The current events in Egypt leave me very uncomfortable. Not the pro-democracy demonstrations — I support that in soul, mind and action — but the fact that the repressive regime is using surveillance technology developed by Western companies, mandated by Western authorities.
I’m a Cold War kid. I remember the 1980s and grew up in a different world from today. Above all, international policy and everyday life alike was colored by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The threat of a nuclear war was present. Present in your daily life, present always. You weren’t entirely sure when you went to sleep if there would still be a world tomorrow. It’s hard to imagine if you haven’t experienced it, but let me illustrate with a song most people have heard, ‘Forever Young’ by Alphaville. A wonderful ballad which would make people dance cheek to cheek and then go home with one another. How many have taken the time to listen to what it’s really about? It’s enough to glance at the first four lines:
Let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a while,
Heaven can wait, we’re only watching the skies,
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst:
Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?
The worldwide governmental assault on civil liberties and privacy right now is motivated by the claim that the world has become a more dangerous place since the 80s. Whoever suggests that is lying through their teeth. The worst thing that can happen today is that some nutjob blows himself to pieces on a bus on the other side of the continent.
Now, while this would obviously be very bad, it doesn’t nearly play in the same league as the entire world ceasing to exist. The scare of this was present everywhere in the 80s, all the time, for some war hawk or some human mistake or misunderstanding to trigger the quite literal end of the world with just a 30-minute warning.
Can you imagine when this race is won?
Turn our golden faces into the sun…
Do you really wanna live forever?
Don’t try to scare me into giving up my rights by yapping “terrorism”. The world hasn’t become more dangerous at all!
The people who were young in the 80s were dancing cheek to cheek to ballads about nuclear war and total annihilation. That’s how present the scare was. It is something of a coincidence that Forever Young was published in 1984 of all years.
For in the middle of this, there was also a strong polarization. I grew up in Sweden, part of the West. And the entire identity of the West was “we are not them”. And “them”, that was the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union, the Red Superpower. “Them” were the ones that spied on their own citizens and denied them basic civil liberties and privacy. The ones who tapped their citizens’ phones, who steamed open their letters.
“We” were the ones who, no matter what, would stand up for people’s rights against their government. Of course, this might have been a delusion, but it was still our identity.
I’m told that the East German government had guest books in every apartment complex. Anybody visiting somebody else had to write it into the guest books, so the government could keep tabs on who had been in touch with whom. It was horrible. The government owned the guest books.
Currently, states in Europe and agencies in the United States are implementing telecommunications data retention, so that governments can keep tabs on who has been in touch with whom, when, for how long, and even from where.
Where is the difference? Where is the difference?
I’m looking at this over and over again, and chills go down my spine as I don’t see any.
This technology is being used against citizens of Egypt today. Egypt is using off-the-shelf equipment built here in the West with built-in surveillance capability. The surveillance used in Egypt has been mandated by Western governments for use against Western citizens.
We were not them. We all knew that. How did we become them? When did we become them?
Have we forgotten how horrified we were?
Have we forgotten that people could choose between the unsafe West Germany with its real terrorists and rampaging unemployment in the 80s, and the safe and watched East Germany where everybody was guaranteed a job and crime was virtually nonexistent, and how people risked their very lives to run west when the chance came? And that, unfortunately, they were too often killed trying? It was something people were even ready to die for, preferring a society with very real terrorists over a society that had eliminated them.
We were defending liberties across the world. We were the shining beacon of people’s right to privacy. We were the opposite of Big Brother. And today, we are seeing surveillance in use in Egypt that our governments have mandated for use against ourselves. What’s used against the people of Egypt can and will be used against us.
When did we become the ones we weren’t?
Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other Friday. He is the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at http://falkvinge.net focuses on information policy.