Why Online Privacy is Dead & Why We Don’t Deserve it Anyway

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Fuck it—Ben Franklin was right. If those who would give up “essential liberty” for “a little temporary safety” deserve neither, then the only possible conclusion is that we are getting precisely what we deserve with widespread government surveillance. And by “we,” I am referring specifically to the peoples of Europe and the United States, for the general public on both sides of the pond have done nothing to challenge state authorities who assert more and more power for their sweeping surveillance practices. It seems like every week I read a new story about government surveillance—like this one from The Guardian three days ago—and every week it becomes increasingly obvious that the right to privacy in the 21st Century is dead.

And let’s not misunderstand the facts: privacy today is dead because we let it die. In fact, I’m starting to think we just don’t care about privacy. How else to explain that nothing has changed to government surveillance practices post-Snowden? (If anything, surveillance has “changed” only in the sense that it has expanded even more). The NSA, GCHQ, and the rest of the Five Eyes are as active as ever. Snowden barely gets mentioned in the news these days—let alone Julian Assange or Wikileaks—and the debate about online privacy has been muzzled. As the Huffington Post summed it up this week: “the kinds of dramatic changes that many advocates hoped for [regarding NSA surveillance] have come nowhere close to fruition” (emphasis mine).

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I’m not surprised, and that trajectory won’t change anytime soon. While the American and European governments embrace ever more aggressive forms of surveillance—including this report, also from The Guardian this week, about Europe’s proposal to require the blanket collection of information on passengers flying in and out of the continent—American and European citizens are too busy entertaining themselves to death to care. We’re too busy watching American Sniper or The Interview, playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, streaming cat videos on YouTube, or doing a million other mindless activities instead of defending the right to privacy.

Meanwhile, organizations like the ACLU, the EFF, or The Intercept tell us they are fighting to rein in surveillance and protect our privacy online—except that, again, nothing ever changes. They release an endless number of reports detailing how governments are catching and cataloging information on the general public, but it’s clear that alone will never bring change. In fact, these organizations seem to have already conceded defeat, as they often say it’s up to us to protect our own privacy online by using encryption, Tor, and things like that. But these folk are living in fantasyland. Your average person doesn’t seem to care about state surveillance at all, and even if they did care, your average person is not tech-savvy enough to be able to use those mechanisms consistently and correctly. (And make no mistake about it: if you don’t use encryption/Tor/etc. consistently and correctly, you may as well not be using it at all—that’s just how that stuff works). In short, we can’t rely on encryption or Tor to solve the surveillance problem because those methods will never be embraced on a large-enough scale to cause a hiccup for the NSA or GCHQ.

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Which bring us back to square one: everyone knows by now that Western governments have embraced surveillance in a big way (to say the least) and everyone knows by now that real reform ain’t coming (at least the way things have been going). And so, again: what else can we conclude except that we don’t deserve liberty or security? It’s often said that you get what you pay for, but it’s also true that you get what you fight for. The public in Europe and America have not fought for substantive surveillance reform in any meaningful way—we seem to have tuned out from that debate a while back—and therefore it is no surprise to read, week after week, about yet another government surveillance program.

But I’ll be honest with you: it’s also fucking depressing. For a brief moment in June 2013—yes, it’s been that long since the PRISM story first hit the presses—I felt the world would wake up to global state surveillance in disgust, and that we would unite to zealously defend our privacy. But we didn’t. We tuned in for a few weeks at most, accompanied the personal drama as Snowden went from a Hong Kong hotel to a Russian airport, and that was it. The show was over. As Snowden disappeared into Russia the movement to defend our privacy seemed to vanish along with him. We tuned-out of the surveillance debate and tuned-in to catch the latest episode of Mad Men.

Problem is, we’ve been sitting on the couch ever since.

—Winston A.

