THERE are 4,5 million internet subscribers in Zimbabwe, many of whom, following American citizen Edward Snowden’s revelations about United States surveillance secrets, will be quaking at their consoles and wondering who might be trawling through their metadata (phone and email records). Could the most intimate details of my life or yours be of interest to the US, the United Kingdom, China or Russia?
Probably not, but the fact remains that according to Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) in America has for more than two years (in the interest of national security) been secretly collecting vast amounts of records detailing the e-mail and internet usage of Americans.
The 29-year-old Snowden, a former technical contractor for NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency recently leaked details of top-secret American and British government mass surveillance programmes to the Press.
Arriving in Hong Kong with four laptops loaded with sensitive data in his hand luggage, he met up with two journalists from The Guardian newspaper, and a documentary filmmaker.
Arranging a rendezvous in a hotel, he told his contacts that they would know him by the Rubik Cube he would be carrying. Snowden then revealed information about classified intelligence programmes, including the interception of US and European metadata and the Prism and Tempora Internet surveillance programmes.
Interfacing with technical giants such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, NSA became privy to the personal lives of countless unsuspecting citizens. The technical companies, including the founders of Google, whose motto is “Don’t be evil”, deny giving “backdoor access” to the systems.
You may be addicted to social media, starting your day composing a life-changing tweet for your followers, or posting photos of your holiday in rural Kotwa at the Pumpkin Hotel, on Facebook. Or you may be the type who thinks he plays his cards close to his chest by simply sending and receiving e-mails, reading news and blogs and conducting the occasional Google search.
Even limited use of the internet provides the masters of the internet with personal information, and in the words of Andrew Keen, author of Digital Vertigo the cyber spies “know what we eat, how we sleep, when we are angry and when we are sad.” They also “know out tastes, what we think and where we go.”
It would be surprising if the communications of Zimbabwean Netizens (users of the Internet) were of interest to the masters of the internet in the north, but the notion that your innocent e-mails can be perused by an unknown third party, such as a foreign government, or even by your own government, is unsettling.
Snooping on emails is a form of spying, which is the second-oldest profession in the world.
Obtaining information about your enemies, or even about your friends, provides knowledge which can create power, to be used for good or for bad.
Should we unwittingly share our information with faceless spies?
Born in 1983, Snowden belongs to the millennial generation who are said to have a strong sense of community and to value civic responsibility.
Although he had been “living in paradise” in Hawaii and “earning a tonne of money”, he gave it all up because he couldn’t in good conscience allow the US government to “destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people”.
This could not have been a straightforward decision, as the life of a whistleblower has never been easy, and while some may call him a patriot and a hero, others will brand him a traitor and a villain.
At the time of writing, Snowden is still confined in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, the guest of former Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti spymaster, Vladimir Putin.
Like Tom Hanks who plays a stranded immigrant in the movie, The Terminal, Snowden will be familiar with every inch of his cramped surroundings. He could find safe harbour in Russia, as Vladimir Putin agreed to the US whistleblower’s request for political asylum, providing he stops “bringing harm to our American partners.”
More attractive, however, would be an offer of political asylum in Venezuela, from President Nicolas Maduro.
Thanks to several telecommunications players bringing international bandwidth into Zimbabwe, the country is technically no longer a landlocked country.
TelOne, Liquid Telecom, Dandemutande and Africom have brought international bandwidth via SEACOM and EASSy, two of Africa’s major undersea cables.
PowerTel, a subsidiary of power utility ZESA, gets its bandwidth from the WACS cable along Africa’s west coast.
These developments have helped connect Zimbabwe to the rest of the world. But whether or not the content of our e-mails will be scrutinised by the masters of the internet remains to be seen.
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