A Little Bit of Snowden In All Of Us


Man is not what he thinks he is; he is what he hides.

– André Malraux

By now word has reached many regarding one Edward Snowden and the exposure of the NSA’s (National Security Agency) PRISM program and how the agency has literally taken to storing records of our phone calls, emails and other communiques – and more importantly, how this is all done indiscriminately with little or no control parameters from the legal system. Indeed, it’s probably not surprising that George’ Orwell’s 1984 is now selling like never before.

But the remarkable thing about all of this is how many of us accept surveillance by the state as part of our lives – just as my generation learned to live with the notion of imminent nuclear annihilation. Now, our children are growing up with the idea of cameras watching their every moves, emails and text messages being accessed at will while through the powers of analytics, our thoughts, desires and attitudes expressed through our various accounts on Facebook, PinInterest, etc.

As I’ve said before in my early work, privacy is dead; get used to it.

But I also recall earlier conversations with professionals on this very topic of privacy.

Some years ago, I befriended former neighbors of ours – a remarkable couple who shared a commonality with having some distant shared family relations: the woman and her live-in boyfriend who rarely spoke about his work, save for one evening while dining, I mentioned my interest and knowledge of arabic history. During the course of the coming weeks, the gentleman and I would speak at length about the various works of Farid ud-Din Attar (“The Conference of the Birds”), the point of the view of the arabs in regards to the various crusades along with a host of other fascinating discussions.

It was during the course of these dinner discussions that I learned from the nice gentleman how he casually happened to be in Damascus during the Lighting (Arab / Israeli) War of 1967.  I later on brought up this point when it was quiet and it was then he realized his faux pas – to which I assured him that it was a point I had already forgotten; some things are just best left unsaid.

Later on that week, I was given a small token – a 5 inch diskette. When I examined the diskette, I learned that it was an encryption software package, designed to encrypt your files on your computer.

Understand, this was not for general distribution and was well before the days of PGP or otherwise.

During the course of time, I learned a number of skills and notions, one of which is a basic axiom of intelligence: never use any obvious ‘hiding’ tools for you’ll only draw attention to yourself and to your colleagues. The purpose of the encryption package, I learned, was to take a message, recast it into another message – but in english and not encrypted gibberish – so as to make it appeal as a normal communique.

Which leads us to another vital point: some messages are best sent by way of reference only.  As an example: speak as if you’re talking about a book you’ve read and wish to share with another; make references in a manner that the outside observer wouldn’t fully appreciate the nature of your conversation. For example: you tell another about a great scene from the classic novel, “The Three Musketeers” – more specifically, the scene where Aramis and the others hold off the Cardinal’s forces enabling D’Artangnon to escape. What this scene is about is sacrifice by a handful against a larger force – a holding action. In effect, by relating this scene you are telling your colleagues that you’re seeking a rear guard action, whilst to an outside observer they only see you speak about a scene from book.

Privacy has always been a concern; note how during the Italian renaissance – when competition was fierce and the living bloody – the notion of communicating with another without having their thoughts shared except to those intended for was uppermost on many’s minds. Many devised complicated algorithms and encryptions (such as those created by the legendary master, DaVinci) while others used references to the Roman poet Catullus, passing messages with deeper meaning amongst each other while seemingly speaking about literary verses,….

Who says the humanities are dead?

As to our family friend,… one cold, windy evening I came home to see him standing in the parking lot, furiously speaking with another gentlemen: I glanced over, but sensed that something was amiss: he appeared harried and wary, looking all around. I made it a point to avoid speaking with him, walking by him as though I didn’t know him, pretending that I did not also notice the gentlemen with whom he was speaking with.

Later that week, our neighbor came over, distraught and upset, telling us how she came home, only to find everything of her boyfriend – and she did mean everything – was gone. “It was as if he never existed!” The books he had, the computer, his clothing – everything – gone.

We never saw him again, but I remember his lessons well, for what he shared goes beyond just simple citizen paranoia about one’s own government: it’s also about how one should conduct business – period.

Amongst my other lines of work – specifically with regard to records management –  I often tell people to be careful what and how they things away; how emails are to be distributed and read by whom and how information management is truly about having an attitude of caution and a realization that somebody’s always looking over your shoulder – and if you’re not careful, is also likely to eat your lunch.


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