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Digital threats
4 min read

Ever more information; less and less freedom

Credits Text: Ola Larsmo Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson July 08 2015

At the end of the 1990s ECHELON popped up as a new acronym on the international debating scene. Journalists, also journalists in New Zeeland, published information concerning the gathering of signals intelligence during the Cold War saying that this had not diminished. Instead it had increased to ever more astronomic proportions and was also now being used to monitor for example the network traffic of European companies. The issue was at first regarded with scepticism almost as if it was one conspiracy theory among others, until no other than James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, confirmed that the system existed and was being used in this way. Technology had made it possible.

At the time the world was in the decade’s calmest period of détente following the fall of the Iron Curtain and before 9/11. Notwithstanding, the digital surveillance systems spread quicker than ever and security services encroached ever more on the integrity of the citizens and on business secrets—simply because it was technically possible.

To reverse technological development is neither possible nor desirable. Nobody is surprised that non-democratic countries such as China and Iran use digital surveillance to keep their citizens in control—this is the very nature of totalitarian thinking. In the meantime though democratic countries’ intelligence services and monitoring activities, with reference to the security of their citizens, are becoming a threat to the freedom of speech. In order to protect you we need to spy on you, map your face, your shopping habits, and your manner of walking—or else you are in danger. This information is then used to curtail the rights of the populace. It is now possible to apprehend anyone anywhere and to move them any place for interrogation—all in the name of freedom. Also, we are prone to disregard the fact that the data information systems have gaps and inconsistencies that can result in very warped outcomes.

In November 2013 the U.S. branch of PEN released the results of some research based on interviews of their own members, which showed that today one out of six authors refrain from writing certain things on digital and social media for fear of being monitored. Today self-censorship is an actuality even in countries that regard themselves as democratic.

Technology cannot be done away with. Knowledge cannot be buried. But an awareness of the need to watch the watchers must be sparked and brought to a level where we can make demands of responsibility on those who are surveying us since they are under the impression that they are merely protecting us.

PEN/Opp was created as a small attempt to counter non-democratic forces’ ever-growing influence on the web. These past years we have tried to be a haven for writers who otherwise may not have been able to get their texts published. Another aim is to contribute to the necessary debate about the consequences of digital monitoring. In this issue we present how new methods of surveillance are being implemented in China while at the same time new ingenious ways of communicating outside of the Party’s influence are being devised in the country. We also present the development in Iran’s e-book sector, where new possibilities are opening up for fresh and critical voices to reach out to their readers. Sarah Clarke from PEN International describes how the question of freedom of speech today is linked to the question of what we are allowed to express on digital media. And we discuss the possibilities of encryption—something that we all need to learn more about.

If we are to defend our democracies and have democracy thrive in our countries it is vital that we become better at monitoring those who are monitoring us.

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