Big data is watching you
Opinion: Thanks to Ireland’s success in attracting tech giants, legal challenges are coming to our shores
‘The question is whether Germans are over-reacting to Snowden’s revelations, or whether experience has left them with keener intuition regarding such threats, a sixth sense which others should heed?’ Above, a Berlin protest last July against the electonic surveillance tactics of the NSA. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Three years ago the satirical news service The Onion announced that the CIA was shutting down many of its surveillance operations due to the runaway success of the state-controlled social media service, Facebook. After years of running costly spying operations, the website joked that the CIA was surprised and delighted at how much detailed information Facebook users were willing to hand over voluntarily. Now, thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, we know that the US agency tapping Facebook’s magic mountain of user data is not the CIA but the NSA.
In the latest revelation on Wednesday, we learned how the NSA’s “Quantumhand” programme attempted to redirect targets to a fake Facebook page, where the agency could plant surveillance software on target computers. The NSA denies acting illegally and Facebook says it has found no evidence of such activity on its network. But founder Mark Zuckerberg called US president Barack Obama on Thursday to complain. On his Facebook page, he wrote that “the US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat”.
In Germany, where the NSA tapped the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the threat posed by US mass internet surveillance is already the subject of a broad public debate. For internet guru Sascha Lobo, Snowden’s revelations have exposed his own utopian notions about the internet – in effect, Lobo’s entire career to date – as based on naive assumptions. “The internet is not what I thought it was, what I wanted it to be,” he wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily. “The almost exhaustive penetration of the digital sphere by the spying apparatus has turned a wonderful millennium market of possibilities into a playground at the mercy of the NSA.”
Mass surveillance by the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ is not just a storm in a tech teacup, he argued, but a threat to basic democratic values. “Surveillance is merely the means to the end of control: the exercise of power,” he added. “What many people saw as an instrument of freedom is, very effectively, being used for the exact opposite.”
German sensitivity in these matters is not surprising, having learned twice in the last century what can happen when organs of state dictatorships – the Gestapo and the Stasi – are given unchecked spying powers. The question is whether Germans are over-reacting to Snowden’s revelations, or whether experience has left them with keener intuition regarding such threats, a sixth sense which others should heed?
Already the German debate has left the tech bubble and gone mainstream. Leading intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger has formulated 10 rules of online etiquette for “people who are not nerds or hackers . . . and who have better things to do than study, hourly, the pitfalls of digitalisation”.