THE BIG READ: No stopping Big Brother - Times LIVE
Wed Apr 26 19:29:18 SAST 2017

THE BIG READ: No stopping Big Brother

Katherine Rushton | 2013-06-18 00:01:34.0
Edward Snowden's greatest fear after leaking US state secrets is not that he will be locked behind bars for the rest of his life but that nothing will change
Image by: REUTERS

Speaking furtively from below a red hood in his Hong Kong hotel room last week, Edward Snowden described his worst nightmare. The 29-year-old whistleblower, who is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars, fighting extradition, or on the run for leaking America's state secrets, said his real horror would be that nothing changed.

His disclosures that the US government is routinely monitoring citizens' phone records and online activity caused alarm across the globe. People have been accusing America of this sort of behaviour for years, but suddenly here was what appeared to be proof that the world had indeed become truly Orwellian.

Just a week after the revelations, however, Snowden's own fears are coming true. As the Barack Obama administration has turned on him, branding him a traitor, people have started to turn away.

Explosive though the disclosures were, the shock has quickly dissipated and it appears many US citizens have lapped up the line trotted out by their government, that this invasive surveillance is needed to keep people safe.

More than half think it is "acceptable" for the government to trawl through their personal info in this manner, according to a survey carried out by the Pew Research Centre, and 45% think it should be able to go further if it will prevent terrorist attacks. Just 41% think the behaviour exposed by Snowden marks an "unacceptable" intrusion on their privacy. What the Pew research did not publish is what that sizable minority plans to do about it. It is likely that, for the overwhelming majority of those people who were alarmed by the spying, the answer will be precisely nothing. Deciding to stop using your smartphone or giving up on web search engines is not like switching supermarkets because they sell battery-farmed chicken. When it comes to the internet, there is no safe haven up the road.

Google and Apple were named among the nine companies whose information the US government can access, but no one in Silicon Valley thinks the list of targets stops there. People who shun their iPhone can't pick up a Samsung, safe in the knowledge that their info will be entirely secure. The only way to really be safe from government interception is to stop using the net or phone altogether.

For most people, that idea is too radical to consider. Angered though they may be by the invasion of their privacy, these technology companies are inextricably embedded in their lives.

Even if there were an alternative to Google, Apple and Facebook people have grown used to being constantly in touch with friends, or being able to speed through the internet directly to whichever content they wanted to find. They aren't about to give that up. Convenience trumps principle every time.

Another element of the surveillance row is the parallel between the US government's behaviour and the charges it has levelled at China and its technology companies. The Obama administration has accused Beijing of using cyber espionage to "advance its economic interests" - echoing the phrase the US National Security Agency used in leaked documents to explain the rationale behind its PRISM spying scheme.

All the companies named in the NSA papers claim they had never heard of the PRISM scheme until Snowden's disclosures. But if Washington's concerns about China are anything to go by, this does not put them in the clear.

Last October, the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee report expressed concern about Huawei, on account of the fact that its chief executive, Zhengfei Ren, is a member of the Communist Party and used to be a senior engineer in the People's Liberation Army.

A Chinese official applying the same standards might raise concerns that Apple's founder and erstwhile boss, Steve Jobs, was granted the top level of security clearance by the US government in the 1980s and served on George Bush's export council. Or that Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, is an adviser to Obama.

That is not to say either of them are aligned with the government's surveillance operation in any way. But America's surveillance scandal certainly casts its clashes with China in a new light.

I have developed an iced coffee habit. Every day, when I go to buy my fix at a cafe around the corner, I am greeted with: "Hello, how are you Katherine?" For one shining moment, I convinced myself I was settling in to my new metropolis [New York] so fast, I had already forged a place in the community.

My illusions were shattered as quickly as they were formed. This, as with so many things in America's slick service culture, was just paint-by-numbers behaviour designed to make me feel like a local. After me, they welcome John, Lisa, Carly. Sometimes, they even remember how we like our drinks.

But they must polish the routine. This pantomime is exposed when they pass me the receipt. There I am "Lady with short hair". Fortunately I am sufficiently antisocial in the morning to be happy to remain anonymous. - ©The Daily Telegraph


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