23
Jul

Until Snowden we lived in the illusion that the social networks gave us unlimited capacity for action

By José Ignacio Torreblanca, Associate Professor at IE School of International Relations

Torreblanca

Is the internet a tool of liberation or oppression? Until Edward Snowden came along we seem to have lived in the happy illusion that the internet and the social networks gave us an unlimited capacity for organization and action. The social networks, we were told, not only empowered us socially but also provided us with a potent political tool. Twitter and Facebook, together with Google’s capacity for disseminating an incredible volume of information in real time, had become a new weapon for citizen supervision of the government, and of resistance to tyranny. Like the press, radio and television before it, the internet now offered the citizen a way out from authoritarian monopolies on information. This is what we might call the horizontal or libertarian view of technology. And though sometimes exaggerated, as in the supposed revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt (which were far from such), this vision did foster a reasonable hope that technology and democracy might be solid allies.

But since Snowden we have had to concede greater weight to the other vision, that we might call authoritarian or vertical. Because, however much we suspected it — remember the Echelon revelations — we now know that while millions of citizens blithely use the internet and social networks, a number of states have the capacity for vertical control of the net and its content.

The US authorities’ line of defense is centered on, first, the claim that their listening capacity is confined to so-called metadata — that is, there is no scrutiny of content but only of flows; two, that there is only exceptional access, under strict judicial control, to the complete content, as is traditional in telephone taps; and three (not applicable to the rest of us), that the objects of such surveillance have never been US citizens within the United States.

But this sugar-coated version seems to have little truth to it. Snowden’s revelations to the magazine Cryptome note that intelligence service access to undersea cables carrying internet data allows it complete access to all the content traveling along them, the only problem being storage and processing capacity, which is now around 72 hours, after which they are erased. Keeping in mind the speed at which these things progress, it stands to reason that the 72-hour limit will soon stretch further. So that, if you know what you are looking for, access will be complete. Which covers everything to do with the individual in question: medical reports, the works. Read more…

As published in www.elpais.com on July 22, 2013.

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