Just Because You’re Paranoid …

Being slightly paranoid is like being slightly pregnant – it tends to get worse. –Molly Ivins

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” –Satchel Page

Somewhere, I’ve run across this line said to be from novelist William S. Burroughs –

“Paranoia is just having all the facts.”

And it’s almost funny. If you don’t mind wincing. But lately, I’ve been thinking we should revise it, more or less as follows –

“Paranoia is knowing someone else has all the facts.”

Except it can’t be paranoia. Because it’s true — they do have all the facts! All the data, at least.

And then I encounter the following article, which has certainly kicked my own paranoia up a few notches. Facebook and Google will protect us from the surveillance state? Wonderful. I know that’s supposed to reassure me … and yet, somehow it does not. Why does this make me imagine a vast turf war, with Armour and Hormel fighting for every feed lot in the country? Lard help us. This is no way to start a bleak November Sunday, with whispers of snow in the forecast. And christmas decorations up already.


Google and Facebook may be our best defenders against Big Brother
The big online companies are calling for urgent reforms to protect us from having data intercepted
Jemima Kiss
The Observer, Saturday 9 November 2013

Over a few weeks’ worth of bedtimes in the summer of 1984, my dad read me Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Though the dystopian context would have been lost on nine-year old me, the pervasive malevolence and the futility of the struggle was not.
References to Orwell are never far off today, whether to Big Brother and the surveillance society, or doublethink and Room 101. The Orwellian dystopia is so familiar now to us – and so astonishingly real – that we might need a new cultural reference, a new literary vision to warn of what lies ahead.
It’s the relentless creep of progress and development that inevitably makes our worst nightmares and most brilliant visions a reality. Fifty years ago, security expert Eugene Kaspersky told a conference last week, the public would have been protesting on the streets at the idea that cameras would be surveilling every public place across the country, all day, every day. Today, we just accept it.
At the same conference, Dublin’s Web Summit, the vast audience in the hangar-sized hall was asked how many had abandoned consumer web companies in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Three people put up their hands – and this among well-informed, technologically confident people.
The gap between the shock of these revelations and the call to action is perverse. The story is huge, multifaceted and complex, which excludes all but the most committed. For others, the truth about services on which they are utterly dependent – we are all utterly dependent – is too inconvenient to want to act; far easier to declare, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” and, “I don’t care if I’m being watched.”
In truth, the call to action is not that we consumers abandon our online lives and seek out anonymity tools such as Tor, or start encrypting all our email using PGP. It’s no bad thing that more sophisticated security techniques are seeping into the mainstream consciousness; gleeful pub conversations about our how mobile phones double as microphones and how even the subtle differences in the sound of typewriter keys can be decoded. Kaspersky has his own currency of expertise to maintain, and he too recounts how he won’t store any compromising data on a computer at all.
This is borne out by the testimony of the tech investors at Web Summit too. “We’re just not looking for privacy-aware services,” said Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures. “There are so many compelling examples of value being created by sharing data, from traffic jams to healthcare. The problem isn’t privacy but trust. We can’t retreat into the dark ages.” That means spending time influencing policy, he concluded. Entrepreneurs were falling over themselves to testify to their fierce protection of customer data; taxi-app Hailo is building up records of payment details combined with location data for account holders, while Evernote records increasingly extensive personal notes covering everything from bank statements to work meetings. Both say they have not handed over customer data outside of specific warrants but as we now know, the NSA doesn’t need permission – it will help itself. What are you sharing online?
The crisis is in public trust of both our governments – who, when it suits them, will seize the opportunity to criticise oppressive regimes who restrict free speech — and corporations whose reputation depends on credibility and trust. European nations have generally set up rigorous laws to protect their citizens from business, while its governments rely on the trust and goodwill of the public. In the US that situation is reversed, with citizens protected from government through the constitution, and business commercially dependent on trust, among other things. The lack of oversight and accountability has meant the security services never had to draw the line about what is acceptable, necessary, moral and legal.
This dynamic of corporate autonomy may end up creating the strongest fightback against the over-reaching security services, with Google and Yahoo’s fury at the intercepts of their data networks and heavy lobbying in Washington. “We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fibre networks,” said Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond. “It underscores the need for urgent reform.”
Surveillance is the undercurrent in every tech conversation now, a lens for understanding our vulnerability and exposure to every part of the online world. This is not a choice between catching terrorists and what David Cameron astonishingly described as some “la-di-da, airy fairy” views on free speech and the right to privacy. If we are happy to accept that our online lives are best represented by Google, Skype, Yahoo, Facebook and all the rest, despite the compromises we make on those commercial platforms, then we have to hope they have the best chance of clawing back our right to free expression and privacy, our right to relate the world around us without being watched.
Returning to Orwell, what will the state of our surveillance nation be in 2031? The worst that can happen is that the whole lot comes true.

© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


About l. l. frederick

I'm pretty ordinary, so I find any number of things in the world interesting, among them: books, music, flowers, food, social justice, politics and (sometimes!) people. As for my writing, I've decided that I can be subtle and tasteful when our only problems are esthetic ones. Or when I'm dead, whichever comes first. In the meantime, read at your own risk.
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6 Responses to Just Because You’re Paranoid …

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Classic captor-captive dynamics. FB and Google ensnare us with their invasive software on one hand then promise to be our saviors with the other. I’ve wondered myself when does conspiracy stop being a theory and become a fact. Keep giving it to us straight, Linda, with no chaser. We can take it.

    • Thanks Jeff — I’ll try. If I can keep things straight, what with looking over my shoulder, just in case. – Linda
      P.S. Do you accept belated replies? I have no idea why I missed this. But … it’s probably nothing sinister — I’m just bad sometimes.

  2. Linda,
    Outside of international corporate competitive activities, NSA probably has very little interest. If someone gets involved in criticizing immoral or illegal corporate practices in such a way that future profits are jeopardized then NSA would express an interest. For example recent posts on the unreported, hence unknown, Congo genocide, as the Congo may be the country with the greatest natural resource wealth on Earth, would rise to the level where NSA would be interested. Perhaps there are those in the surveillance business who care about being able to look themselves in the mirror without shame who will come forward and expose immoral, illegal acts of which they are aware, thereby contributing to the lessening or stoppage of such acts.

    • Jerry, I wonder … True, it makes sense that our little personal stuff can’t be of much interest in the grand scheme of things. But why are they so insistent on being able to access and capture every scrap of data if our activities are not considered useful to someone? Given the heavy hand smacking down whistleblowers these days, we will be lucky to find brave people to keep letting enough cats out of the mass surveillance bag. Yet it’s surprising how often people will do the right thing. One thing that gives me hope! Thanks for your good comment, and my apologies for not acknowledging it until now. – Linda

      • Let’s say you are a prominent business person in your citiy of 50,000 population. If you had the ability to obtain the communications of every person in the city, and the city council has arranged for financing, no money out of your pocket, why wouldn’t you want to know all details of the “market”. A resident who is thinking of competing against you, new regulations or laws affecting your operations, etc., etc. – maybe even a current competitor’s commission of a crime or scandalous behavior.. It wouldn’t surprise if current events such as TPP, TTIP, Saudi attacks on Yemen, Obama’s Cuba announcement, on and on, came about from secretly obtained information. It’s a strange phenomenon that shows how far humanity has to travel before all people work/act for the benefit of all people.

        • Strange indeed, and as we see, a most dangerous phenomenon. So much information gives too much power, and since it’s obtained secretly, more or less, there’s no hint of accountability for it. Never good for people! Thanks as ever for your thoughtful comment. – Linda

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