NSA mass surveillance, one year on: rebuilding trust

TIME should have a special name for 2013, the year of extraordinary loss of innocence in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA’s far-reaching mass surveillance. The feeling that free people were sold and bought behind their backs for mere thirty coins of gold! The betrayal cuts very deep and one year proved insufficient to fully digest what’s been so far put out there and to understand the ramifications.

We’re again reminded of the core issues, with Edward Snowden’s reappearance in the interview with NBC.  The well-timed NBC interview won him some more supporters from his home country, who now regard him in a more positive light. Obviously, he’s still in asylum, ironically in a country his home government has had a colorful history with. When a white American is in asylum, people and governments elsewhere wonder if it’s not already Armaggedon. In Manila, visa applicants in the kilometer-long line to the US Embassy appear to have it better. But what strikes me the most about his situation is the skewed balance of power: entrenched and well-resourced institutions versus one individual, a young person at that.

If you ask me what his faults in the matter are, it’s that in a world where lines can be blurred and reordered to serve whatever agenda has more firepower, Edward has a very clear sense of right and wrong; in a world where looking away is the practice he’s unflinching in confronting wrongdoing; in a world grown weary, jaded, and desensitized he feels, sees the flowers, and hopes. He comes across as personifying the extolled qualities of his age, Youth.

Hero, or coward? Patriot, or traitor? I see him as a whistleblower. I’m sure NSA has a manual defining who such a person is. Organizations that care about their business, especially public agencies, have whistle-blowing policies. The policy is introduced as part of workforce orientation programs.  A former employer insisted employees are oriented beginning every business cycle.  The logic was that it’s the organization that stands to lose the greatest when internal abuses are tolerated. Whistle-blowers have rights, are given protection (see example here) from discrimination and other retaliatory acts throughout the investigation of the case reported. They have their jobs regardless of the investigating committee’s decision.  If he’s not satisfied with the committee’s decision, he could appeal to the next level of management. Whistle-blowers are a force for good, that’s what manuals on whistle-blowing declare, they sound the whistle because they sincerely believe (or have seen) something’s not right.  Oftentimes and unfortunately for them the persons they’ve blown the whistle on do everything in their power to discredit them. Naturally. So, the longer Edward’s in asylum the more his organization comes off as retaliatory and irresponsible, an embarassing situation for the US Government. Who has oversight of whistleblowers at NSA? This committee should get Snowden home and secure under the organization’s whistleblower protection program.

Pending the decision concerning Snowden, how do we even begin to trust each other again? The destruction left on the global psyche is akin to that left by Haiyan in the Philippine coastal communities. How can we begin not to silently scoff at one another? For me, loss of trust lies at the heart of NSA’s mass surveillance. There are several layers to cover:  between home governments and citizens, between state agencies and legislators, between nations, between a sovereign nation and the US Government, between world oversight organizations and the US Government, between private companies and their customers.    

Not so long ago, Americans and non-Americans alike, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton most of all, were stunned to hear of then President Clinton’s “affair” with the young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.  In the end, the former President went public and issued an apology.  This put out the fire a bit. In the case of the mass surveillance however, ‘sorry’ or such innuendos do not cover it. Such is the depth of betrayal that mere utterance of the word enflames the wounds even more.

But betrayal didn’t only come from the government, but from the ISPs and telecoms as well: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc. These companies have made themselves equally liable when they gave up their customers’ data, wholesale, on regular intervals, for spying purposes. The account didn’t talk of them putting up a fight, trying to band together, seeking outside help (the UNCHR, say), nor did they activate their organizations’ whistle-blowing policies (i.e. they should’ve been the first to blow the whistle.  They had to wait for Snowden.). These companies could justify that it’s in the provisions of their privacy policies, but how the fuck could’ve customers known that ‘third party’ is the NSA and ‘third party use’ is for intelligence purposes? This is simply not within the usual client-customer contract.  Had customers known that they wouldn’t allow it.

