of people's digital communications is turning everyone into potential suspects, with worrying implications for the way societies work.

This, of course, is spot on. As I  noted in earlier blogs, all the data -metadata collected can be kept for up to six years and much of it is permanently stored in a program called Main Core - for which some eight million Americans' files are already included as potential "enemies of the state". These people could be guilty of nothing more than participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement, or an anti-fracking demonstration, or just bringing food to the actual protestors. See also:  http://www.brane-space.blogspot.com/2012/12/national-security-state-spied-on-occupy.html

The authors' timing could not have been better, coming only a day after the world's leading technology companies demanded sweeping changes to surveillance laws to help preserve the public's trust in the internet. Of course, these companies - like Google, Facebook, etc. have a monetary - profit interest in keeping the spooks at bay. They know if their wares, programs aren't secure people will be scared off and find alternative access programs. So they will lose sales. They are also, of course, concerned that their programs' security codes are being incessantly undermined by the national security fetishists.

The companies have delivered an open letter to Obama, issuing from firms including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. It is to  be followed by a petition, drawing together a remarkable list of the world's most respected and widely-read authors, who have accused states of systematically abusing their powers by conducting intrusive mass surveillance.

Again, the authors are spot-on. The spooks have, by their excesses, ruined the very meaning of democracy as well as personal liberty. To quote Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from a blistering UN speech delivered in September:

"Without the right of privacy, there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy."

In other words, people denied this right - by NSA intrusiveness - via XKeyscore, PRISM, CO-TRAVELER or whatever, are inhabiting a Potemkin democracy. They have no true freedom of speech because they can't know how their (spied and mass-grabbed) speech is being used. This is why in a fascist dictatorship “personal effects” don’t exist. “Personal papers” has no meaning. The state has full monopoly:  de facto ownership on whatever the person has, even his own body. Hence, in fascist dictatorships, such as existed in Nazi Germany, all personal effects, papers could be seized by the Nazis on a whim or remote suspicion - under the Reich Laws. A fundamental right to privacy, meanwhile, insists there exist bona fide entities that one can uniquely own, e.g. papers, effects – including photos or what not- that are private. Without this fundamental right, then, “personal papers, effects” has no meaning hence the 4th amendment is meaningless.

To be sure,  the authors' statement does not mention the NSA programs by name, but says the extent of surveillance revealed by Snowden has challenged and undermined the right of all humans to "remain unobserved and unmolested in their thoughts, personal environments and communications. "  Of course, Snowden as a former NSA contractor, has revealed all the nastiness embodied in the NSA's disreputable programs.  The authors' statement continues:

"This fundamental human right (to privacy)  has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes".

The statement adds, resonating with what I noted above:

"A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space."

Demanding the right "for all people to determine to what extent their personal data may be legally collected, stored and processed", the writers also called for a digital rights convention that states will sign on to and adhere to.  The underlying meme explicated reads:

"Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property, it belongs to us. When it is used to predict our behavior, we are robbed of something else – the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty."

Author Ian McEwan, invoking Thomas Hobbes' classic 'Leviathan' - was quoted as saying:

"Where Leviathan can, it will. The state, by its nature, always prefers security to liberty. Lately, technology has offered it means it can't resist, means of mass surveillance that Orwell would have been amazed by. The process is inexorable – unless it's resisted. Obviously, we need protection from terrorism, but not at any cost."

This jibes with what I already noted above about the Nazi state, wherein personal papers and identities could not exist because that state - in the Third Reich- had metastasized to the extreme of hyper-security - which is exactly why the current incarnation must be resisted. So it doesn't reach the level of the Nazi repudiation of individual rights, liberties.

Meanwhile, Hobbes' Leviathan firmly warns us of the excesses of the state if citizens aren't paying attention and playing a  role in its direction. While the state in its tyrannical form regards citizens as enemies of the state or mere "consumers"  to be manipulated by PR, Jefferson enjoined us to be its watchdogs - directing it like benevolent and attentive parents might a wayward, willful child along the straight and narrow. In his own words:

"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. AND TO RENDER THEM SAFE, THEIR MINDS MUST BE IMPROVED."

Jefferson meant citizens have a responsibility in the formation and direction of the state - whether it exists as benign or malevolent. If citizens' minds are "asleep at the switch", too invested in nonsense, games, frivolity and foolishness, then they can't be responsible civic stewards and will likely end up as puppets. Thus, their safety is bound up with the attention and activity of their minds.  In addition, since information is continually changing and increasing, the quality of their minds must be constantly improved. Ed Snowden's revelations call for drastic improvement in citizens' minds given the depth and breadth of the state malevolence disclosed.

It is up to the rest of us to get up off our asses and act on it, as the world's leading authors have done. Even if that merely means writing a blog post to spread the word so that others can know.

For a lighthearted take on the NSA as "all seeing Santa" - check out:


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