2013 was the year of revelation. Ordinary Internet users all over the world used to be comfortable unaware of the extensive Internet spying done by USA and its allies, but it has all changed. Some people are mad about the breach of privacy that the massive Internet surveillance no doubt is, others think it is worth sacrificing privacy for a promise of some additional security. The debate is pretty much between these camps, but there is another important aspect that we don’t talk about a lot. That is what effects mass surveillance has on our communication culture.
Luckily we don’t have to speculate here. There are plenty of examples of this effect. From Orwells’ 1984 to the situation in real totalitarian states today. All these have one thing in common, everybody knows that there are things you can say and things you can’t talk about. This is called self-censorship.
If you think these states can’t be compared to western democracies, think again. Both USA and UK are falling on the press freedom index and The Guardian in UK is an excellent example that freedom of speech can’t be taken for granted. Not even in countries we see as the core of western democracy.
Now with some of the Snowden-files public, we are on a fast track towards awareness about Internet spying. Opinions about it are divided, but nobody can claim that we have privacy in unprotected Internet communications. And this is a perfect growing ground for a self-censorship culture. It doesn’t even matter how the collected data is used. We will never have proper transparency into the data handling, and there’s always the fear that the data can be used against us. Not to talk about the fact that real misuse cases are inevitable. We have learned to be brutally honest on the net, but this will come to an end when peoples’ level of awareness raise. With mass surveillance on the net, you must think before you Google for something, and consider what impact it might have on your profile.
Surveillance’s negative impact on the culture is also documented by an organization that really should know what they are talking about, NSA. Yes, the NSA itself! They have a secret internal advice columnist named Zelda that we learned about this from the leaked Snowden documents. This article describes a question from a NSA employee who is concerned about spying on the workplace. Zelda chimes in and agrees that a boss who spies on employees will ruin the working atmosphere. Hilarious, isn’t it?
The upside is that there is an excellent solution. It is simple, established and proven to work well. Don’t do mass surveillance on the Internet. Use targeted warrants instead to obtain data about persons who really are suspected for a crime. This improves privacy for the innocent masses. It also introduces an external party, the service- or storage provider, who can review the request. They do have an incentive to protect customer’s integrity, which the authorities lack. We just need to make sure they can blow the whistle if something isn’t right with the requests.
This is how the world has been working for decades and there’s nothing in our new Internet technology that invalidates this method. Quite the opposite, this method works better than ever in a world where we keep our data in cloud services rather than on our own hard disks.
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