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2 September 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 9:28am

The methods might be new, but the motives for government spying remain the same

The reason for spying on one’s own citizens remains the same: to make sure they are not saying or doing something that you would rather suppress; something that might not be line with your national plan.

By Rachael Jolley

For most of us images of spies and spying leap into our minds’ eye straight out of novels like The Thirty-Nine Steps and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or from TV dramas ranging from The Avengers to Homeland.

Some of those are under discussion this weekend, as academics from across the world gather at the suitably dramatic Shard to debate the ins and outs of images of spying.

But meanwhile in the former Soviet Union and in states such as Angola, governments are ramping up their spying and lying techniques to great effect, using new tools that their counterparts from the 1970s and 80s wouldn’t have imagined would be available to them.

Shadowing skills are now more likely to be shadowing your email patterns and the contents of your computer, than hiding up across the street in the bushes. Although that’s not out of the question either.

The reason for spying on one’s own citizens remains pretty much the same as in 1960s, 70s or 80s: to make sure they are not saying or doing something that you would rather suppress; something that might not be line with your national plan.

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Spying, particularly the kind where you let your target know you are watching, is just one way of putting pressure on an individual to fall in line, or generally shut up. In a special report on spies, secrets and lies for the upcoming Index on Censorship magazine, we looked at spying, silencing techniques and censorship today, compared with the 1970s and 80s taking in countries around the world including China, Russia, Argentina, Iran, South Korea and South Africa.

In the 1990s, when the world was having an optimistic moment and Francis Fukuyama was feeling confident about the end of history, there was an expectation that these dark arts were fading away. Apartheid was over, and the Berlin wall had fallen.

But a quick revisit to the tools of the trade just shows there’s just a lot more of them than a few decades ago. Old tactics, new techniques. And as always spying and censorship go hand in hand.

For instance, the Chinese government has just introduced a new national security law to aid control of the internet. Virtual private networks which have been used as tunnels to the wider web underneath China’s Great Firewall, are becoming impossible to use. Meanwhile Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun had 20,000 words chopped out of his last novel, Dancing Through Red Dust, before even the bravest publisher would put it out in China. Over in South Korea, the government is insisting that all telecommunication companies install spyware on mobile phones owned by teenagers, so it can block access to websites it decides are “inappropriate”.

One of the most depressing elements of the report is that several of our journalists report an increasing lack of interest from citizens in finding out “real” information compared with the thirst for knowledge from different, often censored, sources in the 1980s. Andrei Aliaksandrau writes in the report: “We lost journalism in Russia. We have propaganda and campaigning instead. 

We also investigated some of the technologies and myths that might go some way to protecting you from spying eyes, including whether your phone is tracking you (yes, it is), and whether placing your phone in a fridge will stop it being used as a tracker (yes, it will, but a tracker would have a good idea where it was, as it could see its last position outside the fridge).

But we found some positives too. New apps and other technological innovations are being used all the time to push back against restrictions or to protect individual’s privacy. New free auto-encrypted email services, such as Mailpile, are popping up. And apps such as Telegram allow users to put timers on messages to disappear after a certain time. Of course, nothing protects anyone for ever, or completely. But as technology has become easier for individuals to use to create new things, it has allowed people to fight back with their own devices. And some activist groups such as GreatFire are developing new free tools all the time that helps fight back against states or other forces trying to control and track individuals. The push/pull of the fight for knowledge versus the manifest ways to control never stops. Some ways are familiar, some not.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship. The special report Spies, Secrets and Lies, is in the upcoming Index on Censorship magazine, a quarterly publication that can be ordered digitally from around the world.

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