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The Winston’s Diary Guide to Winter Storms 2015

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As I don’t want to leave my New England readers out in the cold, I wanted to write a short article with some suggestions on what to do for those trapped inside by the blizzard. I’m posting this after I noticed both The Guardian and The New York Times published their own lists as to what readers could “Watch, Read, or Listen to” during the storm. But since neither list offered anything truly interesting—and both were heavy on watching things, rather than reading or thinking about them—I wanted to create my own. So without further ado, here’s the Winston’s Diary Guide to Winter Storms 2015:

  • Read—there’s so much I could add here, I’ll have to split this section into two sub-sections: books & online articles.
  • Books—Lucretius’ On the Nature of the Universe was the best book I read last year, and his insights will blow your mind ten times over by the end. Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir is truly excellent, and he avoids romanticism of his subject and instead places Muir firmly within the proper historical context. Brilliant. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian remains one of my favorite books of all time—McCarthy’s prose is not for the faint of heart or impatient, but those who make it the end will be (incredibly) thankful. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is another text buoyed by phenomenal prose, and it’s a tightly-wound tale about a CIA officer in Vietnam. Great stuff. Lastly, Jerry Mander’s The Capitalism Papers offers a simple and lucid critique of capitalism and why it is, in his words, an “obsolete system” (spoiler alert: he’s right). Not the most intellectual or academic critique of all time, but I appreciate the book’s straightforward style.
  • Online Articles: Hard to know where to begin because there’s so much good stuff out there, so I’ll just link a few recent articles I read that I enjoyed. Ted Conover has an excellent piece in this month’s Vanity Fair detailing the horrors of solitary confinement at Gitmo and elsewhere—great piece, and just a searing final line. ProPublica published a good article on the (largely unregulated & dangerous) use of “flash-bang” grenades by American police forces. Mother Jones details what happens when hedge-funds take over the almond business. Rolling Stone profiles “America’s Dirtiest Cops” on the Texan border. Lastly, Politico Magazine has a wonderful piece detailing the (long and lachrymose) history of “America’s most out-control law enforcement agency,” the Customs & Border Patrol. All of the articles above are well worth your time.
  • Watch—Honestly, I don’t like TV—so much mindless drivel, so little time—so I can’t recommend anything there outside of Breaking Bad, which I’m confident most of you have seen by now. Therefore, I’ll skip right to a few movies you should stream on Netflix. The first is Marmato, a wonderful documentary about gold-mining in Colombia and what happens to a small Colombian village when a large multinational arrives to turn a profit (spoiler alert: bad things). Fantastic footage & a moving tale. I’d also recommend the popular Blackfish, which is about killer whales, how smart they are, and how unjust it is for them to end up at SeaWorld. Speaking of injustice, there’s also Surviving Progress to offer up some food for thought: is “progress” killing us? Lastly, take a look at the Netflix-produced documentary Print: The Legend. The film is ostensibly about 3-D printing—not exactly an area I care anything about—but it ends up demonstrating what happens when new ideas meet capitalism.
  • Listen—I stopped listening to the radio a while back, so the things I recommend here might be dated. But who cares, right? Just jam Let’s Get Free all day, sprinkle in some Immortal Technique, and listen to these tracks by British rapper Lowkey (see here and here) and you’ll be good to go with your revolutionary hip-hop for the day.
  • Do—Remember, just because there’s a snowstorm barreling down doesn’t mean your options are limited to reading, watching, and listening to things—you can still go out and do things. Call a friend. Go outside and play in the snow. Walk around your city while it’s near-empty. Make a meal with your loved one. Write in your journal. Play an instrument. There are an infinite number things you can do on a snow day—or any day, really—so don’t let any list limit your imagination. As Calvin & Hobbes once said: “Let’s go exploring!”

—Winston A.

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Some Thoughts on Hiking in Yosemite National Park

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(All photographs taken by me).

Although one could argue we’ve gained many things from the technological advances of recent decades, there can be little doubt that we’ve also lost something vital along the way: our connection to the natural world. Walk the streets of San Francisco—or any American city, for that matter—and notice how glued we’ve become to our devices. Our heads are constantly tilted downwards as if we are conversing with the floor, our fingers are incessantly swiping and tapping on our screens, and our minds are forever focused on the small, LED-lit world in front of us rather than the big, real world around us. In an effort to escape this trend of relentless digitization and robotization, I recently went to Yosemite National Park with some friends to hike all the way from the valley floor to the summit of El Capitan (technical details on hike at bottom). And it turns out that our hike led to both an escape and an entrance, for we had escaped the modern world of man and entered the ancient world of Nature.

