NSA mass surveillance: it’s a bit like climate change

Some weeks ago, I argued (in German) that NSA mass surveillance is somewhat like climate change: an omnipresent, yet abstract threat, its pervasiveness is not immediately obvious to many people. There are some deniers, and many who feel powerless to do anything about it.

Interestingly, The Observer recently ran an editorial on antibiotic resistance, comparing antibiotic resistance and the way it’s being tackled to climate change.

Now, in the Observer piece, you could easily replace “climate change” with “mass surveillance” without the argument losing any of its impact. This made me decide to re-write the op-ed. The original is here.

The following is the modified version:

The news last week was awash with threats to global security: al-Qaida-sponsored stealth bombs; British jihadists fighting in Syria. Claims have been made repeatedly that NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance is conducted to work against precisely such threats. Evidence that mass surveillance does anything to reduce these threats remains elusive. Governments and spooks expect us to take their word for it. Meanwhile, cryptographers have been sounding alarm bells about how weakening encryption in particular undermines the security of the internet. Global leaders are slow to take heed.

Granted, the US House of Representatives recently ended the warrantless collection of communications data. However, despite recent revelations in Der Spiegel, the German government is still slow to respond to the Snowden disclosures. Last week’s revelation of a potential spy on the NSA investigate committee has so far produced no reaction that goes beyond the chancellor expressing her concern about these “serious” allegations. Given developments up to this point, there seems to be little hope that even if these allegations turn out to be true, the German government will take the one significant step Germans have been waiting for: invite Edward Snowden to testify before the NSA investigative committee.

Yet, even without allegations of spying on the NSA committee, facts – based on revelations from the Snowden trove – are stark. People the world over are subject to systematic mass spying. So are global leaders, the EU, and the UN. All in the name of national and international security. Of the so-called, omnipresent, yet infinitely obscure “war on terror”.

There are definite echoes here of the climate change challenge. The scale of both climate change and mass surveillance is immense: neither respect national boundaries. With surveillance, of course, the whole point of foreign intelligence is to spy on people in nations outside your own to protect your own security. So far, so good. But that’s not what’s being done. Rather, spy agencies use legal loopholes to spy on their own citizens, mass surveillance often has little to do with protection from terrorism and more with economic interests. And yet, its scale is intensely human: the solution to the problem lies in hundreds of millions of people making small changes to their day-to-day behaviour, such as using encryption, using a different search engine than Google, or something as simple as strengthening their Facebook security settings.  And in the case of both climate change and mass surveillance, developments in technology have a critical role to play – for example by providing the infrastructure, technology and tools needed to facilitate both data protection and, yes, sustainability.

The limited progress made so far on surveillance legislation illustrates how little we know about how to change human behaviour. Advertisers have deployed sophisticated insights about how to tap into the human psyche to make money, but behavioural science is yet to be applied to protecting privacy, human rights and the internet.

Last, both climate change and mass surveillance have taught us that science is not intrinsically benevolent. It has delivered innovations that have transformed humanity. But these have not emerged from a private sector putting security and enlightenment before profit, but as a result of a public-private partnership involving significant state investment. Advancements in low-carbon tech have been constrained by industry’s perception of limited profits; likewise, technology companies will not invest in better encryption and meaningful data protection unless they see benefits for shareholders. Governments are still mostly failing to address this; instead, there is much talk but very little action.

Reasons for optimism? Questionable. The effect of mass surveillance is just as obscure to some as is the effect of climate change. Mass surveillance is pervasive, it effects rich, Western democracies just as much – perhaps more – than it does the countries it allegedly targets for the sake of national security, of stopping terrorism. Just like he effects of climate change, concentrated on some of the poorest parts of the world, surveillance is only seen as disruptive and dangerous when used by a government that is itself perceived as threatening, in countries that do not conform to Western standards of human rights and civil liberties. It is easy to demonise Russia and China because the threat to these rights and liberties is more obvious there than it is in the US, the UK, Germany and the rest of Europe.

The struggle against mass surveillance cannot rest on expert reports, legal inquiries or government investigations: it will require real action from people and governments around the world. It will require individuals to rethink their own behaviours. Like climate change, the NSA, GCHQ, BND and any other obscure spy agency may seem like formidable adversaries. However, strength is still in numbers and if each and every single individual of the many people affected by these issues – be it climate change or mass surveillance – were to take but one step of action against it, change would be possible.

Much like mass surveillance becomes less economically viable the more people use encryption, energy providers for example can be pressured into changing their behaviour if customers take steps to ensure that non-renewable, clean energy becomes less economically viable then its non-renewable equivalent.

It may seem that there this not much reason for optimism just yet but there is reason for hope. Hope that people will realise that they are not as powerless as they believe themselves to be and that they will take the steps necessary to oppose mass surveillance in whichever way they can. All we need to do is get past the error of thinking that tells us that we are powerless to do anything.

We are not.


One thought on “NSA mass surveillance: it’s a bit like climate change

  1. Pingback: What is the Greatest Threat to Humanity? -

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