Are You Paranoid Yet?

Are You Paranoid Yet?


How are you feeling after Chelsea Manning’s conviction, Edward Snowden’s revelations and exile, David Miranda’s questioning at the UK border, the confiscation of David House’s electronic devices at the US border? (Not heard of that last one? Here’s a link:

With these four stories high up in the news avalanche and many more like them hidden below, are you feeling paranoid yet? Angered? Resigned? Disciplined? Defiant? Chilled? Have you changed your internet usage? Do you travel without electronic devices now? Do you sweep your devices before travelling? Have you stopped storing data in the “cloud”? Have you been searching for newer, stronger, more secure encryption options? Are you more cautious about what you write, post, search etc. on line? Or … not? Do you assume no one is interested in you? Do you feel safe because you’ve done nothing wrong? Do you shrug the whole thing off because you feel powerless to do otherwise? Do you feel triumphant that whatever information NSA, GCHQ and/or other agencies collect about you is only burying them under an ever larger hay stack?

As a researcher in surveillance and privacy issues (an area now well represented at STS conferences due to the social roles technologies play in surveillance) I wish I could imbed those questions into this editorial as an interactive survey. But of course, even if I knew how to do so technically, the answers would be skewed by the respondents’ various coping techniques. For instance, any who have taken themselves “off the grid”, would by the same token … not respond. Still, if you feel so inclined, do by all means make use of the comments option we now have at EASST Review. I would love for us to have an EASST conversation on this topic. […]

Meanwhile, to open up one side of that conversation, here are some of my feelings on and approaches to the news that all our internet communications are being spied on, not only by commercial interests, but also by our own and/or others’ governments:

The response we surveillance researchers most often hear when we do survey the public on these issues is some variation on “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”. In my opinion, that’s wrong. Firstly, everybody has something to hide. Of course, most of us are not child porn mongers or Mafiosi or terrorists, but we still have secrets. Everybody has secrets. Your secrets may not even reach the level of embarrassing, but you still want them kept secret.

Secondly, once those secrets are out, there’s no calling them back and no knowing who will get hold of them. […]

Thirdly, you have no control over how your information is interpreted once it’s out there, beyond the reach of your own conversation. Just consider the case of Justin, a Texas teenager now out on bail after 5 months in prison but still facing terrorism charges for what was probably just an ill-considered joke. Apparently the police don’t know, or don’t care, that “J/K” in on-line teen-speak means “just kidding”. (

So, knowing that I do indeed have something to hide and something to fear, how do I deal with that paranoia in my daily on-line existence? I don’t. The internet is too darned convenient; my life has become intertwined with it – I’m dependent on it, or perhaps addicted to it. The surveillance there is too darned pervasive; I despair of any possibility of avoiding it. The technologies for such avoidance are too geeky; I’m not an engineer, not even a hobbyist “hacker”. I can’t see myself spending the time to learn to control my information on-line. The whole caveat emptor existence of late modern risk societies – the situation where we must take responsibility for constantly analysing each option and individually taking the safest steps or suffer the consequences – is insurmountable. So I take the attitude my parents taught me during the McCarthy era of my California childhood:

I assume that the forces of repression know everything about me that they want to know and much that has been invented by or for them to boot. And whatever they may think they know, I am unashamed of it. I am proud of the positions I take, even of those I at some point reconsider. If I am persecuted for them, so be it. Should that happen, I will not be silenced (and here we are at an aspect of the internet much lauded by the techno-enthusiastic wings of STS – its unstoppability, its potential for democratizing discourse), I will not be moved, I will be proud to have wasted my persecutors’ time.

So I am not concerned for my own part. I am, however angered on behalf of democracy. For while in my opinion the “bigger haystack”-approach to surveillance is not an effective way to prevent terrorism, it is an effective way to track down whistle-blowers. Once a leak reaches the press, it is a small matter for those with access to the hay stack to work their way back through the communications records of the journalist to his or her interlocutors with access to the information in question. That means that the bigger haystack approach is a threat to investigative journalism, which in turn means that it is a threat to democracy. And in that regard, there are some things even I as a relatively helpless ordinary citizen can do. I can contribute to whistle-blowers’ defence funds. I can sign petitions on their behalf. I can write. And I can encourage those of you who agree with me to do the same.

Editorially yours, Ann R. Sætnan

1 Thanks to Kirsty Ball of Open University for this 3-point corrective to the «nothing to hide, nothing to fear» response. Kirsty, if you’re reading this – you need to publish the list yourself so I can reference it!