Juan Cabrera, a regular contributor to Spanish magazine PC Actual, contacted me while researching an article about Edward Snowden’s revelations about the spying activities of the NSA. The article was due to be published in the August edition of PC Actual, but its publishers, RBA, decided on July 11 to close the magazine after 25 years.
Please find below a full transcript of Juan’s questions and my answers:
Q. Until now we were aware of the spying activities of countries like Cuba, China, or Iran, but not the United States. Do you think that the Snowden case marks a turning point in online dealings between users, service providers, and governments?
Q. The Snowden case is a clear breach of the social contract, whereby we accept that our governments will do certain things, but we have never consented to them doing others. For example, we have never discussed the idea that our government can read our mail, know which books and magazines we read, or what we look for on the internet, without a judicial order. In this case, the breaching of the separation of powers and the balance between power and counterpower is all too clear: we are talking about a government that has assumed the power to look into the archives of a series of companies and to carry out surveillance on those individuals it wants, without any kind of legal guarantee, and through a simple, automatic procedure.
But it is a mistake to blame technology; rather it is the misuse of technology that we should focus on. We have clear proof of the abuse of power, of the creation of a machine to control our lives by a government that is out of control. If Watergate can be classed as a scandal, then Snowden is a scandal to the power of 10.
Q. What is your position on the state monitoring emails and telephone calls? So far, it seems that US public opinion is prepared to accept these practices as long as it strengthens anti-terrorist policy (any anger has been over the secrecy involved, not because of the practice itself), while Europe sees things differently.
A. Monitoring emails and telephone calls without a specific judicial order, or using automatic procedures that do not provide any individual guarantees cannot be justified: if the average US citizen is prepared to accept something like that in exchange for supposed greater security, then this simply highlights the need for greater awareness about what democracy and the rule of law mean. Espionage must always be backed by legal guarantees, based on a series of criteria that establish whether a particular individual should be subjected to clandestine surveillance, with all the concomitant implications for that person. The fundamental rights of the individual cannot, under any circumstances, be breached without those controls.
Q. What dangers do users, in Spain, for example, face from services such as Gmail, Skype, or Facebook?
A. Spanish users of these services run the risk that their information, a broad range of data that includes everything from their surfing habits, their emails, messages, contacts, etc., is being scrutinized by the US government, and without any controls or guarantees. This is not about “I don’t have anything to hide”, but about accepting that you can be judged not on the basis of what you do, but on what others, who have marked paranoid tendencies, might think you are trying to do. Within a system like this, you are not only guilty for what you do, but for the watcher might think you are doing or are trying to do. This is madness.
Q. Do you think that these types of leaks about mass spying will make users of free services like Facebook, GMail, or Twitter think twice, or will the fact that they are free will dissuade them from changing? Do you think that there could be a radical move away from these platforms to others, which are perhaps located outside the United States?
A. The problem here is not about specific services or companies: the companies you mention have limited themselves to doing what they can within the legal and political environment they operate. It is a mistake for users to blame technology companies, because they are simply a weak link in a chain of responsibility that begins with President Obama and continues down through his administration. Diluting responsibility by talking about a supposed joint responsibility with a service provider is absurd, because as a user, I have given my consent to allow that service provider to collect and use my data under certain circumstances. What I have not consented to in any way is a breaching of my fundamental rights, and that breaching comes from the government, its origins lie in the government’s actions. As users, the solution is not to renounce a series of services, but to demand that these service providers comply with the terms agreed.
Q. How do you think that internet service providers will manage their legal obligations under the Patriot Act (being spied on) with their confidentiality obligations to their customers?
A. For the moment, the plan is to be as transparent as possible, by publishing government requests for access to data. But this is not enough, because it does not address the main problem, which is the violation of the fundamental rights of users. The ISPs need to reject any request for access by the government unless they are backed by a specific judicial order; then we need to restore the legal guarantees that existed before. Publishing government requests for data does not solve anything.
Q. It seems that the Prism program is able to track internet users outside the United States. What should the governments of the European Union do about this?
A. The Spanish government and the European Union should apply maximum pressure to bring an end to these practices. We are talking about a system that is breaching the rights of millions of people directly and indirectly, and that unjustifiably authorizes the US government to be a global police force, free of any kind of control.
Q. Snowden’s revelations seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg dedicated to mass espionage. How far are governments, and particularly the White House, going with their anti-terrorist policies? Are there hidden agendas that go beyond protecting their countries and populations?
A. Of course there are hidden agendas. A system of this kind is not about protecting us more effectively. It is well known that systems of this kind simply prompt those intent on wrongdoing from ceasing to use certain types of communication, and to adopt others free from surveillance. Terrorists do not use Facebook or Tweet each other, nor do they organize their attacks using shared Google documents. The only thing that these kinds of systems do is impose obsessive and paranoid monitoring of the average citizen, and not of people deemed sufficiently dangerous that a judge would authorize surveillance. The system has other goals such as controlling our movements, maintaining the state’s power, redefining the social contract, and exploiting data for economic ends for certain sectors of the US economy.