Snowden and the Cave
2013 will be remembered as the year when Edward Snowden hauled the debate about state surveillance into the conditions of the 21st century. His revelations constitute a vast canvas made up of interconnecting elements, and the combination of scale and detail makes it difficult to fully find one’s bearings. It has often made me think of Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave which he recounts in the Republic.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to illustrate the place of philosophers in society. He told of a people whose knowledge of the world was derived from the shadows of moving people and objects cast on a wall by firelight. One of the prisoners is freed and the illusion is revealed to him. When he looks at the fire it hurts his eyes. He sees the sun and it takes time for his sight to adjust, but it does and he can see the objects and people who were formerly only shadows.
Before May of this year we had some inkling of what was going on. After all it was sixteen years since the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) office of the European Parliament commissioned two reports touching on global communications interception (including Echelon). This led eventually to a Parliamentary procedure in 2001. But investigations were based on piecing together and inference not documentary corroboration. Now we are confronted with the flow charts, slide-shows, and even doodles of the undertaking – a collision with the plumbing of modern power. Time is needed to take it all in.
Sovereign power is back on display, its capability multiplied by the rise of the data harvesting industries and the centralisation of data on their servers. Trust in these companies – Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft et al. – has been injured and the wound will fester, both amongst users and non-US governments. Meanwhile ‘users’ drift virtually naked in a sea of insecure communications and with precious little data that is still ‘personal’ …. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s going to get better from here, because now people know and will begin to respond through litigation, agitation in the public sphere and tool development.
There is much to say but for now I’ll recommend some other voices: if you haven’t followed Eben Moglen’s lecture series, Snowden and the Future, then take the time to read or listen to his four lectures and absorb his analysis of the broad picture. Those interested in an accessible presentation of the technical aspect should watch his dialogue with security expert Bruce Schneier. Good background on the recent expansion of the surveillance culture in the US is contained in Ryan Lizza’s article State of Deception from the New Yorker. Finally Glenn Greewald, who broke the story with Laura Poitras, gave the keynote at the Chaos Computer conference last week, check it out here.
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