The National Security Agency is making a global surveillance instrument out of the Internet. Yet again, that shakes the self-image of a digital society enthused by the freedom and transparency of the Internet. In addition, the scandal shows that the Internet is still an American medium. The rest of the world is always only a guest there.
That’s not how transparency was conceived. The NSA has made the Internet into a global surveillance instrument. That’s the impression anyway, looking at how entire channels of communication were scoured for suspicious keywords and contacts in an enormous technical effort. Once more, that shakes the understanding of the nature of the Internet and with it also the self-image of the digital society.
Instead of the picture of the unknown continent that a new generation discovers and conquers, an ugly little image of interrogation rooms imposes itself, in which there are only a table, two chairs and a huge mirror through which any kind of power can follow the conversation.
Now, no one can say we weren’t warned. Two years ago, Internet critic Evgeny Morozov was the first to show in detail, in his book, “The Net Delusion,” that the radical freedom and transparency of the Internet could also be used by dictatorships to observe and persecute their citizens. One knows from China, Iran and Syria that this can also be done with brutal consequences.
One wouldn’t have expected that from the U.S. After all, Obama’s first Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted an active program of digital diplomacy. Her senior adviser for innovation, Alex Ross, initiated innovative programs to support forces of democracy in dictatorships with technology.
That now the U.S. is on a grand scale not only spying on its own, but also on the world population, confirms suspicion that up to now had only been thrust forward in conspiracy theories and action films, like “Enemy of the State,” with Will Smith.
There may be good arguments for monitoring the Internet. Allegedly a “significant domestic terror attack” on the U.S. was prevented, even if the U.S. government is withholding the details. Terrorists, drug dealers and child molesters were allegedly caught with the help of digital searches.
The standard argument of the digital intelligence officials is always that authorities are also allowed to wiretap telephone calls between terrorists or dealers. In a time when hardly anyone still communicates by telephone, but the whole world communicates via email, chat, social networks and text messaging, it must therefore be permitted to monitor all of these channels.
Yet there are large differences between a wiretapped telephone conversation and a worldwide dragnet investigation. The automation of such processes, in which a keyword out of context can sound an alarm, makes a threat, not an opportunity, out of big data.
One doesn’t have to be on the U.S. no-fly list to comprehend how tenaciously algorithms compile profiles. Any journalist who researches remote topics and orders books about them often wonders, for example, if he is quickly classified a right-wing radical, Islamist or waltz fan by the recommendation programs of the book shippers.
The scandal primarily shows, however, that the Internet is not global, but is still an American medium. The rest of the world is only a guest on the Internet. As such, it is under constant observation. So, one must behave, already.