Big Brother: PRISM edition

A number of you who have clicked the link to this post probably follow Big Brother Africa to varying degrees, or have watched one of the several spin offs which have aired in several countries since the franchise first started in the Netherlands in 1999. It has been a huge success precisely because it exposes lots of us as voyeurs, glued to our TV screens, watching the every move of total strangers.

The Big Brother franchise is essentially a trivialisation of George Orwell’s book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, in which Big Brother is the head of a tyrannical ruling party that persecutes all independent thought with its omnipresent surveillance and propaganda. For a book released in 1949, it is remarkably prescient in the way it shows how governments want to control their citizens, and the Big Brother franchise is a trivialisation because it reduces a very serious issue to what is increasingly soft porn.

As the world becomes more and more connected, we see more and more portrayals in movies of the dangers of governments allowed to violate the privacy of citizens. Films like Enemy of the State, Minority Report and even shows like Person of Interest (a favourite of mine) paint scenarios that once seemed a little far into the future, but no longer.

Some of you may have heard about a $40 million contract given to an Israeli firm by the Nigerian government, to monitor internet communication of Nigerians. The firm called Elbit systems was contracted to deploy its Wise Intelligence Technology, before Premium Times broke the story, leading to an investigation of a contract award that went against all the rules of due process and privacy.

After 9/11, Americans accepted serious incursions into their privacy by their government, via the PATRIOT Act, in order to keep their country safe, as they were told. But like most things this ‘handshake’ has ‘gone beyond the elbow’. On June 6th, Glenn Greenwald broke the story that the NSA was engaging in widespread and indiscriminate surveillance of US citizens by collecting phone call data from the biggest US phone networks. It gets worse. The NSA has apparently also been collecting user information from Apple, Google, Facebook among others since 2007, as part of a program called PRISM, even though the denials have continued.

For some it may not be a surprise, but the sheer scale of it in such a short time, is a cause for grave concern, especially because as Bruce Schneier notes: ’Once a security system is in place, it can be very hard to dislodge it’.

What this means is that for countries like the US, that is becoming a surveillance state, rolling back the laws that enable such behaviour will be an uphill battle. It also means that for those societies in which massive surveillance has not yet become the norm, now is the time to put in place laws that will protect citizens from their governments. As we move closer and closer to an internet of things, which will collect information on virtually everything you do, that information, and the access to it, is absolute power, and the abuse of that power is inevitable.

It is on that note that I want to highly recommend the work Paradigm Initiative Nigeria has done so far to bring attention to this issue. Download their excellent policy brief here (PDF) which gives a good overview of the issues and charts a way forward.

Now, this may all seem very serious, and it is. Right now, as you read this, the future of the internet is being shaped to favour governments and corporations, while we just browse away. We must organise and engage with this process as much as we can, or this future will be defined for us, in lots of ways that will be less than benign. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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