A madman has been given the keys to the surveillance state
When the USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001, it erased many of the vital checks and balances that stood between the American people and their government. As Bush supporters cheered the unprecedented power that their people in Washington now held, the civil liberties world warned them: "Your president has just fashioned a weapon that will be wielded by all who come after him."
When the Democrats took the White House in 2008, Americans on the right belatedly realized that a new administration that didn't rely on them for power could monitor all their movements, could track all their communications, could subject them to warrantless detention in "border zones" that covered most of the US population, could seize their property without charging them with any crime, and they began to worry in earnest.
When the Obama administration doubled down on the Bush program of mass surveillance, secret laws, and a literal kill list of Americans and foreigners who could be murdered with impunity anywhere in the world, Democratic partisans would not hear a word of criticism. Obama is a consummate politician, America's calm dad figure, a guy with so much equanimity he needs an anger interpreter. He wasn't going to abuse that authority.
The seven years of GW Bush-after-9/11 gave us the foundations for a surveillance state that was one madman away from totalitarianism. Then, eight years of Obama operationalized that surveillance state, gave it the competent administrators and diverse stakeholders -- local police, international partners, military-industrial contractors with fat lobbying budgets -- that it needs to sustain itself indefinitely.
Now, a madman has been given control over a surveillance arsenal that includes the legal authority to spy on all of us, all the time; commercial offerings from telcoms monopolies that turn unpopular government spending into profitable business with cash to spare for lobbying to expand the customer base; and a hoard of deadly technological vulnerabilities in tools we all rely upon that America has weaponized to attack its enemies, even if that means leaving Americans undefended against criminals, nihilist griefers, and foreign state and industrial spies.
The UK is on the verge of passing a surveillance law that puts all the surveillance powers of Bush and Obama in the shade. The cyberweapons that Theresa May wants to unleash on the world will not only track you in realtime with an invasiveness that cannot be overstated, they will also amass huge stockpiles of data from that tracking that will inevitably leak, both publicly -- think of the Sony hack -- and privately, only to be discovered years after the fact, when we discover that petty crooks have exploited our most private moments of grief and loss for their own gain.
The last Canadian government passed a surveillance bill that can only be disguised as Patriot Act fanfic. The current government -- led by a charismatic guy whom many trust to do the right thing -- voted for it, because they didn't want to be seen as "soft on terror" on the eve of the election, though they promised to do something about it later on. So far, they have done precisely nothing, and there is no roadmap for them to do anything at all to beat that sword into a ploughshare. The thing about surveillance powers is that they're enormous fun. Once you make them, they come in so handy that it's hard to throw them into the Crack of Doom.
Germany's Merkel government -- haunted by Merkel's own memories of girlhood in East Germany under the all-pervasive Stasi spies -- was outraged to learn that the US government was tapping Merkel's own telephone. But in the end, Merkel cut a deal with her spies and their American counterparts, and institutionalized the surveillance-industrial complex. Germany now stands on the brink of a far-right, neo-Nazi government, who could sit in the center of the web that Merkel has allowed her spies to weave across every corner of her country.
After the horrific Paris attacks, Francois Hollande reneged on his promise of dismantling French surveillance, instead, he drastically expanded it, creating a pluripotent, immortal weapon for spying on and controlling the French people. Hollande is poised to lose control of the French government to neofascists under Marine Le Pen, hereditary chief of a tribe of vicious authoritarian racists.
Political movements come and go, but institutional authority is forever. Partisans have given their leaders political cover while they quietly built up the conditions for turnkey fascism. Now we are one click away from totalitarianism.
It's not too late.
Dismantling the surveillance state will not be easy, but important things rarely are. Organizations like EFF (USA); Openmedia (Canada); Quadrature du Net (France) and Open Rights Group (ORG) have fought this fight for years, long before most of us realized the danger. Now is their moment: the moment when the danger is apparent but the harm is not irreversible. This is a moment to be seized.
The coming four years will feature fights that are far more urgent than the future of the internet: fights over women's right to choose; over racist police-shootings and mass incarceration; over mass deportations and concentration camps; over gender bias and homophobia; over access to human necessities from food to shelter to health care.
Every single one of those fights will be won or lost using the internet.
We are outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered and outplanned, but we can still win. The internet favors asymmetric warfare, where raw power and money can be countered by novel tactics and nimble opposition.
If we are to win the fights for human rights and human dignity, we must have a free, fair and open internet to fight with. It starts now. It starts with the realization that we cannot afford to build weapons and create powers for "our team" that we wouldn't want the "bad guys" to wield. We have loaded a gun and put it in the hands of a lunatic. Let us pledge to never do this again.
We fight on.
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