5 reasons why the Snowden / NSA / PRISM affair is indeed a game changer for the Future of the Internet

Update: read my newest post on this topic, here

UPDATE July 16: the latest version of my PRISMgate comments and my call for a potential boycott of US tech platforms is now live on the HBR Blog network. Download the PDF: A Call to Boycott U.S. Tech Platforms Over the NSA’s PRISM Surveillance – Gerd Leonhard – Harvard Business Review

I believe that the Snowden /NSA affair and the subsequent discovery of the PRISM program and the data ‘hoovering’ initiative set in motion by the U.S. government has very significant implications that, if seen together (as in ‘pattern recognition’), could prove to be a game-changing moment.

Here are my 5 key points:

1) The future of pretty much all U.S.-based Internet, communications and technology companies could be severely threatened by this. Even if we still somewhat trust (as I do, in most cases) the leading U.S.-based international leaders in the internet, digital content, technology, social media, telecommunications, news and journalism sectors – such as Google / Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Cisco, Amazon, eBay, Apple, Microsoft /Skype, Verizon etc – we now clearly have a wicked problem and may soon be facing a real dilemma: these corporations are all subject to U.S. laws and regulations (as well as their actual interpretation by dozens of law enforcement agencies) which apparently are far more dangerous, un-checked and bottom-less than many of us have expected.

The fact that many U.S. authorities can just summon up a FISA order anytime and apparently obtain information – and with that I mean pretty much any and all meta-data and our personal data footprints, or even the content of these communications – of this magnitude, in this kind of depth, and in such blatant disregard of any need for real evidence or informed consent, and without any redress from anyone that may be its target, for whatever reason, is deeply disturbing.

In my opinion, if this practice (and Obama’s cavalier attitude to the key issues that PRISM represents) continues unchecked it we may ultimately need to come to the conclusion that we should stop using these companies’ services and platforms, altogether, if we live outside of the U.S. (and in countries where private data is still subject to some kind of public protection, such as here in Switzerland where I live). Just to add some context, this is what President Obama said when he was still just a Senator (found via TNW):  “This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide […] I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom”

This could have grave consequences not only for us as Internet users but for the above listed companies and all others that are subject to U.S. laws. In other words, if America is indeed heading into what John Pilger in Counterpunch calls a “police state” (heavy words but apparently not unfounded) we would have no other option but to stop being a part of it.  A strange twist, indeed: Snowden fled to Hong Kong (China:) while the U.S. approach to citizens’ rights and surveillance is starting to look a lot more like what is currently the standard in China!

2) This could be a potential death sentence for U.S.-based cloud computing and what I call cloud-media and cloud-culture services. Think about it: in addition to your phone calls and Internet cookies, would you really want all of your other data assets,your skype calls and video chats, your music, your movies, your health records, your education, your banking (and future digital currencies), your shopping lists and your professional business networks in the cloud if any U.S. official – and even worse, by extension, any official anywhere with strong ties to a U.S. official – could use the pretense of national security to hoover, scrape and analyze all your data, for the foreseeable future, run it through an ultra-smart software and create a virtual replica of who you are? The answer is: no b***** way I would go anywhere near that – it would be foolish to strike a Faustian bargain like this (Facebook and Gmail are about as far as I am willing to go, personally). So, will it be back to my own hard-drives and off the global matrix grid, or (much better) maybe this debacle will finally provide a definitive reason why Europe should indeed have a safe and sane place for its own cloud-computing facilities – a great opportunity for Luxembourg, and maybe Switzerland?

3) This could put a serious damper on The Internet of Things and M2M businesses; in fact it could completely ruin any positive development as far as the interconnecting of humans with smart machines, sensors and connected devices such as smart thermostats, traffic monitoring devices, smart logistics and environmental monitoring technologies goes. Who would want to connect even more, wider, deeper, and with smart machines made mostly by American companies, no less, if my human connections are already proving to be utterly exposing me?

4) PRISM apparently leaves all non-U.S. citizens (like me;) without any recourse i.e. without the most basic democratic rights – and this strikes me as not just Orwellian but leaning towards totalitarian. Is this going to become a blueprint for other countries such as Germany, The Netherlands and the UK? If all it takes is some kind of suspicion – in 99% of all cases probably generated by some computer algorithm that is likely to be less accurate than even Klout or Peer Index – to allow the ingestion of my personal data, fusing it with public information via my good many social networks‘ APIs, running it thru some smart software provided by the likes of Booz-Hamilton, and bingo … I am on the No-Fly list… then my only recourse would be to go off the grid. If most of us could so easily become collateral damage in the data war against criminals and terrorists (who probably know better than to use any of these platforms in the same way that we do) than what is the overall sense of it, to begin with? Who are we trying to control here, and why?

