#10 2013

USA: Larry Siems about NSA and digital surveillance

“We’re told over and over that our government’s exponentially-expanding surveillance powers are protecting us from the shortcomings of others"

What kind of harm really comes from the surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden and other activists? We need to know more, says Larry Siems, writer and director of PEN America's Freedom to Write Program. Even so, the US already has hints of what a “chilling effect” looks like.

Egypt: The fanatic heart

The situation in the divided Egypt is full of uncertainty—also for those living in the midst of the crisis like author Somaya Ramadan: “How do you act on the courage of your own convictions if you do not know what those

Belarus: A renaissance generation on the run

The well-educated are among the first to leave a repressive dictatorship. In countries like Belarus or Eritrea, the escalating oppression cuts holes in the very fabric of society. How are these to be mended? The writer and

Iran: The day we pack our bags

For many years, author Roya Zarrin held a popular yoga class in her hometown in Iran. But since it was also a place where forbidden literature could be discussed fairly openly, it attracted the attention of the authorities

Sierra Leone: Reading yourself—and the other

Freedom of speech is also about being given access to literature itself. “Alphabetization” is not just about cracking the reading code—it also about getting a hand to reach the higher branches in the tree of language and literature. In Sierra Leone

Ola Larsmo: We need to know more about those who know everything about us

Two areas of unrest have dominated the news this past year: the growing humanitarian catastrophe in the wake of the civil war in Syria, and the insight that the ‘war against terrorism’ has given security services in the West carte blanche to monitor just about all digital communication between people—thereby monitoring us all.

We can imagine that we recognize the tragedy in Syria. It resembles similar conflicts in the past few decades where civilians with terrifying regularity have been turned into victims of slaughter. But here we are dealing with one of the world’s harshest dictatorships, one that first mainly met a growing but peaceful resistance, but whose violent retaliation against spreading protests among the citizens has led to an extensive terror against the country’s civilian population. Everyone who has tried to keep abreast with developments in the country is above all filled with feelings of frustration and powerlessness bordering on desperation.

Digital surveillance—which we know in various forms such as Echelon, PRISM, and the Swedish FRA laws—is both familiar to us but also frighteningly new. Either we have been aware of it or not, since the Second World War we have lived in a surveillance society where garnered snippets of information have been political hard currency in the exchange of intelligence and espionage between countries and world power blocs. This is not new. What is partly new is instead the capacity to store digital information and to make digital searches made possible by today’s high-capacity technology.  As Larry Siems says in his article here on this blog, this technology is like a time machine for the ruling powers: if you are caught resisting the regime, you can always be charted retrospectively, and those you have spoken or written to long before you knew that you would be regarded as a threat to those in power may be incriminated alongside you. Everyone is thereby turned into a suspect. So, if everyone is a suspect then is anyone really being threatened or victimised?