Friday, September 13, 2013

"You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile."

Ever since Edward Snowden blew a whistle on the NSA's surveillance operations there has been a backlash from many people in the online community. Some have called on more openness while others have begun campaigns against the big tech giants and posted alternatives to online services such as this list on Prism Break. The claims about the NSA's snooping have also raised the bar concerning encryption, the use of VPNs and prompted discussions as to whether their use is really effective.

By using encryption one is more likely to attract attention from the authorities, though they may take longer to sift through the data and decrypt it. However, not using techniques to evade scrutiny potentially leaves one open to NSA snooping, especially if the allegations that they have 'back doors' to Google, Facebook, Skype and Microsoft servers are to be believed.

Denials and anger

Of course, all the big Internet giants deny having being directly complicit in handing user data over to the NSA or other governmental organisations. In fact Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google are among several firms who have filed a lawsuit against the US government to allow them to explain what data they have disclosed to the NSA and why. US law forbids anyone saying how much data they have provided after an Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) request by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Furthermore some have expressed anger that the unproven revelations, yet believed by many, have damaged US tech companies' reputations, and in turn could cost them users and ultimately affect their share price. So far, however, there has been no apparent post-PRISM effect [DailyDot]. There has also been concern expressed that the NSA have compromised security throughout the tech industry through trying to protect its ability to eavesdrop [Reuters].

Given the very size of the online community it is hard to see a significant number switching to alternative email services, turning from Skype in favour of other VOIP services or using VPNs for everyday web browsing. Nonetheless there have been some responses from the major tech firms.

Some companies have responded to the fears surrounding online surveillance by rolling out encryption. Google, which already uses https on all its signed in pages, has begun to encrypt user data stored in Google Drive, though cynics dismiss the move saying that either the data would still be open to the likes of the NSA or that encryption could all too easily be broken [Telegraph / Daily Mail / CNET]. Indeed there is only one encryption method considered to be unbreakable an that is the so-called Vernam Cipher or One-Time Pad, though it is considered impractical for everyday use [Pro-Technix].

Any method to avoid surveillance would ultimately be pointless, and as one web user suggested this week as Apple released a new iPhone complete with fingerprint scanner, "You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile" [Guardian]. 

"All your data is belong to us"

There have been particularly strong protests coming from outside the United States, especially given the claims by the US that it does not conduct online surveillance upon its own citizens, thus inferring that foreigners elsewhere in the world were free game.

In Berlin earlier this year demonstrators took to the streets holding placards depicting President Barack Obama sporting a pair of headphones and the slogan "All your data is belong to us" [Yahoo News] a reference to a much used Internet meme "All your base are belong to us" which has its roots in a Japanese video game in which an alien invader declares his takeover of the enemy's territory [Know Your Meme / Wikipedia].


There is an irony in the use of such a phrase given the accusation that Google have been widely criticised for being complicit in handing over user data to the NSA, something that the Internet giant denies except where obliged by court order. A few years ago Google baffled Internet users, bloggers, Twitter users and others by their use of a UFO in their logo.

On Saturday September 5th 2009 Google incorporated a UFO apparently pulling the second O of Google into its tractor beam and created a flurry of Internet discussions, tweets and blogs.

Some suggested it was a hacking attempt by aliens while others suggested Google was itself an alien organisation! However there was also the suggestion that the UFO logo was a veiled comment on Google losing its China head Kai Fu Lee and having its "bases" taken by "Federation Government Forces" or "CATS"; the Chinese word of which is Mao.

Indeed, given the logo was released at the time that Google's Chrome browser was celebrating its tenth birthday, that Google was inferring that all users' data belonged to the Internet giant [tvnewswatch - All your O are belong to us - Sept 2009]

By another eerie coincidence, the mysterious logo was posted on the 43rd anniversary of the first broadcast of Star Trek the original series on NBC which aired on September 8th, 1966. And for those unfamiliar with the phrase "You will be assimilated. Resistance is Futile," it was popularised by Star Trek the Next Generation and the alien race the Borg which assimilated all lifeforms into its collective.


By way of technology we are all perhaps being seduced and assimilated into a vast collective where all voices are known by the 'collective'. Mobile phones are for most people a third arm. In fact nomophobia, the fear of not being in possession of a mobile phone, is said to be on the rise [Daily Mail].

There is a sense of growing anxiety, especially amongst the young, of not having the latest device, something which companies like Apple exploit with their carefully timed releases of upgraded iPhones and tablets.

Fear of social isolation

With the increased use of social networks there is, amongst many, a need to belong. By not being a part of a particular social network, be it Facebook, Google+ or Twitter, people can often feel left out of the group. Being social animals by nature, humans are thus seduced into joining such networks.

Even in countries where these western social networks are blocked, there is still a growing need to be a part of the virtual community. In China, for example, there has been a massive rise in users joining WeChat, a similar service to WhatsApp in the west.

All this data can potentially be collected, stored and scrutinised by the state. In China such surveillance has been going on for years. The revelations concerning PRISM and other surveillance techniques that organisations such as the NSA are conducting suggest that citizens in the 'free' west too are being monitored. In essence, anyone with an online presence cannot help but leave digital footprints which can be followed. To not be a part of the digital soup would obviously thwart such surveillance, however by not having such a presence could in the future create just as much suspicion as trying to hide behind encryption, VPNs and hidden networks.

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

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