I live off campus with some friends in a flat not far from the Berliner Zoo. Because of some technical difficulties we do not have access to the Internet: a situation that makes life in the modern world extremely complicated. I cannot do any research for my classes at home; I cannot check my mails and whenever there is an essay deadline I have to ring my neighbors and ask them for permission to use their computer for a couple of minutes. I never thought that the need to submit an essay could turn out to be such a nice basis for social interaction.
One day I was in the college’s library, surfing the Internet for a dentist via Google. Google was so nice to direct my research from “dentists” to “dentists in Pankow, Berlin.” “Thank you Google for making my life so much easier,” I thought. But then a message popped up saying something like: To make your research easier, please confirm that Google can have continuous access to your location. Information given to improve efficiency sounded like a good deal. Unfortunately at that point I had already started my research on mass surveillance and was increasingly becoming really upset about the NSA watching me. I simply ignored Google’s request for my exact location and decided to never search for a dentist on Google again.
Over a year ago, the young American IT specialist Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents of the National Security Agency to reporters that were subsequently published in global newspapers. These documents were an important piece of evidence for the US government’s massive collection of digital information like phone-calls, e-mails, and Internet searches without the explicit permission of those involved. The NSA denied these reproaches at first, but after Snowden’s disclosures the world got to know the truth and intelligence services all over the world had to take a stand.
Snowden worked at the NSA and therefore had access to documents on NSA’s servers, but he did not see himself qualified to decide which documents should be published and which ones should be kept secret. To find an informed answer to this question, he got in touch with reporters Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Snowden was sure that they were more qualified to evaluate which piece of information was suitable for the public. The US government accused Edward Snowden of endangering the state’s safety; Snowden is now unable to return to his home country. Because of his actions he became the most influential whistle-blower of the 21st century. He sought political asylum, but it was only granted in Russia—this in itself started a big debate about Snowden’s guilt and his status as a political refugee.
On November 8 the movie “Citizenfour” by the journalist Laura Poitras was released in German cinemas. It is a documentary about her first encounter with Edward Snowden in July 2013. The whistle-blower started sending her encrypted mails in January 2013 under the code name Citizenfour. The documentary gives a thrilling insight into Snowden’s motives and character, even though his personality is not the movie’s main focus. With this documentary, Poitras reveals the dangers of mass surveillance and the extreme extent which it has reached.
I saw the movie with a friend from Bard College who comes from the US and we were both shocked about what is going on in our modern society. For the first time in weeks I was incredibly happy about having no access to the Internet, because in this way I was unable to spend more time surfing, leaving indelible information about my person on every website I visited.
In the same week, Ben Wizner, one of Edward Snowden’s lawyers, gave a lecture on surveillance, privacy, and the Snowden case at Bard College Berlin. He raised a lot of very interesting questions that still pop up in my mind whenever I open my laptop. For example: what shall happen with this huge amount of information? We should realize that saving someone’s digital information is equal to gaining knowledge about and even power over that person. Since more than 40% of the world’s population shares information on the Internet, this means the companies or agencies that can access it have enormous power. Who should be in charge of all this data? And who should have the power to decide what is shared with the public and what is kept secret? If this information were in the hands of elected officials, the state’s power would increase to a horrifying extent. We would not know the truth behind the war in Iraq, the practices of the NSA, the drones, and Guantanamo, and our democracy could maybe be turned into a totalitarian state. Wizner underlined the importance of investigative journalism as a source of information that challenges the system and enables change: “Courageous people can make a difference!”
Another thing that I cannot stop thinking about is the fact that nowadays it is financially and technologically possible to store more information than ever before. We can be followed everywhere and what people often forget is that we have a digital signature that is indelible and irrevocable––one which will remain even when we are dead and which agencies now have easy access to. On the Internet you can find a lot of “free” services that one does not have to pay for with money. People do not realize that they pay with their information instead, which is even more valuable. I personally think that we all have a digital self, which consists of all the information we share. This self is not as complex as our self in reality, but it still reveals a lot about who we are. When we trade our information, we trade our virtual soul. We are not consumers anymore––we are the producers of information that in the wrong hands and with the wrong use can keep us under control.
The problem, I believe, is that we do not know the enemy we created ourselves. We do not know who has access to our information, what part of it, and to what extent it can be used against us. Many people do not fear to share information about themselves during their life. They think of themselves as good citizens who never did anything unlawful and are not guilty of any crime. They are lulled into a false sense of security because they think that there are so many people using the Internet, that no agency or hacker would take notice of one totally normal person who posts funny Youtube videos daily. Aren’t they scared by the fact that everything they ever posted, every website they ever visited, and every online shop they bought shoes from gets turned into stored information that can potentially be used against them?
I cannot imagine that there is a person somewhere who spies on my Internet activities and says: Oh, sweet, there is a little girl in Germany doing some research on mass surveillance and now she is deleting various documents from her computer that I already stored anyway. But I do not know for sure that this is not happening; and I do not know what kind of information about me is stored that I already forgot about. Maybe one day someone will use my information to accuse me of a crime I never committed. Maybe someone will soon have access to my smartphone and my application for public transportation, and literally follow every step I take. I do not want this to happen. I do not want anyone to know more about me than I do, and that I will ever be able to remember. I do not want to receive customized advertisements from powerful corporations because they bought information about my interests and my online shopping behavior. I do not want anyone to listen to my phone calls and have access to my chat histories or my private documents. I want to use the Internet as freely as it was possible before the Patriot Act in 2001 that allowed the NSA to spy on people in and outside the United States.
So, what can we do? We can of course stop communicating on/via the Internet completely, we can move to the woods and hope that no drone will ever find us. But this is in my view counterproductive. What in my opinion is the most dangerous part of mass surveillance is that it is very intimidating. I feel limited in my freedom of speech. What I type today might not be valid anymore tomorrow, but it will be on the Internet forever with my digital signature. The more I think about it, the less I feel confident about my claims—which I know is the exact wrong thing to do.
Nevertheless, we should go on saying what we think is true and needs to be published. Moreover, we should keep on fighting for our right to privacy. We need the help of powerful institutions, which can put limits on surveillance programs like those developed by the NSA. We should welcome the petition of Germany and Brazil at the United Nations to discuss the right to privacy as a human right. A signed resolution will empower the Human Rights Commission to control the abusive practice of Big Data so that its existence ultimately becomes compatible with a free society.