Guardian/Washington Post story on government surveillance
of the internet was wrong in one of its central points. Does this
matter? The question seems to me to go to the heart of how news is
First, the mistake:
The Guardian's story - and the first version of The
Washington Post's - claimed that the NSA, the American signals
intelligence agency, had "direct access" to the servers at Google
and other large internet companies. This would imply that they were
tapping into anything they wanted without the detailed knowledge or
consent of the companies involved.
That seems to be clearly
untrue. As further technical details emerged, it seemed that the
PRISM programme involved a deliberate and conscious response by the
companies concerned to explicit requests from the government. In
fact, Google uploaded the data using a system so deliciously
low-tech that I use it for sharing music with distant
On the other hand, the
requests were secret. They may have been widespread. We don't know.
And, while it had been known to experts for at least ten years that
the NSA and similar agencies had access to an enormous amount of
our data, this had not filtered through to the general public.
News often works like
this. Something that anyone who cares about the subject has known
for so long that it is taken entirely for granted is suddenly
pitched into the mind of the general public. In the process, quite
a lot of accuracy will be lost, but this is mostly harmless.
What causes damage is
when a word or a phrase is preserved but ripped from its context:
Dr Williams's infamous quote about sharia's being "inevitable"
comes to mind. Nothing comparable happened with the surveillance
In fact, as foreigners,
we in this country are liable to have practically everything
monitored through a different system, involving equipment stored in
the hubs of the main internet providers in the US. Because of the
way the internet works, it is almost impossible to be sure that
none of your messages is routed through US territory; if they are,
the US government can intercept them.
WHETHER it bothers to do
so is another question. Concurrently with the stuff about
government spying, the Financial Times ran a story, with
an interactive portion, about the commercial market for data.
"Over recent years, the
surveillance of consumers has developed into a multi-billion-dollar
industry conducted by largely unregulated companies that obtain
information by scouring web searches, social networks, purchase
histories and public records, among other sources.
"The resulting dossiers
include thousands of details about individuals, including personal
ailments, credit scores and even due dates for pregnant women.
Companies feed the details into algorithms to determine how to
predict and influence consumer behaviour."
What gives the story its
twist is that this data is now so widely supplied that it is almost
worthless. I filled out the FT's interactive
questionnaire, and discovered that everything that is known about
my life is worth the grand total of $0.53 - if bought in bulk with
a thousand other people's lives.
It would be difficult to
increase my market value without a sex change: one big company,
ALC, "tracks more than 80 per cent of all US births, and competes
fiercely against other data brokers in the baby sector. The company
recently unveiled a new 'Newborn Network' database containing
information about prenatal and postnatal mothers, as well as their
aunts, grandmothers, close friends and neighbours. 'It is a
saturated market,' says Lori Magill-Cook, an executive
vice-president at ALC."
I think I prefer being
THE big religious story
of the week was another example of the way that something that all
the experts know is pushed into the public domain. Pope Francis's
briefing to the Roman Catholic religious of Latin America was
leaked under headlines all mentioning "gay lobby" in the Vatican.
To take the New York Times: "For years, perhaps even
centuries, it has been an open secret in Rome that some prelates in
the Vatican hierarchy are gay. But the whispers were amplified this
week when Pope Francis himself, in a private audience, appears to
have acknowledged what he called a 'gay lobby' operating inside the
Vatican, vying for power and influence."
What was missing here was the question what power and which
influence they had. Everything I know suggests that the networks
involved have no interest in changing doctrine. What they want, in
the words of the German gay theologian David Berger, is "sex and
secrecy, and lots of both".