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Jomo Sanga Thomas.(iWN file photo)
Jomo Sanga Thomas.(iWN file photo)
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By *Jomo Sanga Thomas 

(Plain Talk, Oct. 11, 2019)

“Edward Snowden, the American whistle blower’s recently published memoirs make fascinating reading.

“Snowden warns against confusing and conflating country with state and party interest and loyalty.

“What follows are excerpts from his book, “Permanent Record”, which speaks of his work as a Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency (NSA) officer: 

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“There is, simply no way to ignore privacy. Because a citizenry’s freedoms are interdependent, to surrender your own privacy is really to surrender everyone’s. You might choose to give it up out of convenience, or under the pretext that privacy is only required by those who have something to hide. But saying that you don’t need or want privacy because you have nothing to hide is to assume that no one should have, or could have, to hide anything — including their immigration status, unemployment,  financial, and health records. You’re assuming that no one, including yourself, might object to revealing to anyone information about their religious beliefs, political affiliations, and sexual activities. 

“Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceable assembly because you’re a lazy antisocial. Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or wont won’t have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbour — or to crowds protesting halfway across the planet, hoping to gain just a fraction of the freedoms that my country was busily dismantling…’

“MASS Surveillance is the government’s historic effort to achieve total access to – and clandestinely take possession of — the records of all digital communications in existence. 

“Most people tend to think of mass surveillance in terms of content — the actual words they use when they make a phone call or write an email. When they find out that the government actually cares comparatively little about that content, they tend to care comparatively little about government surveillance. This relief is understandable due to what each of us must regard as the uniquely revealing and intimate nature of our communications: the sound of our voice, almost as personal as thumbprint; the facial expression we put on in a selfie sent by text. The unfortunate truth, however, is that content of our communications is rarely as revealing as its other elements — the unwritten, unspoken information that can expose the broader context and patterns of behaviour. 

“The NSA calls this ‘metadata’. Metadata is data that is made by data — a cluster of tags and markers that allow data to be useful. The most direct way of thinking about metadata, however is as “activity data”, all the records of all the things you do on your devices and all the things your devices do on their own. Take a phone call, its metadata might include the date and time of the call, the call’s duration, the number from which the call was made, the number being called, and their locations. An email’s metadata might include information about what type of computer it was generated on, where and when, who the computer belonged to, who sent the email, who received it, where and when it was sent and received, and who if anyone besides the sender and recipient accessed it, and where and when. Metadata can tell your surveillant the address you slept at last night and what time you got up this morning. It reveals every place you visited during your day and how long you spent there. 

“It shows who you were in touch with and who was in touch with you. 

It’s this fact that obliterates any government claim that metadata is somehow not a direct window into the substance of communication. With the dizzying volume of digital communications in the world, there is simply no way that every phone call could be listened to or email could read.  Even if it were feasible, however, it still wouldn’t be useful, and anyway, metadata makes this unnecessary. This is why it’s best to regard metadata not as a benign abstraction, but as the very essence of content: it is precisely the first line of information that the party surveilling you requires.

“There’s another thing, too: content is usually defined as something that you knowingly produce. You know what you’re saying during phone call, or what you’re writing in an email. But you have hardly any control over the metadata you produce, because it is generated automatically. Just as it’s collected, stored, and analysed by machine, it’s made by machine, too, without your participation or even consent. Your devices are constantly communicating for you whether you want them to or not. And unlike the humans you communicate with of your own volition, your devices won’t withhold private information or use code words in an attempt to be discreet. They merely ping the nearest cell phone towers with signals that never lie.

“One major irony here is that law, which always lags behind technological innovation at least a generation, gives substantially more protections to a communication’s content than to its metadata — and yet intelligence agencies are far more interested in the metadata — the activity records that allow them both ” big picture” ability to analyse data at scale, and the “little picture’ ability to make perfect maps, chronologies, and associative synopses of an individual person’s life, from which they presume to extrapolate predictions of behaviour. In sum, metadata can tell your surveillant virtually everything they’d ever want or need to know about you, except what’s actually going on inside your head.

“After reading these classified reports, I spent months in a daze. I was sad and low, trying to deny everything I was thinking and feeling. I felt far from home, but monitored. I felt more adult than ever, but also cursed with the knowledge that all of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d forced to live the rest of our lives under omniscient parental supervision. I felt like a fool, as someone of supposedly serious technical skills who’d somehow helped to build an essential component of this system without realizing its purpose. I felt used, as an employee of the Intelligence Community who only now realising that all along I’d been protecting not my country, but the state. I felt, all above, violated. Being in Japan only accentuated the sense of betrayal…”

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

The opinions presented in this content belong to the author and may not necessarily reflect the perspectives or editorial stance of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].