“Orwell could never have imagined anything as complete as this, this concept of scooping up everything all the time. This is something potentially astonishing about how life could be lived and the limitations on human freedom.”
by Dominic Rushe
Speaking in the wake of a series of revelations in the Guardian about the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations, Rusbridger said: “Orwell could never have imagined anything as complete as this, this concept of scooping up everything all the time.
“This is something potentially astonishing about how life could be lived and the limitations on human freedom,” he said.
Rusbridger said the NSA stories were “clearly” not a story about totalitarianism, but that an infrastructure had been created that could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.
“Obama is a nice guy. David Cameron is a nice social Democrat. About three hours from London in Greece there are some very nasty political parties. What there is is the infrastructure for total surveillance. In history, all the precedents are unhappy,” said Rusbridger, speaking at the Advertising Week conference.
He said that whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked the documents, had been saying: “Look, wake up. You are building something that is potentially quite alarming.”
Rusbridger said that people bring their own perspectives to the NSA revelations. People who have read Kafka or Orwell found the level of surveillance scary, he said, and that those who had lived or worked in the communist eastern bloc were also concerned.
“If you are Mark Zuckerberg and you are trying to build an international business, this is dismaying to you,” Rusbridger said.
Zuckerberg recently criticised the Obama administration’s surveillance apparatus. “Frankly I think the government blew it,” he told TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.
The Facebook founder was particularly damning of government claims that they were only spying on “foreigners”.
“Oh, wonderful: that’s really helpful to companies trying to serve people around the world, and that’s really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies,” said Zuckerberg.
“All sorts of people around the world are questioning what America is doing,” said Rusbridger. “The president keeps saying: well we don’t spy on our people. [But] that’s not much comfort if you are German.”
Rusbridger said the world of spying had changed incomparably in the last 15 years. “The ability of these big agencies, on an international basis, to keep entire populations under some form of surveillance, and their ability to use engineering and algorithms to erect a system of monitoring and surveillance, is astonishing,” he said.
He said that as the NSA revelations had gone on, the “integrity of the internet” had been questioned. “These are big, big issues about balancing various rights in society. About how business is done. And about how safe individuals are, living their digital lives.”
The Guardian editor rebuffed criticism from the Obama administration that the newspaper was drip-feeding the stories in order to get the most from them. “Well, the president has never worked in a newsroom,” he said.
“If there are people out there who think we have digested all this material, and [that] we have all these stories that we are going to feed out in dribs and drabs, then I think that misunderstands the nature of news. What is happening is there is a lot of material. It’s very complex material.
“These are not stories that sit up and beg to be told.”
Rusbridger said the Guardian and its partners at the New York Times and ProPublica were working through the material. “It’s a slow and patient business. If I were the president, I would welcome that.”