Our research work on the history of piracy since the 16th century has revealed an interesting pattern: everytime capitalism expands into new territories, such as the high seas, the airwaves or cyberspace, states rely on monopolistic corporations to achieve sovereign control over those territories. Our recent blog post for Bloomberg summarizes our argument, and so does this short animated documentary that we produced back in 2012. Whether this is all 'good' or 'bad' is up to you to decide (after all, we're social scientists, not clerics).
The PRISM scandal, though, is surprising is at least three respects.
First, it is striking that Snowden is presented as the heroic whistleblower. On several occasions in the past, other whistleblowers had made similar allegations, most notably William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA. Last year, around the time NSA director Alexander was invited at the DefCon hacker conference to scout for talent, Binney already explained that the NSA was "collecting e-mails, Twitter writings, internet searches and other data belonging to Americans and indexing it." Why didn't this create a scandal back then? Quite interestingly, the NSA director had been invited to speak before a room filled with hackers by DefCon founder Jeff Moss, who then held top positions both at ICANN and as a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama. Wasn't there any awareness of PRISM among this crowd at the time? Uh.
Second, why does everybody pretend that they didn't know? For instance, Google claims that they had no knowledge of the NSA's PRISM surveillance program. Yet in 2010, Google asked the NSA to help them secure their networks following intrusions by Chinese hackers, and Google founder Brin was given a classified government clearance. In 2012, they poached DARPA director Regina Dugan, and she joined the search engine giant. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which not only played a key historical role in shaping what is now known as cyberspace, but also runs a variety of cybersurveillance programs via the Information Awareness Office. Some may find it hard to believe that DARPA did not know about PRISM -- or that DARPA's director (now working for Google) did not know about what DARPA knew about PRISM. In fact, questions about the relationships between Google and the NSA emerged as soon as 2011, when advocacy group Consumer Watchdog called on a congressional investigation into Google's relationship with the administration.
Third, in the wake of the so-called PRISM scandal about which everyone pretends to be surprised, there have been several revelations about similar programs in other countries, such as the UK or France. But those programs were already known, and it seems like other governments are strategically communicating in the wake of the PRISM media drama to admit to similar practices, hoping that the US government will be considered the only scapegoat in this story. And the Chinese government, understandbly, sees this whole PRISM thing as a godsend - finally, they can stop being the universal cyber-scapegoat and start trashing the 'free world' countries for the restrictions they impose on online freedom and privacy. And what a perfect timing: Obama and Xi Jinping just met for a summit on cyber-espionage.
China sends human rights activists to Prison? Oh boy, the US sends everyone to Prism.