5) With PRISM, the U.S. government is creating a deep canyon of political and ethic differences between themselves and Europe (and many other parts of the world). Or maybe it is just that once again, the country that wholeheartedly adopted the rather ghastly and apparently quite ineffective PATRIOT act and then tried to get us to sign-on to SOPA, ACTA and PIPA etc has once again tried to show Europe’s often impressionable political leaders how to push for more-control-at-all-cost…?  In the scariest twist of things, we may now very well see European governments consider PRISM-like initiatives as well (as the German magazine Der Spiegel has reported). Yes, on one handgloba brain futurist gerd, police and other law enforcement agencies in Europe appear to be deeply jealous of this gigantic Orwellian machine that the American colleagues have at their disposal, but on the other hand I would dare say that the European commission would never want to touch this in the near future. Where does this leave the U.S. ? Further isolation. Not good, at all.  The illustration on the right could take on entirely new meaning.

The bottom line is this: I love America for a lot of very good reasons, and I have spend a good part of my life there, but this blatant obsession with snooping and surveillance under the pretense of national security must stop, and soon – or else the rest of the world must re-consider all future involvement with those that sanction and engineer this Orwellian detour. A Benjamin Franklin quote comes to mind (perversely so):  “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”

PS: Apologies that I am a bit late chiming in on this issue considering how important the recent developments on ‘big data’, privacy and the role of government are, but as usual my various speaking engagements have been keeping me rather busy, in addition to the work on my new book, “From Ego to Eco”.

Updated June 28:: someone just reminded me of one of my somewhat timely videos, recorded in April 2012 at SwissNex in San Francisco, with a short and very much related comment on Facebook Data Spills

Here are some related quotes you may enjoy:

UPDATE June 25 10.30 am CET: watch this video interview (embedded below) with Ed Snowden and track his latest movements, via this brilliant Guardian post.  The video reveals a lot about his motivation to come forward, and shines a pretty scary light on what exactly is happening at the NSA and other U.S. security agencies. He calls the U.S. a “surveillance state” approaching “turnkey tyranny”. Really  made me think.

The Huffington Post (Michael Brenner): “President Obama declares that the PRISM program has been “transparent” when in fact its secrecy has driven a sustained campaign to hide it from public view — and even to restrict severely knowledge about it to protective Congressional committee members. He invites an open debate on the “trade-offs” but offers no information as to what procedures are now in place with what justification. It is not the outright lying that is immature as much as is the attitude that not one should care or even notice the blatant contradictions

The Guardian quoting Sir Martin Sorrell “I think Prism and what’s happening in the US will have a very significant impact, I think it is game changing,” he said, speaking to the Guardian at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity on Wednesday. “I think the privacy issue is going to be raised to a new level by this. It will alter people’s views on privacy, even younger people…I think even amongst under 35s, people will become very concerned about privacy. It is going to get aired I think quite extensively publicly, I think it is a matter of great public interest.”

Counterpunch: “In the new American cyberpower, only the revolving doors have changed. The director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, was an adviser to Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state in the Bush administration who lied that Saddam Hussein could attack the US with nuclear weapons. Cohen and Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt – they met in the ruins of Iraq – have co-authored a book, The New Digital Age, endorsed as visionary by the former CIA director Michael Hayden and the war criminals Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair. The authors make no mention of the Prism spying programme, revealed by Snowden, that provides the NSA with access to all of us who use Google…”

Businessweek:  “Google’s reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media, and Google’s users are concerned by the allegations,” the company’s lawyers wrote in the motion. “Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities….A bigger concern for the companies may be how overseas users react to the Prism allegations. “You can see why the rest of the world would have a problem with this,” says Caspar Bowden, an independent privacy advocate and former chief privacy adviser for Microsoft. “Essentially there is one law for Americans and one law for everyone else”

APNews “Prism, as its name suggests, helps narrow and focus the stream. If eavesdroppers spot a suspicious email among the torrent of data pouring into the United States, analysts can use information from Internet companies to pinpoint the user. With Prism, the government gets a user’s entire email inbox. Every email, including contacts with American citizens, becomes government property. Once the NSA has an inbox, it can search its huge archives for information about everyone with whom the target communicated. All those people can be investigated, too. That’s one example of how emails belonging to Americans can become swept up in the hunt“For example, not every company archives instant message conversations, chat room exchanges or videoconferences. But if Prism provided general details, known as metadata, about when a user began chatting, could the government “rewind” its copy of the global Internet stream, find the conversation and replay it in full?”

The Next Web (updated): “It’s the weekend, but I trust you have enough mental clarity to follow something simple: you have no digital privacy, full stop…The question is simple: would you rather have digital, and telephonic privacy, and do you trust the government to be responsible with your data, or would you rather take a larger risk regarding your physical safety. It feels odd to ask that question in light of a rather cut and dry Fourth Amendment. Especially when you consider why the Fourth was written, and enacted to begin with”

Update: Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP Chief and therefore a leading voice in advertising (aka data-mining) has a brilliant comment on this, on this video (great to hear him set things straight, btw), found via the Guardian


Watch this interview with whistleblower Edward Snowden

UPDATE: watch Larry Lessig’s discussion with Bill Moyers – well worth it!

Some related images I gathered from the Net:)


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