As one of the members of group “Top Secret,” I found myself saddled with the difficult task of creating a cumulative “experience” from what was essentially a blank canvas. I speak for the other members of my group when I say that we started without a clue as to what we wanted to do or where we wanted to take the idea we would ultimately develop.
After much deliberation and some fortuitous inspiration, we decided on a three-section structure for an activity built around role-play. Our experience would begin with a debate between students (and Dr. Rosatelli), each of whom would choose a role to play at random, from Edward Snowden and Wikileaks to the NSA and Hong Kong. The second section would entail a simulation of events which have already occurred heretofore, but rather than simply having students memorize events, we wanted them to step inside the shoes of that person whom they were impersonating. This would allow them to expound with detailed reasoning to accurately represent the ideologies, convictions, and interests of their selected person, organization, or country. We planned for the final section to be a forward-leaning path into the hypothetical whose myriad possibilities, however, unlikely, would create a fascinating set of considerations.
These three stages of the experience would allow students to think critically about the complex challenges facing the global community as we attempt to straddle the line between cyber-freedom and cybersecurity, which constituted the initial question on which the debate was focused.
The link below will take you to a YouTube video I made for the project. It is a simple visual representation of my recording of the debate. I chose to document in this way not only to be more creative, but also because it was cleverly appropriate considering the topic at hand. I did not inform anyone that I would be recording (nor did Nicola), and no one noticed. Perhaps the message is that we are exponentially more susceptible to surveillance than we would like to believe, or perhaps it is just that I was trying too hard to come up with something that reflected the unit. Nonetheless, as I went back and listened to the audio and analyzed the debate, it informed much of what I wanted to discuss, so it is the portion I chose to provide along with my written response.
Throughout much of the eleven minutes during which the class debated, the NSA/US Federal Government served to a large extent as a metaphorical punching bag for everyone else. They were the easy target, and for good reason. Justifying the actions of a government whose surreptitious methods for “ensuring national security” violate the terms of its own citizens’ constitutional liberties is a difficult task. However, one would be wise to consider those entities choosing to lambaste the United States and the many contradictions embodied thereby.
Hong Kong (which was represented by yours truly) criticized the NSA for its overreach and abusive surveillance, both in the debate and in actuality. Doing so, however, is absurdly, falsely sanctimonious, as the Hong Kong government in 2006 passed a sweeping surveillance program remarkably similar in nature to the PATRIOT Act. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has called the United States’ surveillance policies “utter hypocrisy.” While accurate in his assessment, Putin is being utterly hypocritical, as Russia has engaged in the same actions and surveillance as the NSA and Hong Kong, regardless of his hollow denials.
Adding yet another layer of complexity to the debate is the fact that governments are not alone. Silicon Valley, which was also represented in the debate, partakes in surveillance of its own. Google and other companies, for instance, may have been mandated to hand over user information to the Federal Government under the PRISM Program, but they have for years collected that information for their own corporate use, which raises more than a few ethical questions in and of itself.
Indeed, the role of Silicon Valley (and “big business” in general) in this age of global cybersurveillance is an increasingly precarious one. These corporations have a substantial financial stake in the debate and should logically support further cybersecurity as a means of protecting their information from being stolen. In other words, the less information mined from JPMorgan by Russian hackers, in other words, the better. Despite all this, the government’s increased surveillance under the aforementioned PRISM Program leaves consumers questioning the integrity of institutions like Yahoo, which are left with little choice but to fall in line or face daily fines amounting to $250,000. Yahoo may have wanted to protect the information of its users but the NSA has forced its hand. In many cases the resultant scrutiny engenders a consumer backlash, even though the company’s intentions may not be quite so nefarious as they appear.
So where do corporations stand? Do they go along with the government’s regulations for the sake of ensuring greater online security at the risk of alienating clients, or do they refuse, leaving themselves more susceptible to hackers and perhaps left to face the legal and economic ramifications of such a rebellious decision?
In all of this discussion, the United States becomes—justifiably—an easy target. Nevertheless, the Federal Government is in the very same convoluted quagmire as all the other parties mentioned to this point. To expect the NSA to simply cease with its surveillance operations would be incredibly naïve and realistically impossible—or at least not without compromising the safety of American citizens. The true efficacy of operations occurring in clandestine locations like the NSA’s new center in Bluffdale, Utah is in question, and the necessity of the surveillance of American citizens is also in question, but the import of our response to the hacking of other countries is not.
Whether we like it or not (and I stand in the “not” category), moves taken by the United States in response to September 11th have precipitated the proliferation of such strategies on a global level. Ultimately, these measures have led us to a point from which there seems currently no return. The NSA does not have to create malware like Stuxnet to sabotage Iranian nuclear reactors; nor does it need to wiretap German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but practically speaking, it has a job to do with regards to the handling of foreign hacking which may feasibly threaten to compromise stability, be it with regards to our economic well-being or otherwise. In other words, perhaps most simply put, the NSA’s job should be to take a defensive (rather than offensive) approach. No one, in or out of the United States, should be the target of digital espionage. Further, the espionage of any other nation should be efficiently deterred by a National Security Administration more cognizant of citizens’ privacy rights.
Clearly, the debate in which our class engaged served effectively as a microcosm of the more expansive and confusing debate taking place internationally, and it raised many of the important questions thereof. It also pointed towards crucial answers. Dr. Rosatelli, standing in for Wikileaks, accused the United States and the “West” of attempting to “[maintain] colonial power and control,” begging the question: Is the central premise of her assertion—stated on behalf of Julian Assange’s organization—fundamentally accurate, and if so, what are its implications?
