Recently, Americans have witnessed a barrage of scandals regarding the federal government’s extension of their surveillance powers. Following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations—which of course point to the National Security Agency’s spy programs and the FISA Court’s endorsement of broad domestic-surveillance policies—the American citizenry’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy has taken center stage. The truth of these invasive and unconstitutional policies is giving rise to further argument, and laying ground for a practical forum to engage elected officials to more clearly define citizens’ rights in the digital era.
Yet, while Americans are engrossed in the debate over whether or not their government should be allowed to collect and examine the online data of citizens en masse, particularly without suspicion of criminal activity, the vehicle by which these revelations came to light—journalism—is now also under attack.
Journalists are realizing that they are also on the front line in the ‘ war on privacy ‘ with whistleblowers, activists and hacktivist groups like Anonymous. Recently, the FBI declared victory over Anonymous in a series of statements claiming the hacker collective is no longer able to carry out large, successful operations because most of its “largest players” have been arrested or detained by US law enforcement authorities.
The FBI’s claims about dismantling Anonymous may be only instigating the collective further. OpLastResort, an Anonymous-affiliated Twitter account, released on Friday what’s alleged to be the personal information pertaining to roughly 23,000 employees of the US Federal Reserve.
Full details of every single employee at Federal Reserve Bank of America http://www.elbigbad.com/swag.csv How’s that, FBI? Game. Set. Match. and LULZ.
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In the last few years, the online collective Anonymous has become the ubiquitous face of cyber-activism. With their well-known V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks, this loosely tied and decentralized network acts whenever and wherever its radar catches a classic abuse of power. Beneath the mask there is an idea. Anonymous hacktivists are united by their shared sense of justice and their conviction that ideas are bulletproof. Repeatedly, the collective has shown to be a champion of the downtrodden and those who challenge the powerful — whether they be arrogant government contractors like Aaron Barr, religious organizations like Scientology, immoral governments like those of Syria or the US, or corporations like PayPal and Mastercard.
Digital Dissenters: Speaking Truth to Power
Computer scientist Nadia Heninger has argued that leaking information is now becoming the “civil disobedience of our age”. The late historian and activist Howard Zinn described the act of civil disobedience as “the deliberate, discriminate, violation of law for a vital social purpose”. He advocated it saying that such an act “becomes not only justifiable but necessary when a fundamental human right is at stake and when legal channels are inadequate for securing that right”. Snowden’s act was clearly one of civil disobedience. John Lewis, US Representative and veteran civil rights leader recently noted that Snowden was “continuing the tradition of civil disobedience by revealing details of classified US surveillance programs”.
Snowden is not alone. In recent years, there have been waves of dissent that revealed the depth of corruption and abuse of power endemic in this global corporate system. Before Snowden, there were Bradley Manning and Jeremy Hammond who shook up the trend of criminal overreach within the US government and its transnational corporate and government allies. Private Bradley Manning blew the whistle on US war crimes and activist Jeremy Hammond exposed the inner workings of the pervasive surveillance state. They took risks to alert the world about the systemic failure of representative government and the trend toward a dangerous corporate authoritarianism.
Snowden, Manning and Assange are all part of an Internet generation that holds that transparency of governments and corporations is a critical check on power. They believe in the power of information and in the public’s right to know. In an interview with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, Snowden described how his motive was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” He has advocated for the participation of ordinary people in decision-making processes, which he considers to be a a vital part of democratic society, indicating that the policies of national security agencies that he exposed should be up to the public to decide.
Declaring ‘War’ on the Surveillance State: Taking Back our Privacy
Law enforcement used to be harder. If a law enforcement agency wanted to track someone, it required physically assigning a law enforcement agent to follow that person around. Tracking everybody would be inconceivable, because it would require having as many law enforcement agents as people.
Today things are very different. Almost everyone carries a tracking device (their mobile phone) at all times, which reports their location to a handful of telecoms, which are required by law to provide that information to the government. Tracking everyone is no longer inconceivable, and is in fact happening all the time. We know that Sprint alone responded to eight million pings for real time customer location just in 2008. They got so many requests that they built an automated system to handle them.
Combined with ballooning law enforcement budgets, this trend towards automation, which includes things like license plate scanners and domestically deployed drones, represents a significant shift in the way that law enforcement operates.
Police already abuse the immense power they have, but if everyone’s every action were being monitored, and everyone technically violates some obscure law at some time, then punishment becomes purely selective. Those in power will essentially have what they need to punish anyone they’d like, whenever they choose, as if there were no rules at all.
Knowledge is power and society evolving toward an ‘ anti-surveillance awareness ‘ is crucial to overcoming the abuse of civil liberties and violation of our basic right to privacy by the encroaching ‘ Surveillance State ‘.