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Big Brother Is Watching Us

Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde diplomatique in Spanish, writes in this column that Edward Snowden is a champion of freedom of expression.

PARIS, Jul 12 2013 (IPS) - We were afraid this would happen. We had been warned by books (George Orwell’s “1984”) and films (Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report”) that with the progress being made in communication technology, we would all end up under surveillance.

Of course, we assumed that this violation of our privacy would be practised by a neo-totalitarian state. There we were wrong, because the unprecedented revelations made by Edward Snowden about the Orwellian surveillance of our communications directly implicate the United States, once regarded as the “country of freedom.”

Apparently this came to an end after the passage of the Patriot Act of 2001. President Barack Obama himself admitted, “You can’t have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy.” Welcome to the era of Big Brother.

What has Snowden revealed? The 29-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) computer analyst who most recently worked for the private company Booz Allen Hamilton, subcontracted to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), leaked to The Guardian and to a lesser extent The Washington Post the existence of secret U.S. government programmes to scrutinise the communications of millions of citizens.

The magnitude of this incredible violation of our civil rights and private communications has been described by the press in precise and hair-raising detail. On Jun. 5, for instance, The Guardian published the order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court instructing the phone company Verizon to hand over to the NSA tens of millions of its clients’ phone records.

The order does not apparently cover the contents of phone communications nor the identity of the users of the phone numbers involved, but it does include the duration of calls and the phone numbers of callers and recipients.

The next day, The Guardian and the Post revealed the existence of a secret surveillance programme, PRISM, that enables the NSA and the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) to access servers of the nine main internet companies (with the notable exception of Twitter): Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

By breaching communications privacy, the U.S. government can access users’ files, audio files, videos, e-mails or photographs. PRISM has become the NSA’s number one source of raw intelligence used for the reports it provides President Obama on a daily basis.

Over the last few weeks, both newspapers have been publishing new information on programmes for cyberespionage and surveillance of communications in the rest of the world, based on Snowden’s leaks.

Snowden told The Guardian, “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyses them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time. Everyone is being watched and recorded.”

The NSA, headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, is the largest and least-known U.S. intelligence agency.

It is so secret that most U.S. citizens do not even know it exists. It has the lion’s share of the intelligence services’ budget and it produces over 50 tonnes of classified material a day.

The NSA, and not the CIA, possesses and operates most of the U.S. systems of covert gathering of intelligence material: from a global satellite network to dozens of listening posts, thousands of computers and forests of antennae in the mountains of West Virginia.

One of its specialties is spying on the spies, that is, the intelligence services of all world powers, friendly or unfriendly. During the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, for example, the NSA deciphered the secret code of the Argentine intelligence services, making it possible to transmit crucial information about the Argentine forces to the British.

The NSA’s interception system can covertly intercept any e-mail, internet search or international telephone call. The complete set of communications intercepted and deciphered by the NSA constitutes the U.S. government’s chief source of clandestine information.

The NSA is in close partnership with the mysterious Echelon system, secretly created after World War II by five English-speaking countries (the “Five Eyes”): the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Echelon is an Orwellian global surveillance system reaching around the world, continuously monitoring most telephone calls, internet communications, e-mail and social networking sites. It can intercept up to two million conversations a minute. Its clandestine mission is to spy on governments, political parties, organisations and businesses.

Within the framework of Echelon, U.S. and British intelligence services have established a longstanding secret collaboration. And now we have learned, thanks to Snowden’s revelations, that British intelligence also clandestinely monitors fibre optic cables, which allowed it to spy on communications from the delegations that attended the G20 summit in London in April 2009.

Washington and London have set up a Big Brother-style plan capable of finding out everything we say and do in our communications. And when President Obama talks of the “legitimacy” of these practices that violate privacy, he is defending the unjustifiable.

Obama is abusing his power and undermining the freedom of all world citizens. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sorts of things,” Snowden protested when he decided to blow the whistle.

Not by chance, Snowden’s revelations came just as the court martial was beginning of U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, accused of leaking secrets to Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing web site that released millions of confidential documents, and when the head of the site, cyber-activist Julian Assange, has spent one year in asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Snowden, Manning and Assange are champions of freedom of expression, and defenders of healthy democracy and of the interests of all citizens on the planet. Now they are being harassed and persecuted by the U.S. Big Brother.

Why did these three heroes of our time take such risks that could even cost them their lives?

Snowden, who has asked a number of countries for political asylum, replied: “If you realise that that’s the world you helped create and it is going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation, and extend the capabilities of this architecture of oppression, you realise that you might be willing to accept any risks and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.”

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meghan quinn a long time coming