Apathy is the real enemy in NSA affair

by John Naughton

The Observer

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 percent 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 percent thought they were bad and only 35 percent thought they were good.

In an Observer article 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 honoring 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 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 toward WikiLeaks by the mainstream media in both Britain and the United States. 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 U.S., 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 Barack Obama.

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?