So I’m stunned to read that just recently these companies joined in the ResetTheNet campaign, offering technologies to better protect transactions done on the Net, as if they’ve done nothing of consequence to their own customers. I was, like, wait a moment there, could you at least send your customers formal communication about the campaign and whatever other security measures you plan to put in place or have already? Couldn’t these companies at least sweat out a half page email?  If Facebook is capable to host pop-up ads (users even if they’re irritated put up with it), it can easily figure out ways to personally reach out to it’s gazillion customers.  But then that would mean they’re agreeing that they were involved.

On the home scene, the Philippines is also under mass surveillance (i.e. exchanges over the phone). It is extremely surprising that The government of Bahamas has issued a formal inquiry as to the rationale behind the mass surveillance in it’s territory. There wasn’t news here of the same inquiry made by the Philippine Government in behalf of it’s people. In any case, privacy on telecommunication lines is protected by national law, Republic Act 10173 (An  Act Protecting Individual Personal Information in Information and Communications Systems in the Government and the Private Sector, Creating for This Purpose a National Privacy Commission, and For Other Purposes), but given the fact of the surveillance it’s mention is a moot point. Similarly, security on the Net is covered by the Cybersecurity Law (Republic Act 10175).  Does the Philippine Government know about the mass surveillance?  If so, the Supreme Court should order the installations taken out.  Criminals or persons with records are impervious to being watched, because having broken the law they implicitly know they are. Innocent people are traumatized when they’re treated no differently from criminals.

The Philippines is in the top 3 Internet users worldwide, children and young people making up the majority of individual users. Many CYP are sexually exploited in this space, largely due to peer and parental pressure rooted in poverty. Mass surveillance has not provided would-be victims real-time warning or referral to nearby networks, because the surveillance is supposedly secret and there’s a considerable lag between the time analysts have made sense out of the massive data and them communicating the information on the ground. As how police are depicted in movies, the rescue comes after the fact of the crime. It’s not effective. What’s effective in this case is to educate young users of the Net, their families and communities, and improve capacities of local governments and networks protecting children. At the macro, jobs, of course. Much of the work in catching criminals are done on the ground and if local governments and networks are incapable to do their job, the technology is useless.

On the home front still, the country especially Metropolitan Manila saw a spate of crimes alarming in their frequency and audacity (e.g. shooting of elected local officials to ordinary individuals in the streets at point blank) not to mention the usual headaches (e.g. guerilla activities masterminded by a leader on self exile abroad). This country lives with these every day but because “it’s only the Philippines”, acts terrorizing it’s neighborhoods and the population don’t equal the importance of similar acts done in developed countries. It only gets a reaction when foreign nationals touring the hinterlands are kidnapped.  One wonders if the amassed surveilled data providing leads are shared to the Philippine Government so it could also go after crooks in the country once and for all. Who owns these data? Who benefits?

As mentioned in a previous article, proprietary, ethical, and legal issues are bound to crop up when private information about the entire population of sovereign nations are amassed by another. This is precisely why many in the Philippines cannot move away from viewing the US as imperialist, and many still are in the hinterlands fighting for Communism, the anathema of democracy that the US so represents.  In fact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), appended by this country and the US finds itself up in the air on counterarguments that it is yet another move by imperialist US on the country.  In light of the Snowden revelations and lack of address on the emerging issues from the US Government, I get their arguments.

Researchers observe rules and procedures when studying human beings or their communities. When researching in foreign soil, they adapt to that country’s rules.  They translate their instruments in the language of the locals.  Etc.  Photographers whose subjects are human beings go by standard practice of seeking permission or informing their subjects of the process.  They don’t just tell, say, women to take off their clothes.  Doctors inform their patients of what they’re putting into their bodies.  Surveillance agencies must have a similar set of basic rules for the trade.

Mass surveillance on unaware populations reminds me of the relentless rounding up of Jews in Hitler’s Germany, of scared neighbors telling on families and other neighbors, of dumping loads of innocent people into camps, like these people have no souls – if the US Government wants the face of an innocent man, woman, child, and young person whose freedoms have been stolen from them, it’s those broken faces. In the context of mass surveillance, the camps are now the databases. Let’s not go back to that time.


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