“I realize most people would rather have a conversation about literally any other topic.”
– John Oliver, on government surveillance
Although riddled with British-accented humor, the Tonight Show with John Oliver may be one of the easiest, most informative sources of real news that focuses on issues bigger than a celebrity arrest or break up. In April of 2015, he ran an entire show centered around Edward Snowden, the Patriot Act, and of course, government surveillance. It was 2013 when Snowden released millions of secret U.S. documents that detailed the ins-and-outs of the
National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance and data collection on millions of American citizens and foreign peoples. Now, three years later, we continue to ignore the Big Brother aspects of our government, their surveillance, and most importantly, their transparency. Not only is this surveillance being done in secrecy, without citizens being able to fully understand its capabilities, but it is being done in parallel to —and just as secretly as— multiple trade deals concerning the United States that could alter economies worldwide.
Though exactly what must be done to halt this secrecy, lack of transparency, and otherwise Orwellian authority that our government is currently exercising remains partly unclear, there are some steps that I believe to be necessary in order to begin to change our relationship with this authority: we must secure our Right to Privacy on the Internet and cherish it as much as we do Free Speech; we must fully understand what is under government jurisdiction in terms of surveillance, and know what we can do about it; we must remain informed on agreements and partnerships that could change, alter, or otherwise ruin our economy as well as foreign economies (and lives) everywhere; we must acknowledge that the power being exercised upon us and our fellow citizens is minute in comparison to the power exercised over foreign countries and their citizens; we must demand transparency. But, one might ask, what can a single citizen —myself— do in order to accomplish this? My answer is: become a resistor.
First, you need to be informed on what “happenings” are happening within your own government, then their domestic agreements, and then their foreign partnerships. And I mean informed, to its very extent; all angles, all secrets: everything. Know it.
Here in America, government surveillance acts have been passed either in secret by a secret court1, or right under our nose in the name of counterterrorism. In terms of internet privacy and surveillance, there are, I believe, four acts that must be mentioned: The Patriot Act, The USA FREEDOM Act, Section 702 of FISA, and Executive Order 12333.2 Essentially, these are the acts that give power to large corporations like Google, Yahoo, and AOL to monitor, collect, and store the data from every single one of their users3, and gives the authority to our government and its agencies to request, take, and store this information as well. There are massive amounts of public and “leaked” information via documents, documentaries, internet sources, media sources (notably The Guardian & Wikileaks), and any other source that you can think of probably has information that pertains to these acts and their subprograms4 within. These sources are useful only when used; it’s a necessity to use them. Don’t keep yourself in the dark. Resist.
Now, for domestic and foreign agreements and partnerships: The Three Big T’s: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), have been being secretly negotiated in recent years, with very clear agendas for altering the economy, and how it acts both domestically and foreignly.5 TiSA is perhaps the most concerning, as it is directly related to the other two in a way that offers private investors, in each partnership, who invest in foreign operations —that would otherwise be economically stimulating in the foreign place of investment— to be less regulated in terms of development. In other words, countries that are being invested in are restricted in their regulation of the investor, who would have near free-reign over their invested-in property despite state and public want for regulated business. The TPP is being heavily debated in America today. It has wide-reaching policies that would outsource American jobs, instill American influence to direct Southeast Asia economies away from China, and Latin America economies away from Brazil, in efforts to establish itself as the economic power and to hopefully cut down China’s “rise”6. Likewise, the TTIP, an EU partnership with America, establishes the privatization of state-owned organizations, most notably in the EU is the National Health Services; it also cuts the EU’s environmental, food, and bank standards to that of America – which are much less regulated and of lower standards7. To tag onto this, it infringes on Internet privacy rights.8 So, first of all, it is important to be informed on these acts, programs, events, partnerships, and agreements in order to know what to fight for or against. This is all short information giving you the overview of these acts and partnerships; do research yourself. Resist. Second, it is direly important to protect oneself. The Right to Remain Private is something that some Americans think is unnecessary; they might say “I have nothing to hide”, which in retaliation, I quote Edward Snowden,
“arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say”.
– Edward Snowden
It’s not that you’re hiding something, it’s the fact that once your Right to Remain Private has been breached, who’s to stop the breachers from becoming more invasive; who can know where that road would lead to? There are very simple actions one can take to both remain private from surveillance, and safe from hackers while using a cell-phone and —almost synonymously— the Internet. Using the Tor Browser allows you to anonymously browse the Internet by dissociating your browsing with your physical location; there is no trace of yourself ever visiting any sites, typing in passwords, or entering personal information while browsing via Tor. It’s run by volunteers that host ‘nodes’ that act as the medium between your physical location and the “location” communicated to the Internet (essentially), and it is the fact that these are hosted by volunteers that gives Tor survivability and its ability to resist. You’ll never be surveilled while browsing while using Tor.9
With this short, quick offering of a lot of information, suggestions, and help, questions arise, such as: why/how are we still dealing with this issue, if it’s so simple to remain private, and to find ‘secret’ government information? To which the answer might be: because there is not a sufficient nor effective amount of citizens taking advantage of the resources that we are constantly offered to fix this issue; or that the government is —perhaps— more capable of surveilling its citizens and keeping information from them than we are of hiding our own information and finding theirs. Are these efforts futile in the face of a powerful government we know that we are dealing with? Are citizens willfully ignorant of the dangers that surveillance and secrecy pose? Is it hopeless?
Perhaps there is no sufficient answer that can be provided for the latter of these questions. But, if there is an awareness or a country-wide informedness about the dangers secret government organizations and agreements pose, the vast range of influence that they possess both domestically and foreignly, the importance of having the Right to Remain Private, the catastrophic implications that bulk-surveillance brings with it, and transparency’s inherent value to democracy, then we might stand a chance of not becoming the society that George Orwell describes in his frightening 1984. Those who are aware, informed, and reject any contribution to the citizen surrendering of authority are those:
- who reserve their Right to Remain Private, and encourage others to do the same
- who remain anonymous, because buying clothes on Amazon does not concern any government
- who understand the jurisdictions, capabilities, and detrimental implications that government surveillance has on the foundations of democracy
- who will not follow the path toward constant citizen surveillance in their country
- who keep in mind that governments can, will, and do keep secrets that effect their citizens
- who are unwilling to abide by rules and laws that remain secret to them and their fellow citizens
- who use every available news source to form their opinion, and to figure out what is truly happening in their government
- who do not accept economic gain in the face of tragic poverty
- who protest and act on what they believe in, so as to not give up on their beliefs
Those who do so are the necessary resistors. They are those whose dreams of democracy never included top-level government secrecy or civilian surveillance; whose conscience forgets not the overwhelming amount of power their country has over others compared to their own; whose demands for transparency are themselves transparent and public. I invite you to be an informed citizen, a resistor, and an agent of change in the face of unjust government agency.
by Michael Kay
Foremost Strategy | U.S Domestic Policy and Advocacy Program | Research Intern