Patrice Riemens on Fri, 25 Oct 2013 16:28:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> John Naughton: Edward Snowden: public indifference is the real

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    John Naughton
    The Observer, Sunday 20 October 2013

Edward Snowden: public indifference is the real enemy in the NSA affair

Most people don't seem to worry that government agencies are collecting
their personal data. Is it ignorance or apathy?

One of the most disturbing aspects of the public response to Edward
Snowden's revelations about the scale of governmental surveillance is how
little public disquiet there appears to be about it. A recent YouGov poll,
for example, asked respondents whether the British security services have
too many or too few powers to carry out surveillance on ordinary people.
Forty-two per cent said that they thought the balance was "about right"
and a further 22% thought that the security services did not have enough
powers. In another question, respondents were asked whether they thought
Snowden's revelations were a good or a bad thing; 43% thought they were
bad and only 35% thought they were good.

Writing in these pages a few weeks ago, Henry Porter expressed his own
frustration at this public complacency. "Today, apparently," he wrote, "we
are at ease with a system of near total intrusion that would have
horrified every adult Briton 25 years ago. Back then, western spies
acknowledged the importance of freedom by honouring the survivors of those
networks; now, they spy on their own people. We have changed, that is
obvious, and, to be honest, I wonder whether I, and others who care about
privacy and freedom, have been left behind by societies that accept
surveillance as a part of the sophisticated world we live in."

I share Henry's bafflement. At one point I thought that the level of
public complacency about the revelations was a reflection simply of
ignorance. After all, most people who use the internet and mobile phones
have no idea about how any of this stuff works and so may be naive about
the implications of state agencies being able to scoop up everybody's
email metadata, call logs, click streams, friendship networks and so on.

But what is, in a way, more alarming is how relaxed many of my
professional peers seem to be about it. Many of them are people who do
understand how the stuff works. To them, Snowden's revelations probably
just confirm what they had kind of suspected all along. And yet the
discovery that in less than three decades our societies have achieved
Orwellian levels of surveillance provokes, at most, a wry smile or a
resigned shrug. And it is this level of passive acceptance that I find
really scary.

What's even more alarming is that the one group of professionals who
really ought to be alert to the danger are journalists. After all, these
are the people who define news as "something that someone powerful does
not want published", who pride themselves on "holding government to
account" or sometimes, when they've had a few drinks, on "speaking truth
to power". And yet, in their reactions to the rolling scoops published by
the Guardian, the Washington Post, the New York Times and Der Spiegel,
many of them seem to have succumbed either to a weird kind of spiteful
envy, or to a desire to act as the unpaid stenographers to the security
services and their political masters.

We've seen this before, of course, notably in the visceral hatred directed
towards WikiLeaks by the mainstream media in both this country and the US.
As I read the vitriol being heaped on Julian Assange, I wondered how the
press would have reacted if Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning had handed his
CD downloads to the editor of the Des Moines Register who had then
published them. Would that editor have been lauded as a champion of
freedom, or vilified as a traitor warranting summary assassination?

Last week in the US, we saw a welcome sign that some people in journalism
have woken up to the existential threat posed by the NSA to their
profession ? and, by implication, to political freedom. A group of
scholars, journalists and researchers from Columbia Journalism School and
the MIT Centre for Civic Media submitted a thoughtful paper on "the
effects of mass surveillance on the practice of journalism" to the Review
Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies convened by President

It's a longish (15-page) submission that is worth reading in full. It
argues that what the NSA is doing is "incompatible with the existing law
and policy protecting the confidentiality of journalist-source
communications", that this is not merely an incompatibility in spirit,
"but a series of specific and serious discrepancies between the activities
of the intelligence community and existing law, policy, and practice in
the rest of the government" and ? most importantly ? that the climate of
secrecy around mass surveillance is actively harmful to journalism,
because "sources cannot know when they might be monitored, or how
intercepted information might be used against them". In which case, what
happens to the freedom that the NSA is supposedly defending?

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