/ 9 March 2014

SXSW: Assange, surveillance, and the world’s wake-up call

Internet activist Jacob Appelbaum
Internet activist Jacob Appelbaum

All is not well in Technology Land. The normally ebullient mood at the annual SXSW Interactive conference is darker this year, weighed down by concerns about the prying eyes of governments. A keynote address by WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange over the weekend captured this growing unease.

Speaking to a packed audience via video conference, Assange contrasted the relative comfort of his confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London with the plight of prisoners around the world. But for nearly two years he has essentially been in prison.

"Outside the embassy at any one point there are at least a dozen police … The UK government has admitted to spending $8-million on surveillance of the embassy alone," Assange said, which he feels illustrates just how much money a government is willing to spend to "keep its prestige" in a situation of "international conflict". Asked about how governments should be reacting to the revelations about abuses by the National Security Agency (NSA) and UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Assange takes a long view on the issue. 

To him this problem has been developing for over 20 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union, and is the natural result of "75% of military spending" residing in "one power block: Nato". In Assange's view, the NSA has grown, unfettered, into a "rogue agency". As the internet has come to include so much of our personal and economic lives, the NSA and GCHQ have been "sucking all this up". Given the constant exponential growth in the power of computing and a relatively stable population, "the ability to surveille everyone on the planet is almost there, and arguably will be there in a few years."

This is "a huge transfer of power from the people who are surveilled to the people who control the surveillance". And this isn't just the product of a single agency in Washington but a "fluid postmodern amalgam of agencies and private contractors, many of whom are transnational". The Edward Snowden case and the raw power brought to bear on efforts to detain the whistleblower represent, for Assange, a kind of global wake-up call for ordinary citizens.

We began to ask: "How is it that the internet, that was looked upon as the greatest tool for human emancipation that has ever been, had been co-opted … for the most aggressive form of state surveillance that had ever been." This foreshadows a kind of "new totalitarian world … not in the sense of Stalin or Pol Pot, but totalitarian in the sense that surveillance is total, no one can exist outside of the state".

In just four years the internet has transformed from a quite "apathetic" space into a political battlefield. Assange praises activists and journalists such as Glenn Greenwald (who is also speaking at SXSW), Laura Poitras, Jacob Appelbaum. All of these people are now living outside of the US and the UK in "effective exile" in countries such as Brazil and Germany. "There's an exodus of national security reporters, national security reporters are a new type of refugee."

Safety from prying eyes
Ironically, the internet allows these people to continue work and do so without fear of arrest or harassment by the governments about which they are reporting. These new nodes of reportage can "bring some restraint to the growing militarism" of the US and UK, he says. Later Assange is even more blunt: "There has been a militarisation of our civilian space – an occupation of our civilian space." You might be tempted to dismiss Assange as a lone kook or a dangerous attention seeker, but earlier in the conference Eric Schmidt, chairperson of Google, was equally blunt about his views on the US's security apparatus.

"In 2010 we were attacked by the Chinese government, in 2013 we were attacked by the US government – that's a fact." Schmidt describes how, when Google discovered that the NSA was tapping the internet and trying to reverse engineer its data, the company simply began encrypting all the points along the network. "Now we're fairly sure that information inside Google is safe from the prying eyes of governments – including the US."

The line-up for the rest of SXSW, normally packed with hyper-optimistic visions of tech utopia, is full of sessions on privacy, surveillance, cyber warfare and defensive encryption strategies. It's clear that America's tech elite are not longer able to rise above the messy sphere politics – and this transition is deeply uncomfortable to them.

But, as is always the case with this bleeding edge of technology genius, they are looking for solutions instead of dwelling on problems. If Assange represents a new class of global whistleblowers, the entrepreneurs and engineers at SXSW represent the engine room of the machine that will resist abuse of government power.

Even amd the current gloom, it's hard not to get caught up in their unfaltering shared mission: "We can make the world a better place."