I’m a terrorist. Du bist es auch. But there must be another reason, why our governments are keen to spy on us.
In early October 2011 the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) declared to have hacked a Trojan Horse (1, 2), designed by the German government in order to spy on its citizens. Moreover, the Trojan is so poorly designed that it enables third parties other than the designers (and I leave you to figure out who those actors could be) to access and take over infected computers.
This fact makes me wonder what is it that makes governments of democratic countries with alleged free speech and right for personal privacy to spy on their own citizens.
What do terrorists, slave-traders, and drug dealers have in common?
The official explanation we usually get is the war on terror. This is an especially hard battle in Germany; a land, which suffered no international terror attacks in its history.
So you and I are terrorists. We are not slave-traders, although Germany is a central hub of worldwide human trafficking (1, 2). We are neither drug dealers, although Germany is an important transit point and financial center of drug cartels. We are terrorists, where there’s no terror.
But it’s easier to join the world trend of war on terror instead of using some reasonable explanations in order to break your citizens’ declared rights (free speech, privacy, assembly, and other minor things that happen to constitute a democracy). By doing so you are also able to regulate the integration of minorities and wake an overall criminalization of certain groups to serve your political needs. Doing politics is doing fashion and the war on terror is the new black.
Ok, enough with sarcasm, there must be something else.
Threatening democracy, with democracy
Every first-year social and political sciences student can repeat the mantra of ‘no state wants smart citizens’. But it’s not about having dumb ones; no state will want that also. It’s about controlling their ‘smartness’.
It’s not about suppression, it’s about control. And let me explain what I mean.
Different methods (let’s say information-politics) enable states to have a certain amount of control over their citizens’ intellect. Clear forms of those methods are censorship or government transparency. But without official censorship (which is a form of suppression), governments need to use other means of control; school curricula and distribution of resources in the education system are two examples. Cutting resources for humanities and investing more in natural and applied sciences in the academy (a worldwide trend nowadays) serve several goals in the matter of controlling the citizens’ ‘smartness’: (1) compatibly with the capitalist market, it nurtures an intellect that produces measurable profit (in form of scientific discoveries, leading to the production new products and patents) and (2) it limits the “production” of aware, questioning, analytical and critical citizens, a known effect of humanities and the worst nightmare of every politician.
But something has happened. Something, which made states worry about their control.
And then came WWW
Technological means (of communication and transportation) fulfill very important social functions. They aid people to exchange information, come together, and eventually cooperate. Retrospectively, older technologies also used to put barriers on these functions – their limitations made communication slow and expensive, so that their social functions were also limited and depended on access to resources.
With those limitations, governments didn’t really need to worry about their citizens being ‘smart’ or even collaborating. Furthermore, with a few simple mechanisms that control the flow of information, such as copyrights and subtle but calculated control over / use of mass media, maintaining the status quo was quite simple.
But there was a fundamental change over the last decade. The Internet introduced quick, effective, and (most importantly) cheap ways of communicating and collaborating. A new model of communication was added to the old one-to-many (books, TV/radio broadcast etc.) and one-to-one (telephone, written correspondences etc.) models, namely many-to-many (forums, mailing lists, or their amphetaminized versions Twitter and Facebook).
Furthermore, people can easily find others like them online, exchange information and collaborate with almost no effort or resources. And that applies to everyone, from all ends of the political, social, and economical spectrum. Now, imagine what this can do to the government’s precious status quo.
It’s like comparing a printed encyclopedia with Wikipedia. The former has “professionals” and “experts” (which were used to exert their control over knowledge and its legitimization) on the one side and passive consumers on the other. Wikipedia, on the other hand, removes old barriers and enables thousands of everyday people to join forces and share information and knowledge. At the bottom line, which of both is the most up-to-date and contains an unbelievable amount of knowledge?
Now, imagine those capabilities in the hands of so many citizens, which previously wouldn’t have a chance of finding each other, let alone communicate and cooperate. “Power to the people” just got a whole new meaning.
So why should governments care about that?
I’m not trying to develop any conspiracy theory. It is just a very basic need of a state to have control over its citizens. Be it through biopolitics (to name an equivalent example from another field of state control over the individual) or be it through infopolitics.
People constantly exchange tremendous amounts of information online, which are incommensurable with older technologies. For governments, just as for parents of teenagers – not having control over the information their children (i.e. citizens) exchange and being exposed to can drive them crazy.
As the tools and capabilities of communication develop, so do the control mechanisms. They become more sophisticated and more intrusive. But they also prove to us that our governments will tolerate free speech only to a certain extent. And when the natural limitation of technology and economy can’t regulate free speech anymore, other mechanisms will.
And when you can’t suppress, you control.
Authoritarian regimes, such as China and Iran, are doing both. Democratic states however, can only (try to) control using various means.
I can’t know for sure why my government would like to spy on me.
I know for a fact, that it is not because I’m a terrorist.
I assume though, it has to do with my government:
- being worried about that precious status quo.
- becoming more and more obsessed with control over citizens, as new information and communication technologies tend to destabilize that control.
- playing into the hands of actors, with interests that extend far beyond democracy, personal freedom and other irrelevant issues. Such as copyrights-lobbyists (to name one example).