One thing made crystal-clear from our hike is that there exists a vast gulf between one world and the other. We spend our whole lives concerned with the affairs of man—elections, institutions, laws, states, governments, media, etc.—forgetting, as Donald Worster once put it in a wonderful biography of John Muir, “[that] while we cannot live without the forces and creatures of the nonhuman world, they can live without us” (emphasis mine). As we’ve transformed into Narcissus writ large—trained to believe that humanity and our artificial constructs are all there is to the world—we’ve lost focus on the natural world. But as Worster said, “There is more to the world than humankind and its artifacts.” Places like Yosemite afford us the opportunity to experience that world: the world as it exists outside and offline, the world that exists independent of us, and the world that existed long before us and that will exist long after us.

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While we describe our artificial structure of governments, capitalism, jobs, and debt as the “real world,” a trip to Yosemite quickly reveals what we’ve been missing in the actual real world. Because in that real world, it doesn’t matter which way the stock markets go. It doesn’t matter who won the election, what the terrorist threat level is, or what the latest app does. It doesn’t even matter how much debt you have or how much work remains on your desk. I can assure you that the bears, birds, and bees of the Sierra Nevada will wake up tomorrow morning—and every day after that—unconcerned with the synthetic artifacts of man. They don’t have Google Maps to help them navigate, Wikipedia to help them understand, or Brita to help them drink. But here’s the rub: they don’t need those things, and neither do you. Without the Internet and our smartphones to distract us, the wilderness opens us up to experience the world as it exists without human interference.

And man, does that world have a lot to teach.

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There are far too many lessons I learned to enumerate them individually here, but suffice it to say that during the several days that I was in Yosemite I did not once think about the small world of man. All that mattered was the here and the now. Gone were concerns about the next monthly bill, the mountain of student debt, or the global recession. My social media accounts might as well have vanished, because the fact is that when somebody Tweets or Likes something online, it doesn’t make a sound in the forest.

But where one door closes, another opens. As my mind was freed from the day-to-day trivialities of the “civilized” world, it was able to reflect upon the natural world with a degree of concentration that is simply impossible in the ADHD-addled technology era. And all of a sudden, all sorts of things become painfully obvious.  While 21st-century Man ponders sustainable development or how to “go green,” Nature reminds us that we invented the trash can and the concept of “waste.” While 21st-century Man leans on technology and tools to solve his problems, Nature forces us to embrace self-reliance. While 21st-century Man expands and intensifies his presence on this planet much like a Stage-V cancer, Nature reminds us that ecosystems are delicate and fragile. And so on, and so on.

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I will probably write more about the outdoors & hiking in future posts—my recent trip to Yosemite was not my first, and certainly won’t be my last—but for now I just wanted to put a few thoughts down on why it’s so important for people to go out in the wilderness. And as I hinted at above, this is particularly important in the 21st-century when fewer and fewer people are venturing out into the wild. We like to believe the Internet and technology will pave the way forward for humanity, but while our eyes are transfixed by moving pixels on a tiny screen, we’ve forgotten where we are standing: right here, on Planet Earth.

—Winston A.

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Technical Specs on hike from Yosemite Valley floor to El Capitan: The best map I’ve found online for Yosemite Valley trails can be found here. As you can see from the map, the shortest way to reach El Capitan from the Valley floor is via the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. To get started, simply drive into the Valley and park near signs that say “Camp 4” (which is located past the stopping-area for Lower Yosemite Falls; also please note that Camp 4 parking is restricted at certain times/days). It’s about 3.2 miles from the Valley floor to the top of Yosemite Falls. Once at the falls, follow the signs to Eagle Peak/El Capitan to finish the additional 5 miles or so that it will take you to reach El Capitan from Yosemite Falls. The trail from Yosemite Falls to El Capitan is relatively straightforward—it’s a long series of mild ups and downs, but by far the most challenging segment of the hike is the initial 3.2 miles from the Valley floor to the top of Yosemite Falls. Lastly, please note that you can access Eagle Peak via a relatively short .3-mile deviation from the trail that takes you to El Capitan. I would strongly advise visiting Eagle Peak, as it commands one of the best views in all of Yosemite Valley.

