WHO'S WATCHING YOU? Reports say the U.S. National Security Agency had direct access to Internet firm servers to track individual web presence via audio, video, photographs and emails. (AFP photo/STF-/AFP/Getty Images)
If you’ve been keeping abreast of the latest electronic spying scandals, you’ll know that the phone calls of Americans are routinely harvested by shadowy “counterterrorism” authorities, and that the big e-net in the cloud is trawling farther and farther through everyone’s lives by the month, week or day.
Spying on this vast a scale has left many with fingers trembling over their devices –- could that blearily-typed “dude, last night was a killer,” end up in a takedown? Could an innocent “let's blow this town” mean face time with the Faceless Forces?
Such things have happened. So it’s all very creepy. And scary. Or, as Al Gore says, “obscenely outrageous.”
But it’s also disappointing.
For centuries the roughish trade of spying used to be a two-way street, which at least gave the spyee the fun of a frisson of fear. But these massive intersections of cables, signals, switchers, leading to silent rooms of machines that sort and re-route streams of data are simply dismal.
While working on a book on the U.S. nuclear program in the late 1980s, I received my mail in blatantly ripped envelopes. The flat of the photographer I worked with was invaded and her files raided in her absence. A watchful neighbour said it was “a well-dressed guy who drove away in a BMW.” Two strikes against a break-in by someone from our ‘hood in suburban Utah.
In Moscow in the 1990s, spies who never came in from the Cold War habitually listened in on phone conversations of foreign journos, allowing us the amusement of spinning stranger-than-fiction stories and the cachet of saying, “if my voice fades suddenly it’s okay, it’s just my tapper.”
When I refused an “invitation” to turn over a tape to a state prosecutor, I came home to find my music tapes scattered on my apartment floor. And at 1 a.m. in a snowstorm I was trailed through Moscow by an unmarked car: it was the only other car on the road.
Fast forward to Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad in the early 2000s, where spying was a favoured spectator sport.
Every foreigner’s phone was tapped and every hotel room bugged, to the chagrin of a friend who rashly spent the night with a colleague. Next morning an official summoned her to the appropriately-named Information Ministry: “I regret to tell you,” he said with an avuncular smile, “but it’s for your own good. That man is married.”
Sadly, things have moved on since then. The new Big Data dippers aren’t interested in sorting out our love lives or playing head games head-to-head. They can’t, because they’re machines.
“Nobody is listening to your phone calls,” said President Barack Obama, in response to the wave of media protest.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the U.S., South Asia and the Middle East. And she doesn’t care who knows it.