Life post-PRISM: Politics and Power Struggles

Following the disclosures about details on how the United States and other countries are monitoring the world there has been a global discussion about this subject that’s been long overdue. In previous articles I tried to put together what actually has been proven thus far, what that means for society, and what are the implications for businesses around the world.

Now I’d like to take a look at governments. Firstly, of course governments have a functional aspect not entirely unlike business, and of course governments should be conscious about the society and values they promote. Purely on these grounds it would likely be possible to say quite a few things about the post PRISM society.

Secondly, there is of course also the question to which extent governments have known about this previously and may even have colluded with what has been going on – in some cases possibly without democratic support for doing so. It has been pointed by quite a few journalists that “I had no idea” amounts to saying you have not been following technical progress since the typewriter was invented, and there is some truth to that. Although typewriters have also known to be bugged, of course.

In fact when spending so much time at the United Nations, one of the typical sights would be a diplomat talking on their mobile phone while covering their mouth with one hand in order to ward off the possibility of lip readers. So there is clearly an understanding that trying to know more about anyone you may have common or opposing interests with will give you an advantage, and that everyone is trying to gain that advantage to the best of their ability.

What I think is really at play here are two different things: Having been blind-sided by the actual threat, and having been found naïve.

Defending against bunnies, turning your back on lions

Smart politicians will now have understood their threat model has been totally off. It’s much easier to intercept that mobile phone call (and get both sides of the conversation) than it is to learn to lip read, guarantee to speak the same language and try and make sure you have line of sight. In other words: They were spending lots of effort protecting the wrong things while ignoring the right things. So there is no way for them to know how vulnerable they have been, what damage arose from that, and what will follow from that for their future work.

So intelligent people should now be very worried, indeed. Because either they did not know better, or perhaps even let a sense of herd safety drag them along into behaviour that has compromised their professional integrity in so far as it may have exposed their internal thoughts to people they did not want to share them with. If you’ve ever seen how international treaties are being negotiated it does not take a whole lot of fantasy to imagine how this might be a problem. Given the levels of secrecy and apparent lack of supervision if highest level politicians truly had no idea, there is also a major concern about possible abuse of the system to influence the political balance within a country by those in government.

Politicians are also romantic

The other part of the surprise seems to stem from a certain romantic notion of friendship among nations harboured by many politicians and deliberately nurtured by nations that do not share such romantic perspectives, most importantly in this context the United States.

The allies of the United States, in particular also the European Union know that the US has these capabilities and is not afraid to use them to gain an advantage for the home team. But for some reason they thought they were part of that home team because the United States have been telling them they’re best friends forever. It does not lack a certain irony that Germany fell for this, not realizing that the United States are following their default approach abroad, which is commonly referred to as Realpolitik in the US.

So when European politicians suddenly realize that it may be problematic to negotiate free trade agreements with someone who is reading your internal briefings and mails and is listening to your phone calls, it is not so much out of a shock that the US is doing this in general. They know the US is not shy to use force at any level to obtain results. It’s about the fact they’re using these methods universally, no matter who you are. That they were willing to do so against Switzerland, a country in the heart of Europe, should have demonstrated that aptly. Only that in this particular case, EU politicians were hoping to ride on the coat-tails of the US cavalry.

International Organizations

Of course that surprise also betrays the level of collaboration that has been present for a long time. The reason they thought they were part of the home team is that in some cases, they were. So when they were the benefactors of this system as they worked side by side with the United States at the Intergovernmental Organizations to put in place the global power structures that rule the world, this sort of advantage might have seemed very handy and very welcome. Not too many questions were asked, I presume.

But if you’re one of the countries in transition, a country from the developing world, or simply a country that got on the wrong sides of the United States and their power block, you now have to wonder: How much worse are you off for having been pushed back in negotiation much further than if the “Northern” power block had not known all your internal assessments, plans and contingencies? And how can Intergovernmental Organizations truly function if all your communications with these organizations are unilaterally transparent to this power block?

It’s time to understand that imbalance, and address it. I know that several countries are aware of this, of course, and some of them are actively seeking ways to address that strategic disadvantage, since parts of our company group have been involved in that. But too many countries do not yet seem to have the appropriate measures in place, nor are they addressing it with sufficient resource and urgency, perhaps out of a underestimation of the analytic capabilities.

The PRISM leaks should have been the wakeup call for these countries. But I’d also expect them to raise their concerns at the Intergovernmental Organizations, asking the secretariats how the IT and communications strategy of these organizations adequately protects the mandate of the organizations, for they can only function if a certain minimum level of confidence can be placed into them and the integrity of their work flow.

Global Powerstructures

But on a more abstract level, all of this once more establishes a trend of the United States as a nexus of global destabilisation subject only to national interest. Because it is for the US government to decide which countries to bless with access to that information, and whose information to access. Cooperate and be rewarded. Be defiant and be punished. For example by ensuring your national business champion does not get that deal since we might just employ our information to ensure our competing US business will. This establishes a gravitation towards pleasing the interests of the United States that I find problematic. As I would find a similar imbalance towards any other nation.

But in this case it is the United States that has moved to “economic policy by spook” as a good friend recently called it. Although of course there may be other countries doing the same, as right now it seems more or less confirmed this is at least in part collusion at NATO level. Be that as it may, countries need to understand that their sovereignty and economic well-being is highly dependent upon the ability to protect your own information and that of your economy.

Which is why Brazil and India probably feel confirmed in their focus on strategic independence. With the high dependency of virtually any economic sector, Information Technology has become as fundamental as electricity, roads or water. Perhaps it is time to re-assess to which level governments want to ensure an independent, stable supply that holds up to the demands of their nation.

Estonias president recently suggested to establish European cloud providers, other areas of the world may want to pay close attention to this.

The Opportunity Exists, Does The Will?

Let’s say a nation wanted to address these issues. Imagine they had to engineer the entire stack of software. The prospects would be daunting.

Fortunately they don’t have to. Nothing runs your data centres and infrastructures better, and with higher security than Free Software does. Our community has been building these tools for a long time now, and they have the potential to serve as the big equalizer in the global IT power struggle. The UNCTAD Information Economy Reports provide some excellent fact based, neutral analysis of the impact of software freedom on economies around the world.

Countries stand to gain or lose a lot in this central question. Open Source may have been the answer all along, but PRISM highlighted the need is both real and urgent.

Any government should be able to answer the following question: What is your policy on a sovereign software supply and digital infrastructure?

If that question cannot be answered, it’s time to get to work. And soon.

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About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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