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Self-censorship in the digital age : We won’t be able to recognize ourselves

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One of nearly three billion street lamps, that will be capable to do anything soon, most of all: registering every movement Bild: dpa

More than a century ago, Sigmund Freud showed how we censor ourselves. In the age of digital mass surveillance we are facing self-censorship of a different dimension. We are more cautious, warier. Our behavior is changing drastically .

          On February 24, 1998, back when Edward Snowden was but fifteen, the National Security Agency finished one of the most remarkable documents in the history and theory of communications media. The Internet itself had just recently shifted into a commercial mode and was hosting an ever-growing fraction of all two-way communication.  Electronic intelligence officers took notice, in concert with its “partners.”

          (Deutsche Übersetzung: „Wir werden uns nicht mehr wiedererkennen“ von Peter Galison)

          The document said: „In the past, NSA operated in a mostly analog world of point-to-point communications carried along discrete, dedicated voice channels.  [M]ost of these communications were in the air and could be accessed using conventional means….Now, communications are mostly digital, carry billions of bits of data, and contain voice, data and multimedia.  They are dynamically routed, globally networked and pass over traditional communications means such as microwave or satellite less and less. … To perform both its offensive and defensive missions, NSA must live on the network.“

          Lurking in the shadows of the shadows

          The NSA and its allies have indeed, learned to “live on the network,” hovering over tweets and texts, emails and videocalls, social networks, games, images, searches, and phones.   They are not the only ones with eyes on the digital prize.   The British GCHQ has been fiercely aggressive in pursuing electronic intelligence, the French DGSE have happily joined in with their own version of massive electronic surveillance, and the Germans, alongside the Americans and British, grown very familiar with the NSA “crown jewels,” like the digital vacuum cleaner XKeyscore (capable of searching emails, chats, and browsing histories), using the program to capture hundreds of millions of German data sets.   In one NSA document reported on by Der Spiegel, the NSA applauded „the German government [for] modif[ying] its interpretation of the G-10 privacy law … to afford the BND more flexibility in sharing protected information with foreign partners.“  

          Of course, prying eyes on the Internet come too from countries beyond Europe and North America.  If anyone doesn’t know that the Chinese and Russians have invested heavily in cyber-espionage they reside in some other solar system.  Multi-national corporations plead “shock” and “outrage” that their servers and data pipes were so well hoovered-- they doth protest too much.  Meanwhile, those same companies are themselves cross-correlating data on all of us at a staggering rate.  Lurking in the shadows of shadows are the cybercriminals, profitably snatching government and corporate data.

          Reshaping the self

          In fact, the most shocking thing I’ve read over the last year has not been that electronic espionage agencies spy electronically.  Instead, it was a small salmon-colored text balloon lodged on the lower right of an NSA PowerPoint PRISM slide: “PRISM cost: ~ $20M per year.” 

          Twenty million dollars per year?  An absolutely insignificant drop in the NSA’s budget. Of course that low price depended on getting the data but by pressure, law or stealth from the corporate data world.   The very ease of this kind of monitoring suggested by this low seven-figure bill means that this debate is effectively over.  Sure this or that program will be curtailed.  But no one, no institution, no treaty, law, or country is going to stop this world-wide harvesting of data.

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