Recently, especially over the last couple of weeks, we have witnessed some issues involving Edward Snowden in the Brazilian non-tech media. Three of them caught my attention during my end-of-the-year readings: an online petition asking for Brazil to offer him asylum, news about a poll in which several people are voting for him to be "Man of The Year" in a fancy magazine, and his open letter to the Brazilian people. I was reflecting on all this “espionage” stuff and where Brazil fits in. I'll start with a brief history (based on a personal point of view and loosely put together as a timeline).
Caption: Image Courtesy of Quevaal at the English language Wikipedia.
1. Some cool online services were created over the last years (social networks, maps, navigation, etc.). The most viable business model for these services so far passes through monitoring users’ habits, making it possible to optimize the advertisement/marketing in a way never seen before. In the good old TV model, companies guaranteed a kind of “window of attention” with their shows and sold this attention window to advertisers. Nowadays these companies also sell context-based marketing along with the attention window.
2 . Some people have begun to question this technology-driven change, but mostly researchers, sociologists and activists; the fuzzy relations between society, science and technologies involved are quite complex - and new, and invisible. It was difficult to predict possible effects and to have assertive messages. A recurring concern for those involved in these discussions was that institutions currently in power (being this power political, economic, military, informational, etc.) would realize that all this tracking apparatus could be used for things like social control, dissidents monitoring, espionage, blackmail, algorithmic creation of suspects, strategic advantages over competitors, and so on...
3 . The information Snowden made public shows that all these concerns make sense: it was not paranoia or science fiction. In fact, an expensive and technically advanced scheme was built and is already being used - for years now - for massive spying of citizens in benefit of a group of countries and some private companies. I would dare to say the reality is way bigger than my own old concerns.
3.1. To be fair, I do not think the inventors of these products and services created technologies such as analytics, tracking, facial recognition (and others) as part of an evil master plan. I would guess they did not realize, when creating each individual service, that they would be used for more than marketing. In some cases it was probably the belief on the myth of “neutral technology” in action: I just create scientific or consumer advances; I’m not responsible for the use someone can make of it; so I don’t have to think of the possible impact on the society. But at some point some institutions were able to co-opt these techniques and used them (in an abusive and unethical way) for the maintenance and strengthening of current power structures.
4 . But we do not want a setback, right? So how to keep the benefit of these technologies without becoming so vulnerable? There is no straight answer yet, but there are initiatives in free software for creating alternatives, and there are also governments legislating in order to adapt the laws to this new era.
Now going back to the purpose of this text. Why Brazil is suddenly involved - and highlighted - on those discussions? First, because traditional justifications for abusive intervention on other countries, as "defending our population from terrorists", do not seem to be consistent with the strategic aim in Brazil. Why the focus on the ‘Ministry of Mines and Energy’ and on Petrobras? Is it a coincidence that some heavy spying occurred just before the public auction of a "pre-salt" field? I kind of see in my mind the repetition of an old story: actions against other countries end up being luckily focused on areas with high energy potential. Moreover, the journalist chosen to be the bearer and messenger of Snowden’s information has a close relationship with Brazil. Finally, the timing is opportune.
We are discussing the “Marco Civil”, which will regulate - among other things - the Brazilian citizen’s rights and obligations related to Internet and privacy. We would no longer have a law that is virtually unaware of information technologies to be the country with one of the most advanced regulations in this area (edit: at least in earlier versions of the “Marco Civil” text, which has been changed lately and I need to study it again sometime).
So what if we offer the asylum? Of course there are complications involved. The first would be in international relations. What would be the US reaction? I think we can expect at least a media reaction (Hollywood industry, video games and newspapers trying to strongly associate the country with the “bad guys”). Then, there are the internal political issues: most Brazilians are used to criticizing any government action, and especially with the elections coming up, an action here can enhance the misinformation on this subject. Some will call any course of action of populism, search for votes and so on. Taking a side now can be politically dangerous for the candidates.
All in all, I particularly think it of the utmost importance that Snowden made us aware of what happened, so I would be glad if our country offers the asylum. But should it happen, it should not be to gain something in return, as some of our mainstream media is making his letter look like (as if it was a kind of blackmail), but because I believe we have enough political strength to raise the flag against the abuse of new technologies in pursuit of criminal or political gain. And, because it is right to offer protection to a person being persecuted for opening our eyes.
Going beyond on the same subject. Regardless of the person Edward Snowden and his revelations - I invite everyone to reflect about the misuse of technology, especially us, technologists, who can make some minor technical decision that can be the key to preventing or enabling the abuse of our users. If nothing is done to change the current scenario the situation is likely to get worse. Increasingly, smartphones are bringing cameras, microphones and tracking devices to our pockets. The Internet is "out" of the browsers and invading our household appliances, televisions and cars. Cameras are already on the smart TVs, pointed to our rooms. In the opposite direction – in terms of controlling the information we receive - more and more, the technologies and algorithms are mediating our access to content. Pre-selecting, suggesting (or even sometimes hiding) our movies, our news and the websites we access. It is not a matter of reversing the technological evolution; it is an invitation for an attempt to make changes that ensure the conscious and transparent use of it.
This article is an adaptation of an article originally published on ComputerWorld.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of ThoughtWorks.