In the not so distant past, perhaps only as recently as a decade ago, there were three prevailing attitudes to the internet; avoidance, cautious acceptance, and pioneering exploration. Each of these attitudes, and everything in between them, was derived from individuals’ sense of the importance of privacy. There were those who mistrusted it utterly and foreswore engaging with it, believing that since nothing digital was truly secure it left one vulnerable to government snooping, hacking, and cyber theft. Others, aware of these threats, were still willing to take the risk and so benefit from this new social technology. The more daring or carefree were prepared to throw caution to the wind and so become the first great explorers of cyberspace.
Now the internet has become ubiquitous. Everything from paying taxes to job hunting, from booking cinema and concert tickets to buying clothes requires access to the internet. The absolute abstentionists have receded into the hardcopy pages of pre-digital history, dividing the world into the remaining two broad categories.
With the exception of the most extreme internet libertarians we have made our peace – albeit an uneasy one – with online supervision. This of course has had its benefits. Terror networks and online child pornography rings have been foiled and brought to justice. Again, most people will accept that this state intelligence and police invasion of some people’s online privacy is an acceptable price to pay for a safer world. We frequently hear this activity defended with the weak reasoning that innocent people have nothing to hide.
Everyone has something to hide. Mark Zuckerberg can say that privacy is no longer the norm, but in his own private life he contradicts this by the extraordinary measures he and his wife take to keep themselves hidden even from their own neighbours. The things that we hide need not be criminal or immoral or shameful, it is simply the case that we are programmed to have secret and private lives as well as the lives we lead in public. The argument that the innocent have nothing to hide begins to crumble when we suggest rigging people’s homes with cameras.
Since the leaks of Edward Snowden it is no longer possible to imagine that government surveillance is passive and benign. Our governments have been indiscriminately hoovering up our online activity for years, and on a massive scale. Surprisingly, most of the online community has made its peace even with these and other disclosures. It has been protected behind the name of state security and anti-terrorism, and for the most part we have accepted this; though with a growing sense of unease in the knowledge that we are being watched.
Our awareness now of Big Data analytics has started the alarm bells ringing. Mass surveillance is now being used by private agencies and corporations in order for their clients to get to know us intimately for advertising and political purposes. All of our social media, online shopping, and browsing information is being collected into databases, giving people we do not even know exist unprecedented access into our private and social online lives. In the recent case of Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ this information is being used – in tandem with military psych and black operations techniques developed for use against occupied civilian populations – to manipulate voters in democratic elections, both undermining and corroding our democracies.
We, the activists, have things to hide. We may not be planning violence, but where we naively see the “terrorists” as the bad guys, those who hold power see us who challenge their power as the bad guys. Writing this piece in online privacy may be perfectly legal, but, considering the vocabulary it uses, it is sure to come to the attention of some designated processor somewhere related to GCHQ or the NSA – be that state or a state hired private contractor. It matters little.
What happens then when the rules change? Suppose we continue doing what we are doing, suppose we near our goals – what then? I have no intention of causing harm to another human being, but as an activist and a campaigner for Scottish independence, I am actively working against the British state. It is my purpose in activism to destroy the British state, and I am not alone. Other activists active in other causes are doing similar things. So what happens if or when the state, the entity with the monopoly of legitimate violence, is brought to the brink – to the edge of defeat? It will change the rules, and at that time – doing nothing different from what we are doing now – we will find ourselves marked as enemies of the state. Our privacy becomes a matter of freedom and imprisonment, of life and death at that moment.
As separatists, as nationalists, as independentistas we are safe from the hard power of the state only for as long as the state does not consider our activity a credible or an immediate threat. But we can be certain that, at some level, we are being watched. Nothing of what these watchers are learning about us now will be forgotten when or if those goalposts shift. We will be picked up in the first roundups. Paranoia? Perhaps. But we know for certain the information is being harvested from us, and from everyone on the internet, and that the rules have changed for others in similar movements before.
So let’s pull back from this paranoia and start to think. Is it right that any supposedly democratic government has such powers of surveillance? No. It is not right, and it can become dangerous. It is already proving dangerous to the healthy running of democracy. That is the Rubicon. We have a responsibility to challenge this behaviour and secure our privacy, and in the meantime – while it is still ongoing – we must be devising strategies and implementing methods that will ensure as much of our digital footprint is hidden from Big Data and the government as possible.