Jacob Appelbaum on Resisting the Surveillance State
The Chaos Communication Congress (29C3), which organizers describe as “an annual four-day conference on technology, society and utopia,” began on December 27. There have been some exceptional talks given during the event so far. One of the ones worth highlighting is the keynote given by Tor software developer and WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum.
Appelbaum has been someone targeted by the Surveillance State for his association with WikiLeaks. As he describes during his talk, it is “not an easy way to live.” Yet in the first few minutes of his talk, after describing the state-of-the-art data center being built in Bluffdale, Utah, by the National Security Agency (NSA), he says, “Despite the fact that there are these oppressive systems of control and despite the fact that we do now live in a surveillance state,” it may still be possible to “resist the surveillance state and to turn things around if we wish. I think that there may come when that is not true. I don’t believe that time has arrived.”
For attendees (who likely are people who mostly work with technology), he asserts that there are “simple things” one can do to decide if working on something is oppressive or not.
“Ask if you are working on a system that helps to control others or if you’re working on system that helps to enable others to have control over their own lives,” Appelbaum states. For example, “if you are working on deep packet inspection that will be deployed on people who do not have a say in it, you are probably working for the oppressor.” He adds one can make a choice. “It is possible to make a living making free software for freedom instead of closed-source proprietary malware for cops.”
However, the cost of resisting the trend of working for systems of controls (like taking a job with Lockheed Martin) is that you could be on the wrong side of the Surveillance State. He shows a clip of Rep. Hank Johnson asking NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander about whether the NSA intercepts phone calls, emails or other communications of Americans. He claims the NSA does not.
Alexander, who Appelbaum says is probably the “most powerful man in the world,” controls the intelligence structure of the NSA. Appelbaum adds, what he told Johnson was “Americans in America, they’d probably be fine, which really doesn’t make me feel good because there are 7 billion people on this planet and just a few of them are Americans. Why should they be treated specially in this regard? So that giant data center that we see, it’s for all of you.” It also is for Appelbaum because he’s associated with WikiLeaks.
Appelbaum calls Alexander a “fucking liar” and blasts him for not even bothering to pretend that people outside the US have any value or that they have rights and their privacy is important and their human dignity matters.
He later describes the reality of living in a society with secret police and spying changes that make it impossible for citizens to govern themselves and live freely:
…[The Surveillance State does] it in a way that it is not obvious and it is seemingly impossible to resist. Because these things themselves are secret, it becomes extremely difficult for us to even know where to begin resisting. At its core in the United States where this has gone is we have secret laws with secret interpretations and a total lack of accountability. And fundamentally what these things are is that they are oppressive vanguardist approaches that are vanguard approaches to authoritarianism. They are insultingly paternalistic and allegedly above the law…
This hits on an incredibly important point because when citizens do not know how they are being suppressed or intruded upon, it is impossible for others to discern whether people blowing the whistle or claiming to know about the inner workings of government are in fact correct or lunatic conspiracy theorists.
Prior to this point, he places the Surveillance State in the context of other dark developments. Data retention and retroactive policing, he says, “creates suspects out of everyone, already to not be free.”
“When you are followed around, when you are being investigated because of the whim of someone, this is the beginning of the end of your freedom,” he declares. “Data retention is the beginning of the end of many of our freedoms in bulk and that is a very scary thing.”
He also eloquently describes what it means for the Surveillance State to be able to order drone killings of people:
…The targeting information is fed to the CIA and to other groups from surveillance listening points from intelligence factories. So there is a direct relationship between surveillance and support of straight up murder. That is something which sounds scary but what makes it even scarier is that the way that those drone killings are carried out is that the central committee who gets to decide who lives and dies or Obama’s assassination Star Chamber – that central committee which sounds a lot to me like some of the Soviet rhetoric I remember from my childhood – that central committee decides non-democratically who gets to be assassinated. And it’s just a hop or two from surveillance. So, when you assist the surveillance state, you literally are helping to kill fucking children…
There’s a whole list of ways the Surveillance State has an impact. In Uganda, the state wants to impose the death penalty on people who are homosexual. People would be forced to report on homosexuals or go to prison. Also, there’s Chinese oppression of the Tibetan people, the wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan, backdoor searches, “military trials of political prisoners in Egypt, the genocide of Syrian people, the British and Swedish justice regarding Julian Assange, right-wing Nazi sympathizers in Germany that gave murdering Nazis passports and help and are still not held to account, the oppression and crackdown on WikiLeaks-related or so-called WL tainted people, companies that sell equipment to brutal dictatorships and authoritarian regimes for both surveillance or censorship.”
He highlights whistleblowers like William Binney and Thomas Drake, who dissented when they were at the NSA: “When you dissent, you will be crushed; your family life will be ruined. There are huge costs to telling the truth and there are huge costs to asking for a more just system.”
And then Appelbaum proceeds to outline how people confronted with the Surveillance State rationalize it. They’ll say it doesn’t concern them. Only people targeted are targets under “legitimate investigation” (not realizing secret law is directing government employees to violate that person’s rights).
People will minimize the power of the Surveillance State suggesting the government won’t be able to find them in a data set. If it works, they’ll say the “state is benign.” (This view doesn’t hold for long and Appelbaum wonders if people could come to this conclusion sooner without being targeted.)
Then, there’s the physical world. People suggest warrants are required to enter their homes. People crossing the border acknowledge there are certain devices they perhaps should not take and, when people like Appelbaum have an electronic device seized, they say one chose to accept that oppression or to be subdued when they chose to go across the border.
Appelbaum concludes this should not be acceptable. “That’s in fact a coping mechanism and these kinds of coping mechanisms are a response to feeling a lack of agency, a feeling of total helplessness.”
He notes that there are multiple people thinking they have to make certain choices to make sure they can eat or continue to feed their children. “When the state has the power to make you make those kinds of thoughts appear in your head,” he suggests people are less free.
Appelbaum has tried to recognize he is “trying to cope with a situation that is impossible to cope with at times.” Yet, one can choose how this goes.
“We can become increasingly cold and atomized. We can become destroyed. We can undermine our communities. We can work against our own interests in the long run,” Appelbaum declares. “Or we can choose to try to find joy in the life that we have. And we can try to have a better world than the one that we have just come from, that we have experienced.”
It is an excellent talk to watch and the parts of the talk highlighted above do not do justice to the full keynote. So, I strongly encourage you to watch all 59 minutes of it, especially since Congress reauthorized warrantless surveillance powers today.