repeat after me – snowden is not the story

John Naughton has an interesting column in his “networker” series in today’s Observer. In it he laments the fact that the majority of the world’s mainstream media seem more intent on reporting on Snowden the man than on what Snowden has revealed.

He starts:

“Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story. The story is what he has revealed about the hidden wiring of our networked world. This insight seems to have escaped most of the world’s mainstream media, for reasons that escape me but would not have surprised Evelyn Waugh:”

He then goes on:

“In a way, it doesn’t matter why the media lost the scent. What matters is that they did. So as a public service, let us summarise what Snowden has achieved thus far. Without him, we would not know how the National Security Agency (NSA) had been able to access the emails, Facebook accounts and videos of citizens across the world; or how it had secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans; or how, through a secret court, it has been able to bend nine US internet companies to its demands for access to their users’ data.

Similarly, without Snowden, we would not be debating whether the US government should have turned surveillance into a huge, privatised business, offering data-mining contracts to private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton and, in the process, high-level security clearance to thousands of people who shouldn’t have it. Nor would there be — finally — a serious debate between Europe (excluding the UK, which in these matters is just an overseas franchise of the US) and the United States about where the proper balance between freedom and security lies.”

Then comes his complaint:

“These are pretty significant outcomes and they’re just the first-order consequences of Snowden’s activities. As far as most of our mass media are concerned, though, they have gone largely unremarked. Instead, we have been fed a constant stream of journalistic pap — speculation about Snowden’s travel plans, asylum requests, state of mind, physical appearance, etc. The “human interest” angle has trumped the real story, which is what the NSA revelations tell us about how our networked world actually works and the direction in which it is heading.”

Now I like Naughton, and I have a lot of sympathy with his viewpoint. But I confess that I am surprised that he is surprised at the media reaction. He rails:

“The obvious explanations are: incorrigible ignorance; the imperative to personalise stories; or gullibility in swallowing US government spin, which brands Snowden as a spy rather than a whistleblower.”

Well, I’m with him on the ignorance bit. But I would also add that most people, i.e consumers of the media he rails against, couldn’t care less about what Snowden has revealed. After all, I am a privacy advocate and I have a /really/ hard time convincing my friends and family that there is any problem here. They just shrug and say “Why should I care? The NSA isn’t interested in me.” Those same friends and family happily share excruciating details about themselves, their friends and family on facebook and just pull bored faces whenever Mick “goes off on one again”. If the readers don’t care then the media won’t either. Bread and circuses are more interesting – that and Snowden’s pole dancing girlfriend.

In an attempt to show why what Snowden has to say is more important than Snowden the man, Naughton concludes:

“the Snowden revelations also have implications for you and me.

They tell us, for example, that no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their “cloud” services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you’re thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.

And if you think that that sounds like the paranoid fantasising of a newspaper columnist, then consider what Neelie Kroes, Vice-president of the European Commission, had to say on the matter recently. “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on,” she said, “they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out. Why would you pay someone else to hold your commercial or other secrets, if you suspect or know they are being shared against your wishes? Front or back door — it doesn’t matter — any smart person doesn’t want the information shared at all. Customers will act rationally and providers will miss out on a great opportunity.”

Spot on. So when your chief information officer proposes to use the Amazon or Google cloud as a data-store for your company’s confidential documents, tell him where to file the proposal.”

I think that last point is the most important one. Commercial pressure upon US “Cloud Service” providers in terms of loss of business from non US customers is going to focus some minds. And I can’t help thinking that there is a huge opportunity here for domestic service providers throughout Europe and the rest of the world if they can set up competing services which abide by strict data privacy laws. Even if that means new legislation in some jurisdictions.

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