Beneath national interests and petty changes of settings, the fight for privacy protections must include a return to sovereign computing

There is much to learn from the journey and the choices a climber makes as he seeks to scale a treacherous peak.

During a climb there are inevitable moments of despondency, as Edmund Hillary would no doubt attest to if he was still alive, after the mountaineer realizes that though he has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, he must turn back as his chosen path will only lead to his death. The would-be-conqueror of mountains is thus forced to retreat and seek a longer and more indirect path; a path that will however let him eventually reach the summit.

It is Lenin (in a piece of writing titled ‘Notes of a Publicist’ that uses this analogy of a climber) who wonderfully encapsulates how the act of retreating is merely another step in the revolutionary process.

The example of a climber’s retreat can be applied in a number of situations – whether it is a general commanding his army or a programmer simply trying to understand why his code reacts in a certain way.

Clearing house

What is inescapable however is understanding that the act of retreat is not just slowing down and taking stock of a particular situation; it is about returning to ground zero and starting up again without retracing previous efforts.

It is in this context that today’s struggle for privacy protections must be seen. It is becoming increasingly clear that a sort of ‘surveillance fatigue’ has set in—while The Guardian’s initial reports kicked off a firestorm of controversy and discussion, the unveiling of the NSA’s great contact list grab has ranked below the U.S Government shutdown, discussions over Iran’s nuclear programme and even stories about invites for Apple’s upcoming iPad event on web aggregators such as Google News.

What is worse is that current privacy discussions are increasingly becoming a platform for countries such as India and Brazil to engage in a spot of America-bashing. Are we to forget that India, Brazil, Russia and China, put together, rank among the worst offenders when it comes to privacy and freedom of speech and expression on the Internet?

Should we put aside the fact that India routinely arrests people over Facebook posts? Or that Brazil is indeed a wire-tapping nation and that it has no privacy laws? Brazil was one of the first countries to turn down whistleblower Edward Snowden’s request for asylum, even going to the extent of saying that his request deserved no response.

Yet it is today that Brazil is being heralded as a defender of privacy. While there is no doubt that Dilma Rousseff deserves to be commended for seeking to break the hegemony of a U.S-centric Internet, it would be wise to remember that whipping up national sentiment only bears superficial commonalities with a movement dedicated to advancing privacy protection. It is here that supporters of privacy must reject the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ motto.

Flip horizontally

It is not a stretch of imagination to assert how incredibly boring privacy is today to the common person. Most people are locked out of understanding the concept in practice. If one does not own the software (nobody does), and does not have control over its behavior (nobody does), and cannot see its data (nobody does), then understanding how a nameless entity can exercise control over the channels can only be done in the extreme abstract.

Even at the so-called consumer end of the privacy battle, privacy means simply turning over whatever rocks Facebook and Google decide to leave out for us to turn over—and this is simply not useful. If a privacy movement must succeed, it needs to actively oppose the ‘Software-as-a Service’ (SaaS) world that is slowly taking over the way we function in today’s digital age.

Returning to the beginning, what is ground-zero for the privacy movement? To where should we descend and plot a different route to the summit?

It starts, as with most other things, with tearing down walls. It starts with figuring out how to get people to orchestrate and control their own host of devices. We need whetted appetites for human control of wider systems—users must learn to harness their own computer systems as opposed to being harnessed to their applications.

Above all, we need whetted appetites for sovereign control over all of one’s devices. While the older generation (people over the age of 50) can carry onto the grave while safely ignoring the idea of sovereign computing, it is the generations that are yet to come, the generation that will grow up with a Google Glass-like contraption glued to their heads, which must engage in direct systems control.

Like a puppet!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Literature Prize winner, wrote in his book ‘Cancer Ward’ of how a man goes through life filling up forms. Each answer to each question on each form becomes a little thread, permanently connecting him to the local centre of a personal records administration.

While it is true that the Internet has relieved of us the problem of filling out forms, it has also given those who may profit from those little threads (whether it is the Government or corporations) a much denser fabric of data to work with.

Even the so-called decentralized nature of the Internet, which was once viewed as a guarantee of personal freedom, is now becoming a structure that allows control to be exercised from anywhere.

It is in this two-faced medium, where the liberating nature of the Internet is shadowed by its potential as a system for monitoring and manipulation, that the modern privacy movement is nestled.

In Solzhenitsyn’s world, citizens were made permanently aware of their invisible threads; thus allowing them to be aware of those who would manipulate them. It is exceedingly difficult, however, in our world, to see the digital threads emanating from us or those who hold them. The ultimate aim of any privacy movement must be for citizens to take control of their own threads and for the collection of information to be made transparent to us.

Until that goal is achieved, with the specter of the NSA looming large, it may be prudent to take some of our thinking offline. In a world twisted and tied with digital connections, disconnection can be a form of freedom.