Since Edward Snowden's NSA revelations came to light, the "surveillance state" alarm bells are back in full, ecstatic jubilation. The paranoid ramblings of retreatists, survivalists and Alex Jones fans have finally been vindicated. Which must have prompted a very confusing blend of satisfaction and despair for them. And it's proven that, in the war against terror, privacy means very little.
The capabilities that governments now have for mass surveillance are just as impressive as they are worrying in their scale and sophistication. Throw in near authoritarian governance and an economic catastrophe, and you could suggest that the combined effect really justifies the cliche of an Orwellian dystopia descending on the modern world.
The Greek Statistics Agency recently released figures outlining the scale of wiretapping and surveillance in Greece over the last five years – essentially since the financial crisis of 2008. According to their statistics, wiretaps have increased in Greece by a staggering 1,050 percent over that period. After acquiring the use of the two "super-bugs" in 2008, the Greek secret police and counter-terrorism units have been able to listen in on people's conversations on an unprecedented scale.
Internet service providers aren't forced to conform to security standards either, so email and browsing histories are fair game. And all of these measures are legitimised under the banner of, "national security reasons".
Little imagination is needed to figure out who it is the Greek government want to eavesdrop on; successive governments have been keen to link activists, anarchists and squatters with terrorist groups, bank robberies and damages inflicted on property after demonstrations and riots. And tapping into the private correspondence of the entire country is clearly the best way to do so.
The NSA headquarters. (Photo via)
Things aren't sounding much better in Greece's fellow austerity-hit southern European countries, either, with activists in Italy and Spain reporting similar trends. Speaking to Italian tech journalist Carola Frediani, things sound much the same in Greece's neighbour across the Ionian Sea: "In Italy, from 2006 to 2010, there's been a 22 percent increase in the number of targets wiretapped. In 2010 alone, over 100,000 people were wiretapped, with the total cost reaching €284 million. This is a very sensitive and much-debated topic in Italy; a lot of times, wiretapping has been used to expose political corruption, for instance.
"In these recent weeks, talking about Prism and electronic surveillance, there's also been a debate about a new law, passed last January and signed by the Monti government, that allows the secret services to access the database of TLC companies and other private companies without a warrant for security reasons. In six months, these databases have been accessed 300,000 times by the secret services."
Moving to Spain, SITEL – a wiretapping system used by the National Police, the Guardian Civil and the National Intelligence Centre – was announced in 2001 and, with a budget in the region of €300 million, has since been used in the Spanish government's campaign against Anonymous, among other activist groups.
On the 10th of June, 2011, the chief of BIT (the Technological Investigation Brigade of the National Police) announced that they had dismantled the Spanish branch of the online "hacktivist" organisation. Three men were arrested and identified as responsible for “attacks on the SGAE, Sony, Bankia, BBVA, Enel, the Central Electoral Commission, political parties [that had] voted for [the anti-internet piracy] Sinde Law (PSOE, PP and CiU) and the governments of Egypt, Algeria, India and Iran, among others".
A police photo of "terrorist material" seized from anarchists, the Five of Barcelona.
Using a much more straightforward method, five anarchists were also arrested for "exalting terrorism" last May. The evidence was a number of comments they left on Facebook and their participation in some Facebook groups – so not exactly conclusive. The blog Freedom for the Five of Barcelona, which was set up to campaign for their release, has details on the charges:
"The details of the charges are: the alleged involvement of these five anarchists on Facebook pages (“Bandera Negra” and “Front Solidari de Barcelona”, among others) that the state and regional police forces consider to be “terrorist gangs” – despite not having proved any activity outside social networks – their involvement in demonstrations in which there have been incidents and publishing opinions “that have aimed to spread subversive ideas and to incite and / or commit crimes against state and capitalist interests [Taken from the court order of 17/05/2013].
"Moreover, the prosecution believes that the material seized in their homes reinforces these accusations: flags and shirts with anarchist themes, libertarian philosophy books, gasoline from the garage, screws of various kinds, Valencia firecrackers and rockets, whose sale is illegal."
This may not exactly constitute wiretapping, but the surveillance of social networks – albeit significantly less sophisticated – is equally telling of the way the state uses these tools to spy on activists and dissidents, not just the criminals and terrorists they claim to be targeting.
The blurring of the line between “activist” and “terrorist” is, of course, something plenty of governments have been trying to achieve for decades.
In Greece, squats were linked to terrorism and hooliganism to justify evictions, and anarchists are routinely charged with terrorism offences and jailed under draconian terrorist laws. The case of Kostas Sakkas stands out as an example of the lengths that a government is willing to go to literally exterminate their activist opposition. This combination of mass surveillance and increasingly rigorous anti-terrorism laws has set up a dangerous environment for righteous dissent around the globe.
With Brazil witnessing a surveillance scandal just as the recent riots kicked off, with France labelled "as bad as the US" when it comes to spying on citizens and with the UK, well, in much the same position as France, it's of utmost importance to move on from the idea of, "I've got nothing to hide."
Our governments and their surveillance methods need to become transparent and held to account. Because I doubt you like the idea of an officious bureaucrat listening into your phone conversations from Whitehall, let alone having access to every piece of correspondence you have with everyone in your life.
Follow Yiannis on Twitter: @YiannisBab
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