Barney Warf in “Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of Wikileaks,” sees the digital realm (and more specifically, cyberactivism therein) as an instrument to “foster alternative geographic imaginaries in which identity is defined relationally through feelings of mutual responsibility rather than simple proximity” (702). Warf’s intimation suggests that the digital age has brought with it the potential to break down the barriers of statehood, in a sense, ensuring a loyalty to fellow man as opposed to country.
The late Mark Poster in Information Please takes this concept further. “The assemblage of networked digital information and humans,” Poster writes, “may serve as a base for developing auspicious, decentralized, multicultural global networks” (48). This, Poster argues, is the “post-postcolonial world,” into which we are being led by the globalizing potential of ever-expanding digital technologies and the myriad capabilities of the Internet to enable international networking and subsequent dissemination of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale.
If the assertion of Wikileaks is correct, that “Western” governments like that of the United States are attempting with their extensive digital surveillance programs to maintain colonial power, is it because of a fear of the Internet’s capabilities to globalize in a way that leads us into the post-postcolonial world? Are these governments working to keep the barriers of statehood standing? Such would indeed seem to be the case, for if the government can effectively control the actions of its citizenry online—an increasingly trying task—it will most certainly take increasingly efficient technology and increasingly intrusive strategies. In effect, Wikileaks seems to be correct. Bureaucracies around the world, recognizing the democratizing potential of the cyber realm, have attempted—perhaps in vain—to maintain some vestiges of control.
During the course of our debate, it became abundantly clear why so many Americans feel powerless in this global discourse. When such powerful entities as billion-dollar corporations and the NSA are attempting to take actions which promote their interests and perhaps even their control of cyberspace, how can a mere citizen make a difference? Google may spend inordinate amounts of money to influence decisions made by the government, but the so-called “average citizen” cannot afford to do so. The NSA is working to build quantum computers that break encryption keys, and the “average citizen” cannot do anything to stop that. Even by exercising voting privileges, our impact on the government has in years prior proven to be substantially less than ideal. Voting for a Republican in 2000 and 2004 led to the Bush Administration’s enhanced surveillance techniques. Voting for a Democrat in 2008 and 2012 led to the Obama Administration’s even further enhanced surveillance techniques.
To have any hope for the future with regards to the Internet, and reclaiming not only privacy rights but, more centrally, a more globalized and democratic autonomy, one must, to some extent, ascribe to the idealistic notions that pervaded the philosophies of earlier thinkers like Norbert Wiener and still pervade the thoughts of men like Stewart Brand, the late Poster, and even Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Digital utopianism as a general concept remains a central force in this geopolitical struggle, in the hope that the multitudinous capabilities presented by the digital age may be harnessed so as to tear down the walls of traditional bureaucracies as seen heretofore, effecting a change so revolutionary that it irrevocably alters the very definition of culture.
To have such a hope, that globalization may be made a reality thanks to the democratic nature of a free and open Internet, is to have faith that such a momentous change could be produced without causing irreparable damage or instability to the international community. It is safe to assume that for those who are accustomed to the prescripts of a postmodern world, such a shift in direction may not be welcomed with open arms. Even speaking from personal opinion, while I oppose the actions taken by the NSA, I do not wish for a future in which humankind is wholly democratized by the digital realm, as I am fearful of the anarchic volatility of a true democracy. On the contrary, my hope is simply for the NSA—and more broadly for the Federal Government—to minimize its intrusive and unconstitutional surveillance before we find ourselves heading down that proverbial “slippery slope.” The question is, can the United States government and those of other countries around the world minimize their operations, however, without opening the door to the post-postcolonial age of which Poster writes?
My intention was not to write so extensively, but I hope that what has been made most abundantly clear is the extent to which our deceptively simple in-class debate has raised countless questions about cyber-freedom going forward and the future not only of the Internet, but of our very existence and our perceptions of culture. In all of this discussion, I see very little hope to produce change with votes, but recognize the potential of the Internet if the notions of men like Assange, Snowden, Poster, and Brand prove to be more practical and less naïve than they may now seem to be.
Lamentably, I have no clear answer with regards to actions that can be taken by citizens to make a difference, and though it may seem thoroughly inadequate to suggest placing faith in the capacity of the Internet to effect the change we wish to see, perhaps the most practical way forward lies in the seemingly naïve idealism of digital utopianism. Such, however, cannot be a fully viable option until the bureaucratic regulations by which cyberspace is burdened are lessened and users across the globe are empowered to network and exchange cultural objects on a completely free and open Internet. If citizens are to push for any change, it should be in the form of comprehensive cyber-freedom. If they are to organize, it should be with the tools presented by the Internet. In effect, a practical path forward is presented to those concerned citizens who choose to act. Such citizens must be mindful of the ideals upon which the actions of so-called “traitors” like Snowden are based, and though leading such a movement—or even partaking in one—may seem a cumbersome effort, it does not take much to sow the seeds of that movement. It can begin with something as simple as, for instance, an in-class debate.
In effect, group “Top Secret” has done what it can to plant the seeds of a movement, as others around the world have in varying ways. Now, it is contingent upon those involved to make a choice: whether or not to take a stand and to organize in the borderless dimensions of cyberspace. With everything from privacy rights to the very fundaments of democracy itself at stake, inaction would be nothing short of a mistake.