Yesterday was “Reset the Net Day“: a day for netizens to band together to stand up to the evils of big brother surveillance.
The virtual direct action campaign was organized by Fight for the Future, a group that organized the online anti-SOPA initiative back in 2012. According to organizers, the event had the support of the “Internet’s largest sites” — including WordPress, Twitter, Tumblr, Dropbox, Mozilla, Google, CloudFlare. A bunch of Silicon Valley groups backed the action too, as did several libertarian outfits. Progressive-leaning outfits like Greenpeace, Code Pink and ACLU joined up as well. Even Edward Snowden lent his support: “Join us on June 5th, and don’t ask for your privacy,” he said. “Take it back.”
Said Fight for the Future:
“Today as part of Reset the Net, tens of thousands of Internet users and the Internet’s largest companies rallied to protect billions… Reset the Net demands that web services take concrete steps to protect their users from government snooping, while encouraging everyday Internet users to adopt free and open source privacy tools…”
Reset the Net day promised to be the start a giant movement and was breathlessly covered by the news media. There’s just one catch: the whole things seems to have been a giant dud. And that’s a good thing.
See, despite all its highfalutin’ rhetoric, Reset the Net is deeply flawed. The reason: the campaign is not against online surveillance, just government surveillance. It has nothing to say or critique about the massive for-profit dragnet operations run by telecoms and Silicon Valley megacorps that target every woman, man and child in the United States and beyond.
Reset the Net doesn’t mention private sector surveillance at all, acting instead as if it simply does not exist. You won’t find a word about corporate surveillance on Reset the Net’s website. Nor is it mentioned in an animated cartoon pasted on the group’s homepage that explains what the the organization is trying to achieve. To Reset the Net, government is the ultimate big brother enemy — an enemy that can only be stopped with the help of private Internet companies like Google. And how can these companies — which themselves stay in business by spying on us on line — help to defeat surveillance? By offering encryption apps — even if the encryption is only between our computers and smartphones, and their football field-sized server farms.
To Reset the Net, Silicon Valley is our friend. Every other tech industry — including telecoms — are to be mistrusted. In its pack of privacy tools, Reset the Net warned: “Don’t trust carriers. Buy your Android phone directly from Google…”
Silicon Valley runs on surveillance — runs on it so much that were here at Pando have taken to lovingly call it “Surveillance Valley.” A movement against online surveillance that relies on Internet megacorps makes absolutely no sense. It’s like siding with Blackwater against the US Army. No troops in Iraq! Just private contractors and mercenaries!
Take Google, Reset the Net’s biggest and most powerful backer.
Google runs the largest private surveillance operation in the history of mankind. The company has a de facto monopoly on much of the digital ecosystem: search, email, browsers, digital advertising, smartphones, tablets. And it’s not there just to serve as cool apps. Google is a global for-profit surveillance behemoth. It makes billions in profits a year. Its mission is to funnel as much of our daily life in the real and online world through its servers as possible. The purpose: to track, analyze and profile us as deeply as possible — who we are, what we do, where we go, who we talk to, what we think about — and then constantly figure out ways to monetize that intelligence.
What kind of info does Google collect? The company is very secretive about that. But here are a few data points that could go into its user profiles, gleaned from two patents Google filed a decade ago, prior to launching its Gmail service:
- Concepts and topics discussed in email, as well as email attachments
- The content of websites that users have visited
- Demographic information — including income, sex, race, marital status
- Geographic information
- Psychographic information — personality type, values, attitudes, interests
- Previous searches users have made
- Information about documents users viewed and edited
- Browsing activity
- Previous purchases
Google might be making money off advertising now, but the big question is: How will it use all this data in the future? Five years from now? Ten years from now? Data has a way of never fully disappearing or dying. Will it be passed around, re-analyzed, bought and sold for ever and ever? And what guarantee do we have that this info won’t end up down the line in the hands of the US government… or in the hands of repressive totalitarian regimes?
And if that wasn’t enough surveillance for you, then there’s the uncomfortable ties between Google and the US military-surveillance complex — a collaboration that’s been going on for so long that it’s sometimes hard to discern where Google ends and the NatSec apparatus begins.
Over the years, Google’s worked to enhance the surveillance capabilities of the biggest intel agencies in the world: the NSA, FBI, CIA, DEA, NGA and just about every wing of the DoD. Google’s DC office is staffed by former spooks, high-level intelligence officials and revolving door military contractors: US Army, Air Force Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Director of National Intelligence, USAID, SAIC, Lockheed…
Reset the Net is silent on all of this. It criticizes the NSA and other government spook agencies, but doesn’t have anything to say about our hyper-connected culture and the creepy for-profit surveillance business model that underpins it. Reset the Net doesn’t seem to mind that we’re constantly spied on — it just doesn’t want the government to exploit and piggyback on the commercial surveillance capabilities built into our computers and handsets.
Put another way: Reset the Net is outraged by our government’s capability to wantonly vacuum up our personal info, and yet it unconditionally trusts powerful Surveillance Valley megacorps when they do the same thing on an even greater scale as a normal part of doing business.
Want to know more? Read Pando’s coverage of Surveillance Valley…