One Christian response to the Snowden disclosures

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
- John 3 verses 19-21 (NIV)
This quote from John may be taken as a straightforward condemnation of the “Intelligence Community” of any nation, or as the baseline from which we judge the openness of any government. However, it’s vulnerable to the practicality argument: after all, the Gospel is “...so radical that it's doubtful that [the U.S.] Defense Department would survive its application”, to quote a certain Mr. Obama, specifically in this case talking about the Sermon on the Mount in 2006.

But what else does the Bible have to offer us to guide our thinking on the Snowden disclosures?  Some other people have thought about this, for example Stephen Mattson at “Red Letter Christians” looks at it from the angle of facing up to the truth, while the Christian Post looks at the privacy implications, and Reform magazine has some partly Christian-centred responses to the question of Big Brother in general. For the sake of completeness, and without endorsing these points of view, I’ll note that I also found Christians calling for Snowden to be shot, and for Obama to be impeached for attempting to install himself as a dictator.

I would like to take one aspect of the Snowden disclosures specifically, and that is the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence agencies’ bulk collection of Internet traffic, and their subversion of the fabric of the Internet as a whole by manipulating and undermining the security standards used worldwide to enable trust, privacy, financial transactions, and so on. The “Five Eyes” are traditionally the intelligence agencies of the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who refer to the arrangement simply as FVEY, which is an acronym I’ll be reusing here.

One of the earliest stories about the uses and abuses of technology in the Bible is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 v1-9. As you can read on the right, the story is at root a story of pride and hubris; enabled by a new technology – the fired brick, which decoupled the expansion rates of cities from the limits of local quarry production – man thinks himself equal with God, and suffers for it.

In the mapping of this story onto the actions of the FVEY alliance, the pride and hubris is easy to see: the philosophies of “Collect It All” , “Mastering the Internet” and “NOBUS” (NObody But US should be able to hack into or control systems) are straightforward attempts to gain a ‘God-like perspective’ of what happens on the Internet and elsewhere. To cast a different light on this, this is no different to secretly transforming what was supposed to be an unprecedented enabler of freedom, democracy, trade and dialogue within a ‘Global village’ into a Panopticon, a brightly-lit cage in which we are all trapped and in which nothing that is done can be hidden.  This is in stark contrast to the professed aim of the US Govt. in particular, extolling the Internet for what it could be, when convenient to their foreign policy.

In the Babel story, the hubris of the Babylonians is punished by God by ‘confusing their language’ and preventing their collaboration. The motives of God in doing that aren’t important in this context, and we can never know them fully anyway. But without invoking a divine intervention, or Nemesis, it is for me possible to see how the hubris of the FVEY countries could lead to the end of the fragile unity of the Internet in the form we now know; a splintering into national networks, different or competing numbering and naming schemes, leading to conflicts between IP addresses and domain names.

This may seem like hyperbole, so I will relate to you some of the events surrounding the 2005 World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), a UN-sponsored global summit held in Tunisia by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), at which the EU proposed that control of the Internet be passed from the U.S. Dept. Of Commerce to an international organisation such as the ITU.

What happened: the U.S. refused, and furthermore went back on its previous promise to transfer control of the root zone file, the central registry of the master lists of computer names on the Internet, to an international organisation by Sept. 2006. Other countries, predictably including Russia and Iran, reacted frostily. You might imagine the position of the Americans explained succinctly as follows:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

“a) We built it, so we get to keep charge of it. Trust us, we’re defending freedom and democracy.
  b) Also, have you seen the list of people asking to take control of the Internet? Saudi Arabia, SRSLY?
  c) And anyway, what are you going to do, build your own Internet?”

Post-Snowden, the reasoning behind (a) is now unfortunately suspect, while the list in (b) is growing and has countries like Germany on it, who are considering the feasibility of (c) with increased scrutiny. Indeed, countries such as Brazil have already proposed installing new undersea fibre-optic cables that don’t make landfall in the UK, a major Internet hub for Europe, or traverse UK or US territories en route to other parts of the world, the goal being to lessen the impact of the of the taps on these cables that we now know exist.

Hopefully the story of the Internet Governance episode at WSIS goes to show that the current, more-or-less unified state of the Internet is not something we can take for granted. Certainly the organisations currently tasked with Internet governance and administration do not – as the short and blunt Montevideo statement makes extremely clear.

Why are we here? In the wake of 9/11 the FVEY agencies were told: “make sure this never happens again”. We now know that they responded by accelerating their work to try and gain the capability of monitoring everything, anywhere, on the worlds telecommunications systems. At no point was the question asked of our leaders, let alone the electorate, “should we turn the Internet into a tool for pervasive surveillance?”, and yet this is what has been done. As a result, the risk of ruining the potential of the Internet, by splitting it up, or turning it into a weapon, is higher than ever.

It is crucial to understand that the Internet is nothing more than a set of agreements – contractual, political and cultural – joined together to create a network of networks. Once the agreements break down, so does the Internet.

Now, it might be seen as bitterly ironic, even hypocritical, to try and make a Christian case for unity in the face of disagreement, given how riven with division the global Church is itself. But nevertheless, a global communion and solidarity is a central part of Christian faith, no matter how sorely used.

I believe that similarly, the truly global communication offered by the Internet is far more important than the problems arising from its existence, inasmuch as it can, in turn, enable truly global community. Personally, I’m thankful for being able to hear from members of my family spread all over the world across three continents and spanning the globe, and I hope that we never lose the huge possibility of being brought together on such a scale, difficult to imagine as that may be.