Brief Follow-up on the Greek Elections & The Politics of GroupThink

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As I wrote about last week, the for-profit media have been reporting on the Greek elections in a way that skewed heavily in favor of Greek creditors and against the Greek people. Now that Syriza has won the election—much to the delight of the Greek people—and their leader Alexis Tsipras is the new Prime Minister, those same for-profit media organizations have only continued their biased reporting. I’m here to tell you enough is enough. Enough with reading biased coverage that only serves to maintain the status-quo and silence dissent. Enough with scaremongering about a so-called “Grexit” from the Euro. Enough with the shackles of debt and the illusion of money. In short, enough with GroupThink.

But GroupThink is exactly what we get when we read the news as reported by large, for-profit organizations. Take The Guardian, which began their article with the lede “Greek radicals sought on Monday to redraw the political map of Europe.” Those “radicals,” The Guardian writes, are “united only by their desire to defy the European financial establishment[.]” Note how, as I wrote last week, the term “radical” is reserved only for those who oppose creditor-imposed austerity measures—the term is never applied to those austerity measures themselves (even though, by any candid assessment, austerity measures in Greece have been both extreme and radical). Second, notice how the article frames the election results as an act of defiance against the European financial establishment instead of framing it as follows: that the European financial establishment has been defying the Greek people.

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That shouldn’t surprise us, of course, because the Greek people are the last thing that Greece’s creditors care about. That’s why, according to The Guardian, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble “said the new [Greek] government would have to abide by the bailout agreements Greece had signed.” In other words: “We, Greece’s creditors, do not give a shit who you, the people, voted for. The previously-executed agreements made between Greece’s creditors and Greece remain binding, even though you have voted for an entirely new government with a clear anti-austerity mandate.” And so Europeans of all stripes should be asking themselves:  at what point do capitalism and democracy collide? The same European countries—England, Germany, France, etc.—that are so obsessed with spreading democracy throughout the world are the same European countries that are now unhappy with a democratic election that did not go their way.

And here again we see the for-profit media skewing their coverage to show themselves aligned with the keepers of capital, not working-class Greeks. Hence Liz Alderman in The New York Times reports that Mr. Tsipras rode “a populist wave to victory”—as if an unpopular candidate should be the one to win competitive elections—and that “[i]n his victory speech, he seemed to invite a showdown.” What Alderman omits is that the true origins of the alleged showdown rest with Greece’s creditors, who have been unwavering in their position demanding austerity measures that have imposed enormous hardship on everyday Greeks.

The upshot to all this, of course, is that we now know to read the mainstream media far more cautiously when analyzing events in Greece. We don’t have to care anymore when The New York Times tells us that “[f]inancial markets on Monday largely took in stride the results of Greek parliamentary elections,” because we don’t care what “financial markets” think—we care what actual people think. We don’t have to worry about “Grexit” scaremongering, because we already know that for working-class Greeks the horror came long ago with the arrival of austerity. They have nothing to fear anymore. As Neil Irwin from The New York Times put it: “Greeks are living through what is, by any measure, a depression.”

One hopes that depression is near its end. Although it is too soon to tell whether Tsipras will be able to follow-through on his campaign promises regarding the end of austerity (we’ve been failed by smooth-talking politicians before), there can be little doubt that the Greek people took a step in the right direction by declaring in no uncertain terms that they stand united against austerity. We should stand united with them, confident that outlets like The NYT and The Guardian will continue to report from the creditors’ perspective, and firm in the conviction that the path forward resides where it always does: with the people.

—Winston A.

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The Greek Elections & Media Bias: Who are the heroes of Greece?

