Prism Break

Last week, the New York Times published an op-ed by Julian Assange in which the Wikileaks founder harshly attacked Eric Schmidt’s book “The New Digital Age.” Schmidt and his co-author Jared Cohen sketch out a world, Assange writes, in which all Internet communication passes through Google’s servers. A vision he denounces as “clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism.”

Barely a week has passed and Schmidt’s book has all but disappeared from the public eye. Instead, our collective imagination has been captured by the details on the US surveillance program “Prism,” which slowly emerged over the weekend. Almost ironically, Assange’s verdict seems equally appropriate to describe it: Under the premise of the broad powers granted by the Patriot Act, the US government and the NSA seem to have collected troves of data from all across the Internet. Many online services quietly assisted them: Legally obliged to grant access, but without the courage to reveal this fact to the public. It took Edward Snowden, a brave and selfless junior service analyst, to inform on his own government from the confines of a Hong Kong hotel room.

A cloud on US soil

Throughout the history of surveillance, its logic has remained remarkably similar: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. President Obama reiterated this conviction when he said that some privacy was worth sacrificing in exchange for security. I doubt that many Europeans will agree. Broad-reaching surveillance casts innocent users as suspects – a move reminiscent of the many authoritarian governments that are all too fresh in the memory of people on this continent.

Yet, the truly surprising thing about these revelations is not that such a program exists but how many observers had seen it coming. Julian Assange was also ahead of his time when he discussed the possibility of broad-ranging surveillance on his TV-show. The invited guests, a group of hackers and activists, claimed that only all-encompassing encryption could safeguard users from the prying eyes of their governments.

Their ideas derive from the reality of today’s Internet infrastructure. Nowadays, hardly any Internet service functions without centralized data storage. The ubiquitous “cloud” is the glue that holding together all modern services that we take for granted. Think of synchronization, saved settings or cross-plattfom sharing: All features that make these services so convenient (and ultimately successful) rely on large data centers. And almost all of them are operated by large corporations based in the US. Aside from the usual suspects (Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo) much of the piping underlying services, like Instagram, are supplied by Amazon’s popular S3 offering.

We tend to forget that the cloud is not as abstract as the term implies: Rather than floating in the skies, it is a very real collection of hard drives and cables, humming away in some data center. More often than not, these data centers are located on US soil. And because of that, it is only logical that the NSA and other agencies started to gather intelligence by tapping into the cloud.

According to Snowden’s comments in The Guardian, the Obama administration made use of this fact by accessing files stored on US servers. The coming days will show what kind of data was collected – and in how far the surveillance affects users outside of the USA. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has already announced to pose this question to Barack Obama when he visits Berlin in a few days.

I can only hope that European governments will not just voice their indignation but take active steps to follow up these revelations with some real commitment to data privacy. Currently, their track records is far from great – but this could be a chance to distance themselves from a modern form of spying that, as everybody seems to agree, has gone too far.

Meaningful privacy could become a feature

Let us also remember that Prism depends heavily on the American dominance of the Internet service market. On the web, Facebook, Google, Apple and others have enjoyed a worldwide hegemony for years – with only local exceptions in some parts of world (such as Baidu in China or VK in Russia). Since European alternatives to these services are almost nonexistent, the cloud has remained an all-American phenomenon – subject to the laws of one single government.

The scandal we are now witnessing could finally be an opportunity for other parts of the world to challenge the dominance of these American services. Germany, for instance, is notorious for its sense of privacy – but concerns are often pushed aside due to a lack of alternatives to the American offerings. And while it is hard to imagine an Internet without Google or Amazon’s cloud backend today, Prism could be the spark that ignites some true alternatives – with meaningful privacy baked in or across more than one jurisdiction.

This article first appeared on The European Magazine on June 13th, 2013.

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