Have you ever read The File by Timothy Garton Ash? Great book that freaked me out – all about when he was an Oxford grad in the 1970s and went to do a spot of research in Berlin. Ended up being surveilled and catalogued by the Stasi – those secret police dudes of the old East Germany. The Stasi built up a considerable dossier on Garton Ash, which he gained access to after the fall of the East German communist regime. If you haven’t read it, hustle to your book store now. Brought back memories of my time in Russia when my friend and I were certain we were being tailed (just prior to the fall of the USSR).
Anyway, when Garton Ash talks about surveillance, I think he knows a thing or two. And when he refers to Britain as a “snooper state”, I take notice. Now, regular ThinkingShift readers will know that I’ve long thought of the UK, the US and Australia as the triumvirate of stupidity when it comes to mindless surveillance. The Governments (and private companies) of these countries snoop and pry. Seems Garton Ash has had enough.
I’m referring to an article he wrote back in January. I’ve been meaning to share it with you but got caught up in sojourning through Hong Kong and New Zealand. But seems that privacy and surveillance issues are hotting up again, so the time is nigh to hit you with Garton Ash (well, his article not him!). And there’s more to come this week on ThinkingShift. Here’s a snippet of what he says:
“Most of your life is now mapped electronically, minute by minute, centimetre by centimetre, through your mobile phone calls, your emails, your web searches, your credit card purchases, your involuntary appearances on CCTV, and so on. Had the East German secret police had these snooping super-tools, my Stasi file would have measured at least 3,000 pages, not a mere 325.”
Further, he says we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. We now have tracking technology that the Stasi would have salivated over: GPS, mobile phones, Google Maps, Google Street View, loyalty cards, search engine data, CCTV and so on.
People I talk to about all this say yeah, we know but what we need is more security around the personal information and data, that way we can safeguard privacy. Yes, well that all depends on whether we can trust our Governments not to abuse their powers, particularly the heightened post-9/11 powers that have gleefully given themselves. And if you think that Governments are benign, then just remember that we have the leader of the so-called free world (that would be Prez Bush) condoning torture and allowing his top dogs like Dick Cheney and Condaleeza Rice to plot and scheme how to torture terrorist suspects in US custody. Yep, just have a read of this article – should Rice become McCain’s VP candidate, then Bush’s disregard for human rights will probably just live on. Weren’t the Nazis hauled into the Nuremberg war crimes trials for crimes against humanity? I think it was Hannah Arendt who years later wrote about Adolf Eichmann, calling him the banality of evil – I wonder how history will judge Bush and his cronies.
Okay: let me get back in control before this turns into a post on US politics! So…what we see now is Governments snatching away our privacy since 9/11 in the name of counter-terrorism. I’m not saying terrorists don’t exist but I recall that the IRA was attacking the UK as long ago as 1939, with Bloody Sunday in 1972 being a pretty violent campaign. Even Sydney’s Hilton Hotel was nearly blown up in 1978 by home-grown “terrorists”. We’ve always had political and religious zealots hurling bombs or kidnapping people but our response since 9/11 has been to err on the side of surveilling everything and everyone. Garton Ash points out:
“Under this government (UK) – of whom the Stasi would have been proud – the balance between state power and individual liberty has been outrageously skewed”.
Yep, and now we have the Australian Government getting into a lather about emails and contemplating the introduction of new laws that would give companies the power to intercept (ie snoop) on emails and internet communications WITHOUT the employee’s consent. Talk about a threat to civil liberties and the increasing power of BIG business. Guess they’ll be fascinated to learn that I often arrange a lunch with a colleague to go shopping for – not suspect electronic equipment – but….lip gloss.
Mind you, lip gloss is apparently a very suspect item. A favourite one of mine was recently confiscated off me at Hong Kong airport. It wasn’t in a plastic bag. Quell horror! I argued the toss with the airport dude, who waved in my face THE RULES (great use that was – all in Chinese). I hope he’s enjoying wearing the tangerine shade.
I just think we really need not to be like blind sheep going off to the surveillance slaughter house. We need to be vigilant about our civil liberties and asking questions. And we need to redraw the boundaries between what is acceptable surveillance and what is down right intrusion and abuse of a citizen’s civil liberties.