Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why we need to heed the words of Edward Snowden

We should really be paying much more attention to Edward Snowden, about how our networked world actually works and the direction in which it is taking each one of us who has the know-how to turn on a computer or swipe a smartphone
We should really be paying much more attention to Edward Snowden, about how our networked world actually works and the direction in which it is taking each one of us who has the know-how to turn on a computer or swipe a smartphone

It's been a funny old week for social media. That it can be a bad thing we saw this week when Stella Creasy MP faced a vicious online attack from internet trolls after she gave her backing to Caroline Criado Perez, who had received a barrage of abuse following her successful campaign to have Jane Austen's picture placed on a new banknote.

When Stella Creasy spoke out in Caroline's support, one Twitter user said: "I'm gonna rape you at 8pm and put the video over the internet."

Meantime, at the other end of the scale, Twitter is being used to 'monitor' someone's death. To his million-plus followers, US radio host Scott Simon is laying bare one of life's unavoidable milestones: his last moments with his dying mother. With a mixture of sadness and wisdom tempered by humour, Simon is taking us through humbling, but very intimate, moments.

Should such a personal event that is dying be shared with the masses?

In the end it's a matter entirely up to Scott Simon. The rest of us, if perturbed by this voyeurism, can always hit the 'unfollow' button. I'm one such – for whom dying by tweets brings a strange and sad new meaning to the words 'social media'.

In another development this week, American whistleblower Edward Snowden was granted a year's asylum in Russia. The real story, of course, is not that Snowden was lounging about in Moscow airport's transit lounge for the last couple of weeks until Vladimir Putin saw fit to bring him in from the cold but rather what the American has revealed to us about the shadowy world of the internet and social media.

Without his whistleblowing, we would not know the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been able to access the e-mails, Facebook accounts and YouTube videos of many thousands of us and more across the world; or how it has secretly acquired the phone records of millions; or how, through a secret court, it has been able to push nine US internet companies in its demands for access to their users' data.

Similarly, without Snowden, we would not be debating whether the US government should have turned surveillance into a privatised big business, offering data-digging contracts to private contractors and, in the same breath, high-level security clearance to thousands who shouldn't have it.

Nor, and this has been long overdue, would there be a serious debate about where the proper balance between freedom and security lies.

We should really be paying much more attention to Edward Snowden, about how our networked world actually works and the direction in which it is taking each one of us who has the know-how to turn on a computer or swipe a smartphone.

Such a direction begs the question: are the days of the internet as a truly global network numbered? I think, in as much as we have understood it in its 20-odd years of existence, the answer may well be yes. It was always a possibility the wonderful wide world of www would be splintered and controlled, divided into a number of locally censored subnets such as we now see with China, Russia, Iran and other states in deciding they need to, and must at all costs, control how people freely communicate, if at all.

And, while David Cameron's moves on filtering the internet to safeguard children from pernicious predators and such may be admirable in principle, it does have huge implications for censorship and for freedom for all.

The Snowden revelations also have core implications for you and me.

Many of us open our hearts and minds and bank details to the likes of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, and Microsoft and they are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing stored in their services can be guaranteed safe from surveillance or illicit downloading for ulterior motives.

Can we trust this lot now? I think not. As I have said before, do not leave your bank details or your secret lover's mobile number with these people.

With the new-found freedom, which the internet in so many ways has given us – education, knowledge and a voice – comes responsibility. Google et al have shown utter irresponsibility for our right to privacy. And will continue to do so. Because they can. Because the powers-that-be sanction it.

In a future column I hope to touch on how soon those who wish to will be able to read your very thoughts and act upon them. Google glasses ain't the half of it. Think I'm paranoid? Perhaps. But just because I am paranoid doesn't mean they're not watching me.

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