LONDON – Watching British Foreign Secretary William Hague doing his avuncular routine in the Commons on June 10, I was reminded of the way establishment figures in the 1950s used to reassure hoi polloi that they had nothing to worry about. Everything was in order. The Right Chaps were in charge. Citizens who had done nothing wrong, declared Uncle Hague, had nothing to fear from comprehensive surveillance.
Oh yeah? As Stephen Fry observed in an exasperated tweet: “William Hague’s view seems to be ‘we can hide a camera & bug in your room & if you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s the worry?’ Hell’s teeth!”
Hell’s teeth indeed. I can think of thousands of people who have nothing to hide, but who would have good reasons to worry about intrusive surveillance. Journalists seeking to protect their sources, for example; NHS whistleblowers; people seeking online help for personal psychological torments; frightened teenagers seeking advice on contraception or abortion; estranged wives of abusive husbands; asylum seekers and dissident refugees; and so on.
In a way, Hague’s smug, patronising tone was the least troubling aspect of the NSA/GCHQ story. More worrying was the unexplained contradiction between claims in the Prism PowerPoint slides that the NSA routinely collects data from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple, and the companies’ frantic denials that this was the case. (Interestingly, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter aren’t on the list — yet.) The named companies have all claimed that while they do provide user data in response to government requests, they do so only on a case-by-case basis and using tools such as secure virtual dropboxes or encrypted file transfers.
One of the slides in the presentation is entitled “Prism collection details” (emphasis added). It describes the companies as “current providers” (implying voluntary or involuntary compliance) and informs its audience about “what will you receive in collection (surveillance and stored comms)?”, which “varies by provider.”
There are various ways of reading this. One is that Prism does indeed have direct access to the Internet companies’ servers because, as one of the NSA bigwigs famously observed: “If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, then you need the haystack,” and it now has the technology to get it. Another reading is that Prism merely automates the serving of legally authorized writs on the Internet companies. But whatever the explanation, someone is being economic with the actualité, as Alan Clark once said.
Let us suppose, for a moment, that it’s the companies that are the prime economizers in this context. If it is indeed the case that the NSA has logon-type access to their servers, what does that mean for anyone who is uncomfortable about this? Simple: one shouldn’t entrust one’s personal communications to any of them. That means: no Microsoft cloud services, no Google or Bing searches, no Google Docs, no Gmail, Yahoo mail or Hotmail; no Skype calls; no YouTube or Vimeo videos; no Flickr or Picasa; no Facebook or Twitter. And, of course, no iPhone or iPad use.
Why? Because all these services and/or devices rely on cloud services hosted in the United States, which — we must assume — are routinely hoovered by the NSA for indefinite storage in the colossal server farm the agency has been constructing in Utah.
Over the last week, I have had various conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances about Prismgate. Many — though not all — confessed to feeling uneasy about what it might mean for privacy and/or liberal democracy. Some were skeptical that the NSA and its overseas franchises such as GCHQ actually possess the technical capability to “collect the haystack.” All were adamant, however, that they don’t want to live in a National Security state.
But when I raised Tim Wu’s recommendation that users should therefore boycott Google and co, the atmosphere changed. The idea of not using Google for search seems unthinkable to most people. My respondents could live without Google Docs, but most thought that webmail was essential. Older people might be able to live without YouTube, but nobody under the age of 25 could. For many, Skype has become a personal lifeline for keeping in touch with distant friends and family members. iPhone and iPad users were appalled at the idea of having to give up their toys. And one person declared that he would sooner shoot himself than go back to using Microsoft Windows.
The moral of this? Simple: We’re screwed either way. We’re so hooked on the services provided by Google et al that we can’t contemplate boycotting them, whether or not they’re collaborating with the Feds. We walked cheerfully into the trap, folks. All that remains now is to live with the consequences.