Monday, July 1, 2013

On Prism and Puma and Trusting Government

In February 1782 a group of wealthy criollos met in Caracas to conspire revolution against Spain, which had become increasingly repressive against its American colonists. The group then sent a letter to dissident colonel Francisco de Miranda urging rebellion.

The Spanish are "treating all Americans, of whatever class, rank or circumstance, like miserable slaves," the conspirators wrote.

The letter was premature. The group never acted, and its leader, Don Juan Vicente Bolívar, died four years later. But how might history have been different if the Spanish authorities had had an effective espionage system, intercepted the letter and imprisoned or executed the conspirators? In that case, Don Juan Vicente's youngest son, Simon Bolivar, might not have been born at all and grown up to lead the armies which overthrew the Spanish empire.

A slide about the U.S.'s Prism program released by Edward Stanton.
That's why the new era of government surveillance programs using the Internet - called Puma in Colombia and Prism in the United States - as well as their flip side of government propaganda - should give us all pause.

It's not an abstract fear. Historians have observed how the rise of radio and television during the 1900s facilitated totalitarian regimes on both left and right.

And the Internet is a much more subtle, flexible and potentially insidious tool for both eavesdropping and propaganda than either radio or TV.

Colombia's espionage program, called Puma, is intended to enable the government to monitor e-mail accounts and social media such as Twitter and Facebook. And a decree issued last year with little public notice requires cell phone companies to store their users' information, including phone, I.D. numbers and physical locations for as long as five years. With a single judge's order, the government may monitor calls for as long as six months. The decree even requires phone companies to provide the government access to their networks to gather information.

That's really scary.

If Channel 4 goes dark, we know something's wrong. But if a certain anti-government website disappears or is altered, we may never notice. If the government shutters the newspapers, as Colombia's last dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla did shortly before being overthrown, the public rebels. But if an e-mail doesn't arrive, you might not even realize it.

Governments will always, and justifiably, do espionage and propaganda. But governments abuse their powers, as demonstrated in the U.S. by Watergate and in Colombia by the chuzadas scandal, in which ex-Pres. Uribe used the DAS to spy on the Supreme Court, journalists and many others.

That's why government espionage and propaganda require lots of transparency and public control, and why I believe that Eduard Snowden did a great service to us all by revealing the U.S.'s NSA programs. (In fact, I don't think that Snowden revealed all that much to potential terrorists. After all, they'd have to have been pretty stupid to believe that the U.S. government wouldn't snoop on their Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail accounts.)

Colombians like to say that 'He who owes nothing, fears nothing.' But we all value our privacy. And, nobody know what future governments might do. Permitting the government to collect immense amounts of personal information about us with little oversight is trusting way too much, as far as I'm concerned, for an institution which has historically abused its powers.

As Snowden said: "Even if you're not doing anything wrong you're being watched and recorded.

"You don't have to have done anything wrong. You just have to eventually fall under the suspicion of somebody - even by a wrong call. And they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer."

Of course, and in contrast to TV and radio, the Internet works in two directions. Once upon a time only the Hearsts and Bloombergs could offer their opinions across the world. Today, any fool with a blog can do it, albeit not with the same attention.

Governments can use the Internet to do espionage and manipulate public opinion. But the Internet's prevalence and power enable people like Manning and Snowden to steal information and spread it around the world. And the Internet has helped Arabs, Turks, Brazilians and Bulgarians to organize protests against their governments.

That's why authoritarian governments either restrict Internet use, like Cuba and North Korea, or allow widespread Internet access and try to control it, as does China.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Stuart Oswald said...

I rest my case. Thank you.

Ally Brown said...

where, Stuart? I don't see your case anywhere.

Stuart Oswald said...

Lol Ally. Not here obviously. In my past comments with Mike and co..