[T]he zipper on my coat was broken.
The hinge used to connect the pulley to the teeth of the zipper snapped off, and it’s all I cared about. It was bitterly cold out—or, at least it was for me, a native Torontonian who can’t stand weather below 0 C—and my chest was going to be exposed to the open wind all the way home.
For a moment, I forgot I was sitting in on a lecture I was supposed to be covering: the first of Ryerson’s International Issues Discussion Series on the Internet after the infamous Edward Snowden leaks, led by Ron Deibert. An Internet surveillance guru, Deibert directs the Canadian branch of the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary lab at the University of Toronto that examines global security and human rights—and he’s one of few people who can truly speak to the consequences of infiltration programs run by the U.S.’s National Security Agency (NSA) and its northern counterpart, Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).
The lecture began with a brief history of the Internet and initial spying techniques used by the military and governments. I tuned out. Fifteen minutes in, my coat was still on, and I was sweating profusely in the almost-full lecture hall.
Deibert went on to outline the dangers of government cyber-surveillance: the nationalization of the Internet, the development of NSA-like programs in countries seeking military strategy and even worse, an establishment of the “digital arms market,” in which the private sector begins to aid the government in spying.
“This has never happened before in human history!” he said, his hands motioning towards the audience.
But I didn’t care.
Instead, I Googled “how to fix a broken zipper.”
I already heard the fearful outcry of the public back in June, 2013, when Snowden first began leaking sensitive documents to American and British reporters about NSA’s surveillance on the U.S. public. I read the absurd stories about NSA officials creating World of Warcraft accounts to “fight terrorism.” I knew Google data centres were infiltrated by the government.
As an online consumer, I was scared; I thought about the copious amounts of messages and photos I probably shouldn’t have sent, now knowing some Big Brother CSEC representative likely saw it all.
But that fear wasn’t enough to change my habits. I still regularly checked into Foursquare while out with friends—letting the entire world in on when and where I was at any specific point in time. I still posted too much information about myself on Tumblr. I still enabled location services on my mobile Facebook chat, so recipients of my messages knew exactly where I was.
I created a data mine of my entire social life. I knew there were unsolicited viewers of that mine, but I did it anyways.
When I finally got my coat off and tuned back into the lecture, Deibert spoke to my generation: the Internet kids, the 14 to 20-somethings who spend too many hours online sharing too much information about themselves. There is no telling whether Facebook will decide to sell all of the information they store about us to the government, or whether the location and content of our tweets are being stored and logged by higher ups.
This generation—my generation—should be the most concerned. After all, “We’re the commodity” of the Internet, those who are targeted as consumers, as Deibert put it.
When I scanned the room, the crowd seemed relatively unmoved. Everyone had their own zipper-like distraction: Some patrons sat with their faces glued to the screens of their iPhones, while another duo played Rock, Paper, Scissors in the back.
The students of whom I was among tried to care, but we all somehow missed the point: We were concerned enough about our right to privacy to show up to the lecture, but not enough to shut our smartphones off—or even listen.
“I never thought I’d see the day I’d be interviewed by the Globe and Mail about CSEC,” Deibert went on. “But equally as astonishing is the lack of response to CSEC.”
Four-inch screens lit up half of the lecture hall. Some students tried to ask questions; most, though, wrestled to put their coats on.
“We’re so used to being spied on by our own accord,” he continued. “We tell more about ourselves, more than anyone who has spied on us.”
The irony, it seems, was lost on us.
I left the lecture early, concerned only with figuring out how to bundle my coat closed before heading out.