Watching the Watchers: The Case for the Moral Superiority of Hackers, Leakers and Citizen Watchdogs

By Glenn Ashton · 3 Dec 2013

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Picture: End the Lies
Picture: End the Lies

Edward Snowden, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Julian Assange have all attained legendary status amongst citizens’ rights advocates. They have exposed the extent that modern government has, under the aegis of security and intelligence gathering, encroached into all of our lives. This blanket surveillance of the citizenry, on a previously unimaginable scale, is the current manifestation of Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother.

Yet few have heard of Jeremy Hammond, sentenced to 10 years for hacking into private company Stratfor. His sentence glossed over the fact he was manipulated by US government agents to hack into foreign nations’ databases in order to incriminate him. Spying on others was okay, but not your own. And who remembers Aaron Swartz, the open democracy campaigner who committed suicide after persecution by US police and intelligence agencies on trumped up charges?

These champions remind us of the extent to which the modern democratic state, purported to be an accountable servant of the people, has morphed into a tool to impose the global will of the same military industrial complex of which Eisenhower warned half a century ago. The relationship between the state and the citizenry has been inverted. Citizens are now subject to arbitrary eavesdropping and surveillance without let or hindrance. On the other hand “we, the people” are forbidden to monitor or interrogate the state in order to ensure its intentions remain benevolent.

Our globally omnipresent electronic communications system, including cellular telephone networks and the internet, provide unprecedented tools for surveillance. While the internet can benefit democratic discourse, it simultaneously facilitates eavesdropping. This level of intrusion into our lives raises serious questions about concepts of privacy, along with the erosion of the fundamental human rights of freedom of association, expression and political activity.

Citizen surveillance is accepted practice in oppressive regimes, yet remains fiercely opposed in free countries. Its intrusion into our lives through our internet activity, media consumption and social networking illustrates Orwell’s prescience. What began as a war against terror has morphed into a war against everything, including the rights of the very people it is meant to protect.

The American political commentator H. L. Mencken said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”  What better hobgoblin than omnipresent war against an illusory enemy in our midst? Segue into the war on terror, initiated in the wake of the 9/11 incidents in USA, in concert with “the coalition of the willing.”

The fact that these wars were founded on lies should have sounded the alarm. Instead a gullible populace has permitted itself to be distracted by Mencken’s hobgoblins. Illusory threats to state sovereignty encouraged an atmosphere of “anything goes.”

A largely unexamined result of the erosion of rights across the so-called developed world is that tacit permission was granted to developing nations to entrench the power of their intelligence and security clusters in support of the state, often for nefarious ends. Thus the erosion of public rights has become a global phenomenon. The context of this abuse of surveillance revolves around this delicate balance between protecting people and abuse of power for nefarious ends.

The peacetime role of intelligence agencies within a progressive state is to maintain the safety of its citizens. This includes dealing with criminal networks, arms, drugs and contraband smuggling, along with examining military threats while co-operating with international security networks.

In South Africa the historically politicised intelligence cluster has become politicised anew, eroding its effectiveness. It has morphed from its apartheid roots into a network with strong struggle credentials. It has failed to convincingly transfigure from an inward looking political agency into a broad, externally focussed and effective national intelligence collective.

As a result we have seen the influential Shaik family – with their lengthy associations with ANC (Zuma-led) intelligence structures - linked to controversial post-apartheid re-armament. Police and defence intelligence operatives effectively sought to cover up the ills of Jackie Selebi and Joe Modise. National intelligence was inordinately involved in the ouster of Thabo Mbeki through the associated unravelling of corruption charges against his replacement, incumbent President Zuma, himself a product of the ANC in exile’s security cluster and the erstwhile chief of military intelligence.

Consequently our intelligence agencies have become distracted from their core role. Increased centralised authoritarianism is evinced by the forcing through of the Access to Information Bill in concert with absurd and selective reliance on restrictive apartheid era legislation like the National Key Points Act. This is incontrovertibly linked to leadership which appears to wish to conduct government affairs in a less than transparent manner.

The direct result of this politicisation of the intelligence cluster, both here and in other developing states like Zimbabwe, Angola, Morocco and Egypt, is to shift the focus of intelligence agencies from their primary role toward support of the status quo within the dominant political infrastructure.

This has left criminal networks increased freedom to operate and entrench their activities. In turn this erodes the security of normal citizens as drug running, wildlife smuggling, internet fraud and the infiltration of international and national criminal syndicates continues. Sanctions on criminal activity like RICA and FICA are rendered meaningless as criminals readily bypass the strictures placed on ordinary citizens.

We all lose. Perlemoen has become unavailable to us because of criminal activity. Our borders are porous. Entire neighbourhoods are controlled by drug lords and gangs, many with international links. South Africa is presently estimated to have the third most severe cybercrime in the world, after Russia and China. Sought criminals like Radovan Krejcir run circles around our system as elite police units like the Hawks are apparently corrupted from within.

The same holds true elsewhere in the world. Increased surveillance has made us no safer, in fact risks have increased because of blowback associated with international military adventurism. Instead of protecting us, our intelligence services have been distracted from their primary role of keeping us safe. This is nothing new – the Roman poet Juvenal asked “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” which translated loosely as “who will watch the watchers themselves?”

Throwing an illusory protective security blanket across the world can never work, it just makes us all more vulnerable to the professional criminals who specialise in operating beneath its shadows. They are expert at ingratiating themselves with security and intelligence networks and vice versa. The notorious South African Police drug squad specialised in providing drugs to gang lords in return for information on ANC operatives. Criminal networks and intelligence operatives manifest as an amorphous and omnipresent continuum.

In a world where the military industrial complex and the political corporate nexus are inseparable and indiscernible from its intelligence apparatus, more than ever we need the leakers, the hackers and those who risk all to watch the watchers. The mainstream echo chamber media rails against these iconoclasts, ironically calling them narcissists, not realising that their selfless actions contradict the very definition of narcissism.

If we wish to maintain our freedom and independence we need heroes like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond and Julian Assange to slay Mencken’s hobgoblins.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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3 Dec

This Is Righteous Writing!

"If we wish to maintain our freedom and independence we need heroes like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond and Julian Assange to slay Mencken's hobgoblins."

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