The other Big Brother

Sept. 1, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and subsequent Hollywood-esque flight from US authorities have provided enough drama to fuel the media through the summer, and they have also brought conversations of privacy and cybersecurity into most Americans’ homes. However, the majority of this media coverage has ignored a key aspect of the problem of surveillance and domestic espionage: the rest of the world.

By now, most of us have likely heard from both libertarians, who are calling this the single biggest breach of privacy in the history of the United States, and national security pundits, who are saying PRISM and similar programs are necessary to protect Americans from those who would do us harm.

Yet sitting at home in the US, it can be difficult to gauge the immediate, tangible effects of these newly revealed surveillance programs. After all, if the FBI were to bust down your front door right now, seize your computer and rifle through all your files, the absolute worst they would find is maybe your diary, or some pirated music, or—heaven forbid—your porn stash.

Contrast that with much of the rest of the world, and the story changes dramatically.

In non-Western countries, it is not uncommon for security forces to attack, arrest or permanently “disappear” citizens for voicing certain views online. When 28-year-old Khaled Saeed posted politically charged pictures online at an Internet cafe in Alexandria in 2011, he was dragged out into the street in broad daylight and tortured, mutilated and eventually beaten to death by the police. His Facebook memorial page later became a central communication hub for the Egyptian Revolution.

In China, thousands of citizens have been fined or harassed and scores have been arrested and forced to serve lengthy sentences for digital “crimes”. Which types of information are considered incriminating varies country by country, but the distinction is always conveniently subjective.

Since the Arab Spring demonstrated the undeniable power of a digitally-enabled citizenry in 2011, dictators around the world have been battening down their digital hatches. New and ruthless surveillance and censorship laws around the world have ramped up the legal power of governments to access citizens’ data. Specialized cyber units have been added to the law enforcement apparatus in almost every country that can afford them.

And the countries that don’t have the resources to create effective monitoring technologies simply buy them from those who do. One prominent example of spyware marketed towards governments is FinFisher, which infects citizen’s computers, reads their files, collects their online passwords, physically tracks them via GPS and spies on them through their microphones and webcams.

Civil, human and digital rights activists, with help from the US government, have fought to expose and end these problematic digital practices for the past few years with limited success. It’s been a game of cat and mouse where every advance by the government is parried by activists who are then in turn shut down by the government…and the cycle repeats.

These activists need all the help they can get, yet the PRISM revelation has made the battle more difficult than ever. In the past, the US was able to condemn autocratic surveillance programs from a moral high ground, but now when we highlight the problems of digital rights in other countries, PRISM is thrown back in our face. I’ve seen this happen first-hand this summer.

I’ve watched the NSA leaks unfold from a rather unique vantage point as an intern on the small, specialized tech team of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a large democracy promotion organization. I’ve spent most of my two months here researching the digital repression, censorship and surveillance techniques of various countries.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched with frustration as the American media has talked exhaustively about how privacy issues affect American citizens while essentially ignoring the way PRISM-like practices affect the rest of the world.

The media has stayed silent on the potential hazards of powerful US-made surveillance mixing with brutal local law enforcement practices. In a recent bomb plot investigation in Kenya, local Kenyan police worked with the FBI, who used their advanced cell phone tracking software to identify several cell phones suspected to have been connected with the bomb plot. The owners of those cell phones, who had all recently bought the phones second-hand and were ignorant of their involvement with the plot, were all detained without due process and harshly tortured for days for information.

The privacy implications of the NSA programs could have far-reaching consequences for American citizens and they direly need to be discussed, but at the same time, we should consider their global impact. As a liberal democracy with immense international influence and an intricate and powerful intelligence community, the surveillance decisions we make affect people beyond our borders. And people beyond our borders aren’t all protected by a well-established rule of law or legal due process like we are. For them, Big Brother is old news and he is much blunter, much more physical, and much more dangerous than anything we could imagine at home.


Zak Whittington, ’15

If the issues brought up in this piece resonate with you, Zach invites you to check out The Association for Liberation Technology, a new student group, this fall.

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