Perhaps the most – if not the only – surprising thing about ‘the spy story of the age’ is that anyone should be at all surprised that the NSA is doing a lot of snooping on the internet. If the documents that Edward Snowden leaked to the Guardian show the worst that the spooks are up to, it’s almost reassuring; there I was thinking that someone had only to say ‘gooseberry bush’ on his mobile phone and within hours he’d be shot dead at Waterloo Station.
There still seems to be a fair amount of confusion (at least, I’m confused) about the extent of the spying that’s been revealed, but it’s somewhere on the spectrum between ranks of NSA operatives poring over every email everyone has ever sent, and their having access to special servers at tech companies which make it easier for the companies to fulfil requests for data from law enforcement agencies. Whichever, it’s a flagrant invasion of individuals’ privacy by the secret state – or it would be, if most of what most people do on the internet were actually done in private. But it isn’t.
Google and Facebook make their billions by selling information about the people they rather quaintly call their ‘users’ (we’re not users: we’re product) to companies that want to sell us stuff. They deny this: Facebook insists that it ‘doesn’t sell your information to advertisers’. This means that it doesn’t say: ‘Hey, Dent1st, this guy here looks as if he might be interested in your cheap dental implants!’ Well of course it doesn’t: advertisers aren’t interested in individuals, though if they were, Facebook would no doubt find a way to be reassuring about it. What they do is make sure ads are seen by the increasingly specific demographics that advertisers want to target. In order to do this, they harvest, organise and store as much personal information as they can about as many people as possible. As do Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft… This means that the information is there for the taking by anyone who cares enough to go in and take it, whether they’re identity thieves in Odessa or the NSA, though it’s a lot easier for the NSA as they can just hook up a few cables and copy the entire internet into their spanking new server farm in Utah.
Snowden has reminded the world that internet privacy is an illusion. Most of the internet is private only in the sense of being privately owned. It’s a privately owned public space, like a shopping mall. And like a shopping mall, it’s bristling with surveillance devices. So if you’d think twice before talking about gooseberry bushes in the mall, you should think twice before talking about them on Skype, too.