#PRISM: not an acronym, not a Google lie, just a next-door neighbour I once had
I once had a next-door neighbour who was clever enough to know how, and stupid enough to go ahead. This individual split the cable that came out of another neighbour’s Sky dish and hogged half of the service for free for probably a year. They caught him in the end.
Nothing came of it though.
I’d like you to watch a podcast before we continue, which eventually – in its studied and careful way – takes us back to basic physics. Remember what that beautiful object we called a prism actually did? Split a pure white light into a rainbow of illuminating colours. And that is just about what this video from last Wednesday invokes both figuratively and literally. If you’ve not too much time on your hands, start from a little after twenty minutes in. You might also want to read this EFF document (.pdf format) which describes a highly relevant legal deposition from way back in 2006. It gets mentioned in the podcast; it’s a crucial part of the audit trail.
Worth every damn minute, right? As I said, that next-door neighbour of mine.
So really, if they’re right in their analysis, what’s happening here is permanent wire-tapping, possibly legal (the Internet after all is a public space), on a hugely infrastructured scale. Maybe a bit like (then again, who am I to say?) those episodes of CSI where they gain DNA by getting someone to drink a cup of coffee and then throw away the cup.
You discard something into that public domain and we’ll hoover it up by splitting the signal as close to its node as we can, without even telling the companies which harvest it in the first place what we’ve decided to do.
So where do people congregate? What do people use? The services of – and routers closest to – Google & Co’s massively centralising communication facilities. All that careful language in their denials of any possible server back-doors, when the issue – semantically – wasn’t the servers. Direct access to the data the servers contained, yes; but not direct access to the servers themselves.
So it is our society has trodden a long path from once being “economical with the truth” to saying “the least untruthful thing” a politicised figure could think of.
But I’d like to take the issue one step further. What if Prism doesn’t only allow the light to be split off? What if it also allows the data to be manipulated?
Last week, just a day before the podcast linked to above, the Greek broadcaster ERT – described to me by Greek citizens recently as the Greek equivalent of the British BBC – was suddenly taken off-air. News, current affairs, history, culture – all gone at the drop of a hat. The shock, if replicated here in Britain with our own organisation, would be powerful and lasting for sure. Yet I argued, for only a moment it is true, that perhaps the Greek way was better: at least someone was taking ownership for obfuscation by clearly closing down its outlet.
The BBC, in the meantime, has been accused of multiple acts of perfidious journalism – an institutionally implemented censorship, in fact, of considerable consequences; a censorship never admitted nor answered by anyone in charge; a censorship, for the majority of its viewers, never even perceived.
Under such circumstances, wouldn’t a manifest – even where shockingly sudden – absence be a cleaner and more hygienic way forward than this grubby messing-about with the parameters of our perceptions and realities?
Except that, of course, for those who use it as a tool to transmit on-message content, keeping it all going is going to be far more productive and in keeping with their overarching objectives then any honest admitting of the truth.
The aforementioned opportunities for manipulation being far more useful than simple tracking and observance.
Don’t just be a spectator is what I’m suggesting here; far more proactively, actually become an actor.
This brings me back, then, to Prism. If the NSA is accessing everyone’s data, and has allowed in some indirect way for our knowledge of this information to finally hit the public domain, it will surely – now – have the parallel capacity to intervene, interrupt, modify and falsify almost anything which flows around the Internet.
I’m not saying it would, mind you; just suggesting that it’s impossible that the facility wouldn’t have been included.
That is to say, it would include not only the ability to split out of the Internet a perfect copy of everything that hit Google & Co’s servers just before it actually did but also the ability to replace a digitally manipulated alternative of what was originally on the point of being there, just before it actually ended up being so.
There could be many desperate reasons why someone might wish to reserve the right to do this: not least, in times of awful war or some other ongoing conflict, the desire to short-cut legal niceties and thus allow the summary removal from circulation of people who otherwise might be far too clever by half.
And I’m not saying even in this case I’d agree with such a position; all I’m saying is that it wouldn’t surprise me if someone thought engineering such a feature into the infrastructure might be a natty thing to do.
Whatever the substantive reality of the situation, I’m pretty sure one of the drivers of all these repressive instincts is that maybe, just maybe, the Internet as constructed has, at least in the eyes of those who would continue governing, given us far too many freedoms: far too many freedoms for governments to treat their peoples with justice; far too many freedoms for the establishments across the world to feel safe; perhaps, I wonder, even far too many freedoms for even the most sensible and stable of the planet’s citizens to know how to choose consistently reasonable ways of using them.
I’m not saying they’re right; I’m just trying to understand their fears and behaviours – as well as their downright illegalities.
I’m trying to understand how rational human beings can justify using “the least untruthful” way of answering questions from political representatives speaking in permanently-recorded public forums.
Let’s finish on a pertinent piece of legalese. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says the following:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Now that’s pretty sweeping – correspondence for example, at least these days, may cover everything from the more analogous emails to tweets and Facebook “likes”.