Secrecy loves irony: the NSA’s agony aunt and Snowden hits the conferences

Posted on April 20, 2014

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Anybody getting hot under the collar about the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s GCHQ getting all buddy buddy and exchanging everyone’s personal information and undermining the integrity of the internet, it’s time you lightened up. The agency has. I mean who couldn’t crack a smile about the news that the NSA has it’s own Dear Deidre agony aunt in the form of ‘Ask Zelda’, a NSA staffer who answers often humorous enquiries from the spy agency’s employees.

One letter from ‘Silenced in SID’ stood out among the tales of cans of pop stolen from shared fridges and co-workers falling asleep on the job. Headlined ‘Watching Every Word in Snitch City’ it detailed the irony agony-auntof spies objecting to being spied on by their bosses.

He has his designated “snitches” and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the “designees” in a really awkward position; plus, we’re all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented.

Needless to say, this creates a certain amount of tension between team members who normally would get along well, and adds stress in an already stressful atmosphere. There is also an unspoken belief that he will move people to different desks to break up what he perceives as people becoming too “chummy.” (It’s been done under the guise of “creating teams.”)

The rest of the letter and Zelda’s response are at firstlook.org – read it and try not to chuckle at Zelda’s revelation that surveillance undermines trust and relationships.

dear deidreSeriously though, there was good news too because our favourite uber-snoops had been busy developing and distributing malware to infect millions of computers, snooping on children and adults involved in webcam activity (whatever its nature or dubious ‘intelligence’ quality) and building a system to retrospectively listen to one month’s voice calls – from a foreign country of course – effectively swallowing a nation’s telephone network whole for analysis.

ORG takes on the NSA
The Open Rights Group (ORG) is an organisation dedicated to defending net neutrality and openness. and fighting censorship and restrictive law on the internet. In February the ORG organised a day of action against internet surveillance called ‘The Day We Fight Back’. Results of the campaign can be viewed on its specially built website that is part of a rolling Protect_your_bits ORGcampaign against spying on citizens at thedaywefightback.org.

An ORG blog has up to the minute details on discussions of digital rights, government censorship, internet filters and data retention.

ORG also has an indiegogo.com campaign underway to raise money to produce a video that shows the unintended effects of internet filters, such as censoring sex education sites, humorous sites and many more that may include content or search terms that the government has deemed ‘morally dubious’. This closing down of plurality to fit a minority’s narrow vision of what the internet should be is dangerous for society and the ORG opposes it.

Snowden on the small screen
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden, the NSA analyst who started the discussion about what type of surveillance a government should be able to gather on its own and other citizens, has appeared at both TED and the South By SouthWest (SXSW) gatherings. Interestingly, the advertising industry – which incidentally has a lot to lose if data gathering is restricted – has commented on Snowden’s appearance at SXSW in a regular update to members of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

Nigel Gwilliam, a digital consultant, says he found Snowden credible especially after Tim Berners Lee endorsed his efforts alongside a new bill of digital rights to ensure privacy for citizens online. The NSA’s aggressive efforts to inject surveillance systems into internet software and hardware may fatally compromise the entire network, said Snowden, and he called for the tech community to enhance encryption and claw back privacy for the individual and society. What happens next is anybody’s guess but activism appears to be alive and well, even if whistleblower Snowden is living in Moscow. Oh the irony…

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