The sort of revelations that have surfaced over the last few months regarding electronic surveillance by government spy agencies in the western world have shocked and disturbed many. With some of the revelations seemingly straight out of a conspiracy theorists’ most fevered imaginings, we’ve witnessed a clear and deliberate intent by government bodies to recklessly snoop on communications throughout the world.
While much of the focus in recent months has been on the American arm of this global Peeping Tom system, other spy agencies have been caught with their noses pressed up against the window, too:
Britain’s spy agency GCHQ has secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic and has started to process vast streams of sensitive personal information which it is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency
One key innovation has been GCHQ’s ability to tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fibre-optic cables for up to 30 days so that it can be sifted and analysed. That operation, codenamed Tempora, has been running for some 18 months.
The intercept probes on the transatlantic cables gave GCHQ access to its special source exploitation. Tempora allowed the agency to set up internet buffers so it could not simply watch the data live but also store it – for three days in the case of content and 30 days for metadata.
The Guardian, 21 June 2013, GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications
There are many who see this and simplistically draw the conclusion that the “terrorists have won”; that our governments, seemingly frightened into ever increasing levels of paranoia about shadowy opponents have lost their way and started abusing the freedoms they’re claiming to protect.
There is another possibility though, and one which is less pleasant to consider yet hardly a conspiracy theory: what we’re seeing now is the realisation of a long-standing desire on behalf of spy agencies and governments to tap into general communications. A desire which was previously stymied by either the manual processes that would be involved (in the pre-Internet age), or the lack of processing capability to support it.
The ironic thing of course, is that governments have over time developed laws and rules separating authority to access from permission to access, particularly in relation to systems administrators. As a former system administrator myself, I’m well aware of the differentiation; while you can harden data access more readily these days, it’s still fairly common that a system administrator in a small to medium enterprise can access any data stored on any system he or she administers.
Yet, system administrators by and large are extremely ethical and don’t go looking at things they’re not supposed to look at. I know I didn’t. Directors email? No. Financial reports? No. Emails? No. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got the capabilities – it’s the intent and the action that matters.
Our politicians often want to boil government positions down to household ones. “If the national economy were run like a household budget…” is a common enough saying. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so if we take that approach, what we’ve got is a classic scenario were governments and their spy agencies have reached the level of technological sophistication and capabilities where they can and by golly they will snoop on what people get up to.
If spy agencies and politicians behaved in the work place as they’re behaving in their realm, they’d be sacked, fined and likely sent to gaol.
Instead, there’s a plethora of them running around calling the revelations unpatriotic. Which is, of course, a handy word to bandy about when you’re wanting to close down debate about something uncomfortable.
You don’t have to look too far to see people questioning how far patriotism should be used during debates:
While patriotism is often lauded as an unquestionable value, the status of patriotism is a problem for many thoughtful people. It is particularly troublesome for people who care about the common good but are alienated by the all too frequent use of patriotism and patriotic symbols to stifle debate, tarnish the images of rival candidates, or arouse popular support for aggressive military policies.
Stephen Nathanson: Patriotism, Morality and Peace, ISBN-13 978-0847678006, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
It’s not uncommon for some to whip out the “patriotism” argument when they’re trying to shutdown a valid debate. Again using that oft-abused political approach of reducing government activities to household ones, calling “patriotism!” we’re looking at a bunch of Peeping Toms who are trying to use the “neighbourhood watch” defence. It’s about as creepy and as effective as Bob and Cheryl Ugly:
That’s where our governments are heading. Not because they’re afraid of terrorists, but because they can afford to do it, and they can get away with it by saying it’s all for our own good.
Just like a Peeping Tom.