The Politics    Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Invisible surveillance and indifference

By Sean Kelly

Invisible surveillance and indifference
We’re being watched, but does anybody care?

The real news is mostly made by comedians these days.

Yesterday on his satirical news TV program, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver interviewed Edward Snowden, the man who in 2013 revealed mass surveillance of American telecommunications by the National Security Agency. Having been charged with breaches of the Espionage Act, Snowden now lives in Russia, where the interview took place.

One of the points hammered by Oliver was the indifference of the American population towards Snowden’s revelations. The NSA leaks were huge news: in January 2014, President Barack Obama gave a major speech calling for changes to NSA data collection; Snowden’s every movement is reported. But whether Americans grasp the complexities of the debate is unknown.

One answer was provided by Oliver in a not-very-scientific but nevertheless-damning series of vox pops in which bemused Americans admitted they had no idea who Snowden was.

This points to a question of growing significance for citizens of all nations, including ours: to what extent can people be expected to understand the laws that govern the technology which increasingly defines their world?

Three quarters of all Australians now own a smartphone. Many of them look at those phones 150 times a day. Recently there was a significant debate in the parliament about which data, from phones, computers and tablets, should be kept – for security purposes – by internet service providers.

That’s a debate that affects most of us, and yet one poll in the Financial Review showed almost half didn’t understand the new laws.

The truth is, to coin a Rumsfeldian phrase, we don’t know how little we know. And as technology wraps its tentacles around more of our lives in the years ahead, how much we understand, and our how much our parliamentarians understand, will become a more worrying question.

Oliver might have found a way to clarify things on the NSA issue at least, asking Snowden whether the government was collecting people’s “dick pics”. Snowden replied: “The good news is there’s no program named the ‘dick pic program’. The bad news is they’re still collecting everybody’s information, including your dick pics.”

More clarification like that will be needed from sharp-eyed pundits in coming times.

One other thing: I have argued publicly that Snowden’s leaks – curated and released only after careful analysis – should be distinguished from the much more reckless approach followed by WikiLeaks, in which huge numbers of documents were made widely and indiscriminately available. (This is a good article on the distinction.)

But, of course, that argument should be subject to ongoing discussion. In response to Oliver’s questioning, Snowden admitted “a fuck-up” by the New York Times in exposing intelligence activity against al-Qaeda based on one of the documents he had leaked. Snowden also did not say whether he had read every document, but said he had “evaluated” them all.

I still side with Snowden in arguing that some mistakes happen in journalism and that particular mistake should not undermine everything that has been achieved. We should not forget that his actions have unveiled serial abuses of trust, lies to Congress, and led to changes to law. And while his actions should continue to be questioned, his willingness yesterday to open himself up to the same scrutiny he has urged on others should be applauded. 

Closer to home, Transfield, which runs Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres, has told its workers they could be fired if an asylum seeker follows them on Twitter, even if the asylum seeker has left detention, and even if the worker had no knowledge of it.

We know about this example because it’s happening in an industry that is under some scrutiny, but let’s be realistic: anyone applying for a job these days knows anything about them online might affect their chances, even things out of their control. And there’s very little any of us can do about it.

Interest rates may or may not be cut today. When they were cut in February, Joe Hockey claimed credit for good management. But back in 2013 he said, “Interest rates are being cut to 50-year lows because the economy is struggling.” As I said last week, the man contains multitudes.

Meanwhile, the prime minister now has a man problem to add to his woman problem.

The collision between religion and medicine may be set to accelerate after a Jehovah’s Witness died after refusing a blood transfusion. She was almost seven months pregnant, and her unborn baby died too.

Why campaigns have no impact whatsoever on who wins US presidential races, and what that means for Hillary Clinton. 

ICYMI at the weekend, Tony Abbott has hired a personal photographer, raising concerns about press access (double narcissism alert: I am quoted on narcissism), Laurie Oakes on why the next election might be all about jobs, and Andrew Bolt comes dangerously close to comparing himself to Jesus.

And for those metamedia junkies among you, Vox has a fascinating piece on an academic article published 20 years ago by BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti. “In brief, the paper argues that, going forward, capitalism will need to be constantly producing identities for people to adopt at an ever-increasing rate. And now Peretti’s at the helm of a firm that's doing exactly that.”

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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