In an exclusive interview with Byline, Julian Assange spoke about the evolution from the surveillance state to the surveillance society, in which communities are complicit in being observed and reported on, and how it has become so omnipresent and controls citizens through fear of their terror of its vengeful eye.
Seung-yoon Lee, CEO and Co-founder of Byline, conducted the interview with Assange from his place of exile, the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange, of course, cannot leave the embassy under threat of being arrested and extradited to Sweden, where he faces accusations of sexual misconduct, but suspects that Swedish authorities will hand him over to the US, where he is wanted for espionage.
Assange compares our “surveillance society” to communist East Germany, where its people were so afraid of the state’s watchful eye that they would inform on their neighbours:
“We’ve increasingly become accepting of the surveillance that exists at all levels of society.”
“At the level of national security this is still fresh. Other national intelligence agencies engage in bulk Internet monitoring. But over time there will arise an acceptance that this is simply how society is – as has already arisen with other forms of surveillance. At that point, society develops a type of self-censorship, with the knowledge that surveillance exists – a self-censorship that is even expressed when people communicate with each other privately.”
That was the situation in East Germany, not because of mass electronics surveillance, but because up to 10 per cent of people were at some stage of their lives informants for the state. A double language evolved where no one was saying what they really meant. And conformity was produced because of this low-level fear.
He then draws comparison with the Abrahamic God, casting the surveillance state as a malevolent deity that is everywhere, always listening, and constantly judging:
“Now finally Western civilization has produced a god, the god of mass surveillance. How is it like a god? It’s a little bit Abrahamic. If you look at most definitions, a god is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. In particular, god knows when you are doing something that you shouldn’t be doing and whether you are playing according to god’s rules. The conception of national security agencies and mass surveillance is that the overwhelming majority of communications are surveilled upon. Even conversations happening in person may be recorded through an Android phone, or through other electronic gadgets that are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Maybe your friend, although you just talked to them in person, can gossip over electronic media about what you said.”
Is there hope of breaking free of mass surveillance? Assange certainly thinks so, pointing to the democratic movements in South America as the way forward:
“In the past 10 years there has been this Orwellian rise in power of national security agencies like GCHQ and others. But it is precisely this period that has also seen the growing independence and democratization of Latin America – which is a US backyard. At the same time that the landscape gets Orwellian, with total surveillance power, in Latin America you have increasing independence away from the US.”
He also asserts the size and power of the large institutions that conduct mass surveillance can be to their detriment:
“They are so large they can’t react quickly. A concrete example is when we rescued Edward Snowden from Hong Kong. It was the largest intelligence manhunt the world has ever seen. We were going head to head with the National Security Agency. The Department of Justice, the White House, the CIA were all providing support for the NSA. I was in this embassy under intense surveillance myself. Through our knowledge of cryptography we managed to elude that surveillance. It is absurd to think that such a small international publisher – WikiLeaks – specialising in publishing things about war crimes, corruption, and intelligence agencies could go into a very clearly defined head to head contest against organisations with a combined budget of over a hundred billion dollars. But we did. I guess we have some brave and intelligent staff. But I think it is really that we are able to move much faster. We already understood the environment. We understood these organisations and how they behave. We have some ability to communicate in secret.”
The first part of the interview is available now on Byline.
Image courtesy of CoinDesk.