SXSW 2014 Re-cap: A Conversation with Julian Assange

This is part 5 of my SXSW 2014 re-cap. You can find all other re-caps here.

Issues of privacy in the age of the internet had their own sub-track at SXSW Interactive. There were skype-in calls with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden amongst other panels, and while I was only able to attend the call with Julian Assange, it was very interesting, however.


Assange’s points regarding the current, overall state of the (political) internet:


  • The internet has penetrated every single aspect of our lives – our jobs, our banking, our travel bookings, even medical services take place online. With governments being able to watch everything we do online, it means that we are moving towards a world where no-one can exist outside the nation state.


  • The internet used to be in a politically apathetic state until 2009/2010. Wikileaks revelations, Snowden’s revelations, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Movement really sparked political interest and action online. Especially the revelations about the NSA  revealed that the internet, which we had regarded mostly as a space for fun and enjoyment, had been invaded by powerful political interests.


  • As a result, the Internet has now become a political space in every aspect.


Assange’s explanations of what it is like for him, other Wikileaks members and Edward Snowden to spend their lives on the run:

  • Members of Wikileaks and of the NSA revelations had to flee their home countries and cannot even stay in anglo-american states anymore for fear of arrest and extradition.


  • The great visibility of Wikileaks and of Snowden also provide a sense of security for the persecuted, however.


  • Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London is of course difficult, but still as good as it gets as it is safe and lets Assange continue working.



Julian Assange on Skype at SXSW 2014
Julian Assange on Skype at SXSW 2014


What does the complete surveillance by the NSA and PRISM mean for our lives and our societies?

  • The good thing is that to systemize injustice you must put it down on paper so you can manage it as an apparatus. This also means that it becomes detectable for us.


  • Still, the penetration of the internet by the NSA means the penetration by the NSA of our society (see point above re: internet invading every part of our lives). The internet and our society have merged, meaning that the NSA has access to every aspect of our society.


  • We’re at a point where we are being presented a picture of the world and of the internet that we’re supposed to consider the reality, but behind that picture is a completely different world that both we and people like Assange and Snowden only get glimpses of. Kind of like The Matrix (my own comparison)


  • No-one has been fired or persecuted since the NSA revelations, meaning that the Obama administration is not serious about their NSA concerns. Obama doesn’t have the actual power to disband the NSA nor the CIA – so there is virtually no civilian oversight of these institutions.


  • You will not be able to keep your head down and act innocuous. Totalitarian power is arbitrary and no-one is safe. We all have to fight it, whether we like it or not.


  • You don’t have to be particularly brilliant or special to stand your ground and fight surveillance. Of the Wikileaks Team itself, Assange says: “We test and try. We simply do not accept the appearance of fear.” Which is why they succeed, according to Assange. 



Personal Notes/Comments:

The question if the NSA/PRISM surveillance is justified is a very contested one in many countries, especially the US. The question if people like Assange and Snowden should be persecuted for treason or celebrated as heroes is just as polarizing. The situation overall is a very complex one, and one that we simply haven’t encountered before, so it is difficult to really wrap your head around it (for me at least).


The argument for essentially total governmental surveillance usually names fighting crime – and better yet, fighting terrorism – as justification for its existence. While those are really important missions, of course, it is quite difficult to judge if these missions are actually needed in the first place – simply because there is absolutely no civilian oversight and no public reporting, just like Assange stated. All other crime-fighting units usually publish statistics once a year – how many crimes happened, how many were solved, what types were they, etc. We have nothing of the sort from institutions from the NSA. Instead, we get what  The Guardian‘s John Naughton has so brilliantly described in his commentary on the GCHQ spying revelations: A Kafka-esque game of cat and mouse between institutions like the GCHQ or NSA and the public.


State Although intrusive surveillance does infringe a few liberties, it’s necessary if you are to be protected from terrible things.

Citizen (anxiously) What terrible things?

State Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, but believe us they are truly terrible. And, by the way, surveillance has already prevented some terrible things.

Citizen Such as?

State Sorry, can’t go into details about those either.

Citizen So how do I know that this surveillance racket isn’t just bureaucratic empire building?

State You don’t need to worry about that because it’s all done under legal authority.

Citizen So how does that work?

State Regrettably, we can’t go into details because if we did so then the bad guys might get some ideas.

What it comes down to, in the end, is: “Trust us.” And the trouble with that is that in recent decades our political elites have done precious little to deserve our trust. (Emphasis added)


Naughton’s article sums up nicely what the situation currently boils down to, in my opinion. I’m not naive or stupid (I hope, at least) – I know that there is much more going on behind the political and military scenes than what the public knows, and that’s probably often a good thing to preserve peace and a society’s interests.


Still, in order for democratic states to work, we need transparency. It is not by accident that democratic constitutions first and foremost lay down the law for what the state CANNOT do, thereby protecting the people from the state. Whether it’s protecting freedom of speech and/or opinion, the right to bear arms, unwarranted arrests or seizures, the right to fair trial, the right not to be discriminated against based on race, gender, religion, or the like – it all comes down to restricting the rights of the state, mostly because we’ve seen governments after government violate these rights again and again in history.


Governments are run by people, and while there are many good and nice people in the world, I think we can all agree that not all people can be trusted, and that there can especially be quite a few extremists out there – religious, political, ideological. Fortunately, there are laws to protect us from ill-meaning people in both our general society and the government. But in order to enforce these laws, we have to be able to detect their breaches in the first place. In the game institutions like the NSA are playing, this detection is purposely impeded, however, under the mantel of “national security reasons”.


Maybe institutions like the NSA and PRISM are completely necessary and justified. We can’t say, however, because we don’t know what their statistics are, how much terrorism and crime they have actually stopped and prevented with their surveillance. We don’t know anything about them except for the fact that they are watching us, so we can’t make any informed judgement about them. All we know is that in the past, governments weren’t the most trustworthy institutions.


Finally, I think one of the things that bug me most about these surveillance revelations is that we cannot answer the question why the surveillance is so widespread. In the past, whenever governments were watching their people’s every move and action, it was part of a repressive political system. Being from Germany, I know several people who can tell you about this surveillance first hand – first during the Third Reich, and later during the USSR. In these time periods, the people knew they were being watched,  they knew why they were being watched, and they knew what the state wanted from them: Conforming to the political ideology. Nowadays, literally everyone is being watched – not only the people who might be bad guys – and nobody knows why. What do these states want from us? Are they trying to make sure we make use of our rights for free speech? That we don’t let others stop us from exercising our own religions? Why are they really watching us?


We’re living in the longest period of peace the Western world has experienced. We’re immensely lucky in that, but we also have to be weary to be lulled in a sense of false security. Even if totalitarian surveillance systems like the NSA and GCHQ were set up with the best intentions in mind – I usually like to assume people mean well – they CAN be undermined. They CAN be subverted. They CAN be used for non-democratic purposes – especially when there is no transparency, no real reporting and no actual accountability. Just because we have already seen extreme cases like the Third Reich, the USSR, Francoist Spain, North Korea, etc. it doesn’t mean that they won’t happen all over again. Yes, national security is important. Yes, preserving national interests is important. But all measures taken to ensure the two should be proportionate to their cost. Right now, it just seems like the cost of total surveillance is much greater per individual than its benefits per individual. 


What do you think? Do you think the current level of surveillance is justified? Are we even able to make an informed judgement about the level of surveillance? Wouldn’t we need more transparency to really do that?