If you have nothing to hide, do you need privacy? Should the communications of individuals be monitored? What about activists and politicians, or the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse? How about the details, emails and webcam records of your long-distance relationship?
Power and Resistance was the theme of this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which chimed well with the themes addressed by Dr Evan Light, visiting CRASSH to introduce the Portable Snowden Surveillance Archive and suggest measures to resist the effects of the mass surveillance programmes that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden made public in 2013.
Evan is a FRQSC postdoctoral researcher of the Mobile Media Lab at Concordia University, Montreal, where he is a member of the ACT project studying communication tools and ageing. He has created the Portable Snowden Surveillance Archive, which sits on a Raspberry Pi inside a suitcase and hosts a complete, searchable copy of all the documents published after their release to journalists by Edward Snowden (all of the documents are already in the public domain). The archive itself is the work of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the portable version can be made for as little as £40.
The suitcase is a private, offline library, which users may connect to (via its own WiFi network), and browse from their own devices, but without connecting to the internet. This approach, originally based on the PirateBox, conceived by David Darts as a way to distribute teaching materials to students without email, offers a means of browsing the documents without being surveilled. At the start of the workshop, Evan invited us to connect to the archive’s secure WiFi network and browse the documents (in a playful note, the documents were accessed via the network using the http://nsa.gov URL). He showed us the ‘WiFi sniffer’ inside the box, which detects traffic on the suitcase’s network and displays it on the screen within the box. In this version the data are not saved – this serves merely to remind us how easily our ‘private’ behaviour can be monitored.
Evan took us through the story of telecommunications surveillance, sparking a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion between technologists, lawyers and human rights researchers. From human-mediated calls in the early years of telephony, through staffed telephone exchanges (where what we now call metadata are known by humans, but the call contents are not), to the internet and the methods of automatic data collection that Snowden revealed, the relationship between users, providers and our conceptions of ‘privacy’ have evolved, and are still evolving.
The networks and structures addressed in Evan’s talk ranged from the physical infrastructure of the internet, such as the cables under a Cornish beach which featured in a Channel 4 investigation into a GCHQ programme known as ‘Mastering the Internet’, to the complicated power and economic structures which might allow shareholder activism against telecommunications companies (including by members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which owns shares in Vodafone).
Indeed, journalists are still working through the archive, with several recent news reports revealing new activities and types of data, and the extent to which national intelligence agencies cooperate to share their data. Notable also is the sheer scale of data collection – trillions of gigabytes per second, billions of communication events per month. Examples reported in recent years include the GCHQ program Optic Nerve, which collected webcam data from around 1.8 million UK Yahoo users: between 3 and 11% of the records were estimated to contain images of ‘undesirable nudity’. The Tempora programme was implicated in the surveillance of politicians’ communications (recently ruled lawful by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal), while Prism, one of the earliest programmes to be identified and reported on, showed the extent of bulk collection of personal data from almost all the major communications providers in the US. More recent revelations include the use of drones to spoof cell towers and collect data from unsuspecting users.
Evan proposed a number of approaches to countering some of the surveillance measures revealed by Snowden. Research, education and activism are key factors, along with technologies such as Tor, PGP or the work of Equalit.ie, a non-profit designing software for human rights activists and journalists. Nevertheless, current political developments such as the recently published draft Investigatory Powers bill, and discussions around end-to-end encryption create a tension with the role of government and everyday users in this space.
Other methods highlighted in the talk include ‘sousveillance’ and countersurveillance, such as Ixmaps, which shows ‘where your packets go’ during web browsing, and the application of shareholder pressure to telecommunications companies to force changes in their practices. An example is the recent efforts by ACLU and others, who in 2013 forced Verizon and AT&T to begin issuing transparency reports.
Finally, we discussed the significant effect on political and legal debate that have been initiated by the Snowden revelations, including recent developments such as the striking down of the ‘Safe Harbour’ process in October 2015, and the current debate at European level over reform to data protection regulations across the EU.
Ultimately, resistance to this powerful set of programmes depends upon awareness and education, and a critical assessment of not only the techniques used, but the basis and justification for their use. The work of Reprieve in highlighting the faulty evidence provided by surveillance drones in the Middle East is one example discussed in the workshop – if the inference and intelligence gained from any surveillance is wrong, then how can it be useful?
There is still a challenge in making clear the risks of inference, profiling and personal harm arising out of bulk data collection to members of the public. However, as one workshop participant noted, for many communities, profiling and mistreatment based on patterns of information is nothing new. Better defining these risks, understanding and communicating what is at stake across cultures and communities, is an important goal for activists and researchers.
Evan has created a version of the Portable Snowden Surveillance Archive, to be kept at Cambridge. It will be on display in the Alison Richard Building until the end of Michaelmas Term 2015, and is available for use in teaching (please contact Dr Ella McPherson for details).
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.