On a new year’s day, it’s traditional to make some predictions that can be shown true or false in a year. With almost a decade of global-level geopolitical game in my back, let’s see what we can make of the current trends. Often, it’s just as interesting to see what won’t change as what probably will change.
So here are my five predictions for privacy in 2014: Snowden will continue to shock those who understand what he’s saying, oldmedia will continue to not care, the average person hasn’t understood what’s going on and will continue to not understand, politicians will continue to pretend nothing happened, and laws enabling the mass surveillance won’t change or will go the wrong way, unless politicians lose their jobs over it.
1. Snowden will continue to shock those who understand the implications of his revelations. When Appelbaum held a presentation at Chaos Communications Congress just before the turn of the year and outlined a number of NSA methodologies, including their ability to hijack a Windows XP computer from several miles away, and a 100-percent infection rate of any iPhone they wanted, these are capabilities we hadn’t known about and haven’t protected against. With the latter observation, any Apple iDevice is out the window if you’re privacy-conscious; it’s not your phone, it’s the NSA’s. With the former, the importance of securing home networks against remotely injected packets – not to mention detecting when it happens anyway – becomes really important. How many of us know how to do that? How many of us are security-conscious to that level? We had better start learning.
2. Oldmedia will continue to not care. Glenn Greenwald was painfully spot on when he accused oldmedia (TV, radio, newspapers) of being essentially in bed with today’s mass surveillance machines, having absconded and gone AWOL from their role as administration watchdogs. The UK’s royal baby got a ton of more coverage than the fact that the UK administration had been abolishing every shred and semblance of civil right in the United Kingdom, and likewise in the United States. Politicians and senior officials lie to protect their interests – this should not be any kind of surprise to anyone who has studied more than five minutes of political history – but oldmedia has stopped questioning their word, taking it for truth. “Oh, you’re sure you’re not violating anybody, despite these documents? Alright then, thanks for your time.”
3. The average person hasn’t understood what’s going on. When I was explaining the imminent FRA Law to people in the streets of Stockholm, Sweden, they shook their head at me and accused me of lying to their faces – despite the fact that I was reading text directly from the proposed bill. They didn’t want to accept that Sweden was about to introduce warrantless general wiretapping in bulk; it just couldn’t happen in their country. This was one of the more frustrating moments in my time as an activist; it wasn’t that people were’t aware of what was happening to their country, it was they were actively choosing to refuse to believe it. This has pretty much continued: if you were to say to an average person in the street that the governments of the US, UK, and their national government was listening to all – all – their phone calls, they would quite likely not believe you.
4. Politicians will continue to pretend nothing happened. As late as today, the minister of foreign affairs in Sweden, Carl Bildt, published an op-ed exclaiming what a fine moral example Sweden is to the rest of the world with privacy, net liberty, and civil liberties. This is despite the fact that the mentioned Swedish FRA law is one of the worst on the planet. It’s blatant propaganda and outright lies, and the politicians (like Carl Bildt) are getting away with it, so far (see prediction #2). The propaganda is so far away from reality that it qualifies for “What’s the weather like on your planet?”-type comments. It’s up to all of us to call out the lies, and to translate this kind of national propaganda into English so that more people can call the cards.
5. Laws enabling mass surveillance won’t go away unless somebody loses their office over it. The first problem on any politician’s mind is how to get elected. The second problem on any politician’s mind is how to get re-elected. Whatever problem comes third is so far behind the first two that it’s not really considered in the day-to-day routine. This means that nobody should expect career politicians to care about this in the slightest, unless – and this is an important caveat – those politicians risk losing their jobs over the mass surveillance. Unless that happens, it will continue as if nothing had happened.
Let’s take that again, because it is important: unless somebody risks losing their office, policy will not change. That’s why it’s so critical to threaten politicians’ jobs over the really important questions, because this works in reverse too: the instant a politician risks losing their office over a policy, it tends to change on a dime.
In conclusion, things are bad, and we need to stay vigilant. There is a European Parliament election coming up in a few months, and I want to encourage anybody in Europe to not only vote for good candidates on these issues in the world’s largest economy, but also to make it clear that you do so, if you choose to go that route. That remains the one road open to change.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.