Jun 24, 2013 04:07 PM

Welcome to 'Democracy with Orwellian Characteristics'

Wake up, defenders of Internet freedom: we're already living in a new world.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange tried to remind governments all over the world that in the end, they have no secrets from their citizens. But when Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been conducting surveillance on the Internet through a program called Prism, he had a very different message. Snowden warned citizens all over the world that in the end, they are the ones who have no secrets from their governments.

When Snowden revealed Prism to The Guardian, the documents he leaked were not from the NSA itself. They were from a PowerPoint presentation that belonged to NSA contractor Booz Allen, so it is possible the documents exaggerated Prism's capabilities. The Guardian and The Washington Post published only three or four of the slides, and Snowden is no Internet expert, so the early reporting on Prism was not very precise.

On June 6, when the news of Prism first broke, readers got the impression that the U.S. government had installed backdoor entrances to Google and Facebook's servers. Users thought that the government had direct access to huge amounts of their data, and was able to monitor anybody and everybody's online communications at any time. Google soon published a blog post entitled "What the … ?" The post denied that the U.S. government has direct access to Google's servers, or that they had installed any kind of backdoor entrance. The blog post also explained that Google has only received individual inquiries from the U.S. government, and said that Google has not complied with all of the government's requests for information. On June 11, Google published an open letter to the FBI director and attorney general asking for authorization to publish more details about surveillance requests, in order to reassure Google users that the company was not colluding with the U.S. government to share data about its users.

Like Google, all eight of the Internet giants involved with Prism maintained that the government did not have any backdoor programs or direct access to their servers, and insisted that they had only received individual inquiries. Confirming many of these assertions will have to wait until these companies release clearer explanations, but it is possible that Prism is just a data pool, or an application programming interface (API) for the government's inquiries. Of course, the scope of the data pool or interface depends on the individual company.

From the technological point of view, if Google and Facebook's servers do have backdoor entrances, it would not only compromise the companies' security, it would also inundate the NSA with such huge amounts of data that the agency would become totally overloaded with information, and therefore totally inefficient.

So, for those of you who look to the West as a moral example for our own Chinese government, and for those of you who believe in Internet freedom, you can sigh with relief. At least the data requests that Google has received do not go further than the government inquiries that were openly reported before the Prism leak. Apparently the big hand of government has not yet reached directly into Google's servers.

But when U.S. President Barack Obama, the Justice Department, the NSA and other government agencies explained the program, they emphasized the legality of programs like Prism, argued that it is integral to counterterrorism tactics and pointed out that Prism is not aimed at U.S. citizens. What the government has not denied is direct access to a back door. Of course, this oversight could have happened simply because officials with legal backgrounds are not very sensitive to technological issues. But it might also have happened because in other companies' interfaces, Prism actually is unearthing huge volumes of data, or because Prism's ultimate goal is to gain direct access to company servers, and the NSA is still working out how to do it.

The most despicable aspect of the U.S. government's explanations is the double standard: while the government promises that it would never conduct surveillance on Americans without a warrant, in the same breath they act as though casually conducting surveillance on foreigners is no big deal. Of course, the United States has met with intense criticism from its ally, the European Union. Europeans are asking angrily: "In this era when any politician might have a Gmail account, how can you Americans have the power to conduct surveillance on Chancellor Angela Merkel? How is it that when you push for globalization you say that American companies are the world's companies, but in your own national security laws you make a distinction between natives and foreigners?" The most absurd thing is the way Prism judges who counts as a foreigner: the "51 percent foreignness" test, which requires NSA employees to have "51 percent confidence" that the person being monitored is a foreigner. That phrase sounds like Newspeak from George Orwell's 1984.

If we think carefully about the dividing lines between American and foreigner, or between direct access and inquiry pools, those lines seem extremely fragile and all too easy to cross. Snowden's leak should be a warning to us all: we need to prepare for a new age of big data technology that allows governments to know everything about their citizens. Welcome to "Democracy with Orwellian Characteristics."

In this new kind of democracy, although the government can control all its citizens' data, it will have to become far more transparent. When the government digs around for data, its actions will have to be authorized in a much more transparent way. Democracies used to rely on the separation of powers and criticism from the media to keep governments in check, but Democracy with Orwellian Characteristics will have to rely on transparency as the only check on governmental power. Thanks to people like Snowden and Assange, and those who work at The Guardian and Google, big governments with access to huge amounts of data will once again be controlled by their citizens. Supporters of Internet freedom must rely on the power of these people who dare to say no to big data government.

The author is a Chinese journalist and popular political blogger

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