Does It Take A Disaster For The Public To Wake Up To The Mass Surveillance?

Posted on Feb 12, 2014 by Rick Falkvinge

It seems there needs to be a major wiretapping disaster for the public to wake up to the fact that freedom of speech and privacy are essentially gone. Seeing how people tend to be busy with their daily lives, this pattern – inaction until disaster – has a lot of historic precedent. Still, I can’t help feeling sorry that it seems somebody needs to suffer for change to happen, when the writing on the wall is so obvious.

One of my most frustrating episodes as a privacy advocate and activist was during the summer of 2008, when Sweden introduced its equivalent of the Patriot act, giving the Swedish NSA equivalent – the FRA – a legal right to warrantly wiretap everybody at will and in bulk. After an intense fight that came close to toppling the administration, the law passed, and people in the streets still didn’t understand what had happened. The Swedish government was now wiretapping everybody whenever they wanted.

“It was even conceivable that they watched everybody, all the time. But at any rate, they could plug into your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

It frustrates me that people in general aren’t outraged at what’s going on. It’s not okay for the government to read our letters, listen to our phone calls, and eavesdrop on our online activities. Not by a long shot. Yet, that’s exactly what is happening, but nobody seems to take notice – much too few, anyway.

The Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, had a famous quote where he said that mass surveillance doesn’t threaten freedom of speech at all, “because it is covert”. As preposterous as the statement is, there is a point to it: people don’t get upset at what they don’t notice, and the wiretapping authorities have been very, very good at keeping their activities concealed.

When Snowden broke the news of the NSA surveillance, even us activists were blown away by the scope of what was already happening, and tried to explain to our friends, family, and colleagues. It was hard – it is hard. It just won’t sink in.

People typically complain that “it’s not exactly Stasi going on”, and they’re right, only in the complete opposite way from what they intend. An interesting exercise compared the size of the Stasi Archives – their total volume of collected data, stored in files in two buildings in central Berlin – to the equivalent number of buildings if the NSA had used the same technology. How many buildings would the NSA data require?

To answer that question, it’s pointless to talk in terms of a building count – one must start thinking in terms of area instead. And the equivalent file storage area for the NSA’s mass surveillance is roughly all of Europe and part of Northern Africa. That’s in the comparison where the Stasi had an area of two buildings.

I think it takes a very public misfortune, caused by the surveillance and wiretapping, for the public to wake up to what’s going on. And I’m sad that it seems that somebody must suffer under oppression for the public to rise up against it, when it’s been there all the time.

On the other hand, this would follow a very typical pattern.

When the Titanic sunk on her maiden voyage, that created outrage and caused new, harsh regulations that any ship was required to hold enough lifeboats to rescue all passengers and crew. That’s not exactly rocket science, is it? Why did people have to die for somebody to realize that was a very good idea?

Not too long ago, medicine was mixed and sold more or less freely. It took a very public and unnecessary poisoning for governmental demands of clinical, documented trials before something was allowed to be sold as medicine. Again, not rocket science.

In 2009, people didn’t care about freedom-of-speech vs. copyright-monopoly issues at all, until the miscarriage of justice that was the trial against the two operators of The Pirate Bay (and its media spokesperson and a fourth unrelated person) happened. After that, it was impossible to keep people off the streets.

It makes me very sad to realize that people in general don’t seem to care about their most fundamental rights being stripped away from them, until somebody is made to suffer a lot over it. It feels so unnecessary.

While I understand that people are busy with their everyday lives and won’t act unless personally affected by something, I think it’s sad that everybody takes their rights so much for granted, even when they aren’t even there anymore.

In the meantime, it’s not just privacy for ourselves that is our own responsibility. It’s also the fight for privacy for everybody else.

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  1. relghuar

    “I can’t help feeling sorry that it seems somebody needs to suffer for change to happen”

    It’s just a manifestation of the old saying – “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. Unless something serious enough happens to show that things are broken, no one’s going to invest any resources into fixing them.
    Human nature, I guess?

    7 years ago
  2. Jan Hornbøll Hansen

    Libya and Syria haven’t suffered enough?

    7 years ago
  3. tetridae

    People care about paying their bills and doing a job to pay for said bills. Anything except that is spent on leisure. The same today, as in ancient Rome… Can’t wait for history to repeat itself.

    7 years ago