Snowden in Prague

Notes on the Surveillance Culture

The view is from room 300, level 3 of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University. The sunlight has long vanished, leaving the twinkling lights of the old castle quarter, Hradčany, to do their magic outside the windows. The students funnel in. The chalk is waiting to be used. The topic is something that is already wearing thin, not because it lacks weight, but because it has begun to disappear into the ether. What effect did Mr. Edward Snowden have, notably in states with a previous history of massive surveillance?

Any country with a rich history of resisting forgetting would, you would imagine, treasure every chance to fight historical amnesia. But the post-Cold War generation, the Czech youngsters who meander through an education system that resists, as much as it can, the neoliberal punishments being inflicted on other faculties globally, can only do so much. The world they inhabit is one of profuse data, data glut, and surfeit.

“Do you believe that Snowden’s actions have any relevance?” The question risks sinking like a lead balloon, leaving a murmur that vanishes among the solid wooden chairs and aged tables. But a few students, a scruffy, curly haired youngster being one of them, ventures to lift it up, enthusiastic yet pessimistic. “Many people simply do not care.”

Milan Kundera’s scribbles on the nature of totalitarianism come to mind. His efforts always involved a battle against forgetting, against the terrifying revisionism that totalitarianism implies. It is that same mentality that turns traitors into heroes, and the same heroes into traitors if the narrative needs tweaking. Paradise, or at least the efforts to crate it, tends to encourage heavily populated mortuaries and armies of surveillance watchers. “Like the prosperity gospel preached by some evangelical Christians, totalitarianism,” explained Kundera to Philip Roth, “guarantees perfection and happiness in your own backyard.”

Did the Velvet Revolution find itself in the ambush of such surveillance programs as PRISM, Marina, and ICREACH? The gulag might disappear, but it leaves its metaphorical markings. The question is worth asking, because it was in Prague where some of the great arguments on liberty in the face of the totalitarian experiment took place. These culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968, which saw a brutal suppression by Warsaw Pact countries, and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Tomáš Rezek, writing on the Czech response to Snowden in Open Democracy (May 14), saw little evidence that his revelations had taken hold.2 “In the Czech Republic, reactions to Snowden’s revelations were modest.” Disturbingly, there were “practically no official statements from Czech authorities onthis affair.” When it comes to more “traditional” surveillance techniques such as wire tapping, there has even been an increased use, though it should be pointed out that court orders, as a general rule, are required.

Rezek also notes that major Internet Service Providers and Telcos are required to provide the NSA cyber-security division “with technical information about certain data transfers and regarding the overall situation in Czech cyber space.” NSA representatives insist that this cooperation is designed to target breaches of cyber security, rather than a means of monitoring data.

Something of a corrupting rot has set in, muddying the waters of the post-Havel world. Petr Nečas, the former Prime Minister deemed “Mr Clean Hands” for his anti-corruption drive, ran foul of that same corruption, a sex scandal and the misuse of the secret services (The Economist, June 22, 2013), for which he is facing charges. The revolution is turning seedy, and with that, the possible return to bad habits.

The success of any police state is premised on making people forget its existence. Even the more brutal ones – the Stasi-run German Democratic Republic, to take one spectacular example – never harried those who agreed. Complicity would be central, to “live within a lie”, as Václav Havel termed it in his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” He takes good aim at the green grocer who, in parading a sign in front of his shop with the slogan, “Workers of the world unite” is collaborating in the delusion, a forfeiture of reason. What does he really know?

The greatest surveillance simulates the existence of the devil, which, in its ultimate form, is meant to be invisible. The vanishing, and to a degree, the invisibility, is fundamental. You are being watched, but you need not worry. No one, you are reminded, cares. The benign principle is the most dangerous one, acting as its own form of forfeiture.

Another student, squirming on the hard seat, suggests that there was hope to begin with, hope that the Snowden exposures in 2013 would do more than ruffle a few well coloured feathers. “At the start, I wished that the Snowden revelations would do something. Then, I started to loose hope.” Heavy on the negative side, but understandable. “As you said, there are actually measures being taken to erase that legacy.”

A glance at the broader ramifications of Snowden, as the year 2014 ends, is mixed. There have been efforts in the US, the UK and Australia to narrow the definition of journalism and close the avenues of disclosure whistleblowers can have to those outside organisations. Snowden affairs are not to be encouraged. They are, in fact, to be punished.

A greater interest in privacy reform has been shown in other areas of the law. There have been strides made, to take one notable example, on the expanding right to forget. But there is a curious dysfunctionalism between the interest in removing one’s existence on Google via the right to deletion, an entity deemed the archive and inspector, and having little interest whether that same archive is kept by state functionaries. This may be a case of overcompensation – the battle can be won on the Internet, but not with the NSA. Imagine an application filed with your nearest signals operative: Please, do me a favour, and pass me into oblivion in the name of liberty?

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.