When I grew up, we knew that the countries east of the Iron Curtain had secret agencies that spied on their own citizens, and we were taught that it was absolutely horrible and terrifying. An integral part of our identity west of the Iron Curtain that we would never behave like that: in the West, we had a right to privacy, we had civil liberties that were inviolable. Today, I can’t discuss ordinary work over the phone with my colleagues. How did it come to this?
As the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings opens, Cate Blanchett’s voice is heard: “The world has changed”.
When I grew up, we took for granted that we could communicate in private. There were countries that spied on their own citizens, and they were held in deep contempt. They were the Soviet Union, they were East Germany. KGB and Stasi were names of agencies that we knew spied on their country’s own citizens, and a very strong part our identity west of the Iron Curtain was that we were not Them. In the West, liberties were sacred.
How naive we were. As soon as it became feasible, governments in the West did the exact same thing. How did it come to this?
According to Edward Snowden, the global surveillance machine is not, and was never, intended to catch terrorists. That was just a front, a justification, a false façade. The real reason was always geopolitical dominance: economic and industrial espionage, diplomatic dominance, and the ability to discredit powerful adversaries. (No wonder, as drowning in bathtubs is five times as dangerous as terrorism.)
In a cynical way, it feels better to know that my phone is wiretapped, and that anything I say can and will be used against me, now or at any time in the future. Before, I had a nagging suspicion, which would frequently be shot down by friends and colleagues as paranoia.
“What makes you think you’re important enough to be listened in to?”, some people would ask, unaware of the geopolitical game I play and the strings I pull. Some of them would make me doubt my own rational analysis.
Now, thanks to Snowden, I know that my phone is wiretapped – because every phone is wiretapped. My carefulness had been right all along, and my use – overuse, some would have said before – of cryptography had been the completely correct way to move about.
Somewhere, things went terribly bad, and I’ll be returning to that in next week’s column.
Still, the way the world has changed in the last decade is mind-boggling and devastating at the same time. I can’t talk on the phone any longer, not about anything remotely sensitive. I can’t discuss sensitive matters in my own apartment – and the definition of “sensitive matters” is becoming increasingly wide. Simply put, I don’t want to have it like this. I want to be able to have a private conversation.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.