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As you may have heard, Greece will be holding national elections this Sunday, January 25. I’m not here to talk about the election itself, however—I’d rather focus on how the for-profit media has skewed their reporting on the election to imbue everything they write with a clear anti-Syriza bias. And this is an important issue to keep in mind, because as Malcolm X once observed: “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

With that in mind, notice how virtually every mainstream Western media outlet immediately frames Syriza as an extreme—and potentially dangerous—party. The Associated Press refers to Syriza as both “radical left” and “Communist-rooted.” TIME, not to be outdone, calls them a “radical left-wing” party. Reuters, keeping it simple, calls them “leftist.” And then The Economist, ever the bastion of capitalist thinking, calls Syriza a “far-left populist party.”

Oh my god—the horror!

And of course, the corollary to Syriza being an (allegedly) radical, Communist-rooted, populist, left-wing party is that any election that would result in their victory is unacceptable to the global business class. The same Associated Press article linked above makes that clear: Syriza’s rise, they tell us, “has alarmed markets and investors.” Ah yes, because democracy should be about what markets and investors care about—I must have missed that lecture in history class—not what the people want. Further, notice that Western media organizations never portray the creditors’ demands as “radical” or austerity policies as “radical.” That term, which is already loaded with negative bias in the West, becomes reserved exclusively for the politics of anyone who opposes austerity or international creditors.

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But to hell with that corporate nonsense—the people of Greece should spook markets and investors. After all, what have markets and investors done for them? Ever since Greece adopted stringent “austerity measures” as demanded by their voracious creditors, the quality of life for working-class Greeks has plummeted. As recently as December 2014, Reuters pegged the unemployment rate there at about 25.5%—and 75% of them have been unemployed for over a year. This disastrous employment situation doesn’t even take into consideration the slashing of pensions, brutal pay cuts, a raise in the retirement age, and various other draconian measures that an already-suffering population had to undergo in order to satiate Greece’s money-hungry creditors (see here and here for a partial list of Greece’s austerity measures).

In other words, your average working-class Greek does not benefit from the status-quo at all. The only people who benefit from the status quo, in fact, are markets, investors, and creditors—obscenely rich individuals and institutions who stand to lose some money if Greece defaults on its debts. In other words, that’s that real lens through which to view the Greek election: the (overwhelmingly broke and hungry) Greek people vs. (very wealthy) creditors who can’t stand to lose any money.

And again: the for-profit Western media is patently on the side of the creditors, not the people. That’s why the Associated Press engages in scare-mongering, telling readers that “a financial whirlwind may lurk round the corner” if Syriza wins. Stoking the same fears, TIME tells its readers that if Syriza wins and Greece abandons the EU the result “could be calamitous for the stability and long-term prosperity [of the region].” And The Economist headline cuts right to the chase: a potential Syriza victory would bring Europe to its “next crisis.”

We should be dumbfounded by such statements. I’m tempted to ask these so-called objective journalists: “next” crisis? A financial whirlwind “around the corner”? A Syriza victory “could be” calamitous? Who the fuck are they talking to? Working-class Greeks have suffered financial whirlwinds, crises, and calamities continuously ever since austerity measures were first imposed years ago. Their standard-of-living has been in free-fall for years. They are working (if they can find work, that is) harder than before for less money than before. Let’s get it clear in our minds, then: the Greek people have already experienced hardship of immense proportions.

In short, the implicit threats and clear anti-Syriza bias of mainstream media outlets should not blind us to the fact that the Greek people have nothing to fear except fear itself. They can suffer no more than they already have, and their economic outlook can hardly look any worse than it already does. It’s time, in short, for a change. Just like more surveillance won’t stop—and hasn’t stopped—terrorism, more austerity is not going to solve the ongoing crisis for everyday Greeks. What’s needed is change, and right now Syriza seems poised to offer Greeks the type of change they so clearly want and need.

Otherwise, if the people of Greece choose to stay the course with brutal austerity measures that have crippled their way of life, I fear they will end up like the Greek mythological character Sisyphus. Like Sisyphus, who was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill before it inevitably rolled back down for him to repeat the movement ad nauseum, Greeks may find themselves trapped in an endless toil that ultimately yields them nothing. Syriza, however, may offer working-class Greeks an opportunity to smash that oppressive boulder once and for all, and to forge their own future as so many Greek heroes did before them.

—Winston A.

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