The United States has been the focus of concerns about government surveillance, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA). But that surveillance has not just been of American citizens. Europeans, for instance, expressed considerable outrage that the NSA was conducting surveillance of non-Americans under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that permits a wide authority to target foreign government agents, suspected terrorists, and even “foreign-based political organizations,” which could include media outlets and civil society organizations.
The U.S. government replied that it does not engage in bulk collection of European data and only targets those suspected of terrorism and nuclear proliferation (though this became questionable when it turned out that the NSA had tapped into German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s cell phone and those of other leaders). Additionally, U.S. intelligence officials claimed that Europeans were more likely to be under surveillance from their own governments than from the United States. It turns out, however, that in Europe it’s much more likely for the police, not the intelligence agencies, to be conducting that surveillance.
Whether it’s the NSA, European intelligence agencies, private corporations, or the police, Katarzyna Szymielewicz is deeply concerned about the erosion of privacy and civil rights. She heads up the Polish organization called Panoptykon, which was established “to protect fundamental rights and freedoms in the context of fast-changing technologies and growing surveillance.” The “panopticon” was an invention of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham: a prison in which observers at the center of a circular building can keep tabs on the prisoners arrayed on the periphery of the building.
“The big challenge for us was to think of a name,” Szymielewicz told me in an interview in the organization’s office in Warsaw in August 2013. “There were four of us talking about it. We were in agreement that human rights are very important, but we have to look at them through the lens of power relations, and information is the key to the exercise of power. We are not really free, just governed in a different way. But how could we frame that topic so that it’s understandable to other people? Finally we got to the name Panoptykon — meaning exactly what we want to prevent from happening.“
In part because of the surveillance experiences of the Communist era, Poles are especially sensitive to the issue of government intrusion into the private sphere. Even before the Snowden revelations, thousands of Poles went into the streets at the beginning of 2012 to oppose the government’s signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Governments and industries were pushing for the agreement in order to protect copyright and patents; activists worried about infringement of free expression. As a result of the demonstrations, the Polish government suspended its participation in the agreement, and the European parliament eventually rejected the treaty.
But Panoptykon is not just worried about the operations of foreign services or the effects of international treaties. “In Poland, we have a law that forces telecom operators to store data, which was originally generated for commercial purposes,” Szymielewicz continued. “This information shows how, with whom, for how long, and in which way we communicate – with our mobile phone, PC, and so on. According to the law, this data must be stored for 12 months, in case it becomes useful for law enforcement. It used to be 24 months, but after our campaign it was shortened to one year. We thought that this retention of data –on the grounds that it may become useful if you turn out to be a terrorist — reveals the modern concept of surveillance. We no longer wait for someone to become a suspect. The state forces operators to collect that data for the day that it becomes useful for law enforcement. They can knock on the door and ask for that data at any time during that 12-month period. It’s a comfortable situation for law enforcement, but it’s uncomfortable for citizens to feel that, as a matter of fact, they’ve all become suspects.”
This metadata provides a great deal of information about a person’s lifestyle and routine. “It shows how we move around the city and the country,” she continued. “It reveals who calls me and whom I call. In correlation to publically available data, on the Internet for instance, it can say a lot about things that we don’t want to reveal to the state. For us, this became the typical example of how modern surveillance operates. We started to argue against it. We pressured the European Commission and the Polish government to explain why they needed to collect all this data about every citizen and store it for a year or, as it was originally planned, two years. It was a very long process. We did many things. We conducted public debates. We sent Freedom of Information Access requests to the police, the intelligence agencies, and the office that supervises telecom companies to see how many requests have been made over the years. We were able to show that the number of such requests in Poland was incredibly high compared to other countries.”
Even more troubling, there was no oversight of this system of data collection. Panoptykon has worked with lawyers, the Polish ombudsman, and others to shorten the period of data retention and to implement an oversight mechanism.
We talked about how she became involved in this work, how Polish politicians have reacted to surveillance issues, and why Snowden deserves the EU’s Sakharov Prize (for which he was shortlisted in 2013).
How did you get involved in this kind of work? What has been your own personal trajectory? Was your involvement gradual or sudden?
It was just the way life is. It was neither accidental nor by way of a single decision. To make a long story short, it started with my career as a lawyer. Ages ago, when I was a small kid, everyone in my family assumed I would become an advokat, which is Polish for a solicitor. But in fact I wanted to be an advocate in the broader sense of the word. I did choose to get a law degree, and I started my career as a commercial lawyer. It took me only one year to realize that it was the opposite of what I wanted to be, which was an advocate of something important for the society, not just of some particular commercial interests. I got depressed, and I was desperately looking for a way out. I was working very hard, and there was no free time for me to think. So I decided to take some time off. I asked my company to allow me to leave for a year and do another degree in the UK. I just didn’t tell them that I was going to do a different kind of degree. I’m sure they assumed that it would be a masters in law.
I put some random words in a search engine like “human rights” and “society” and “degree,” and I came across something called “development studies.” Back then I had no clue what it meant, and I had no time to dig into it. I simply applied. And the university accepted me. It turned out to be the most leftist university in Europe, the School for Oriental and African Studies. But it was only when I got there that I realized where I was and what I was doing. It so happened that at that time my company desperately needed to keep me as a lawyer, so they allowed me to work out of London. I ended up in London for one year, doing that degree and “after hours” working for the law firm. But I also had my own time to think, to have some interesting encounters, and to read.
Because of the curriculum, I started reading writers like Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. I did a lot of theoretical reading. Somehow it all came together. I realized that I really wanted to get out of what I was doing, that I wanted to do something that would matter for other human beings, and that I needed to find my own path. That path came out of the theory of power. It might sound very abstract. But back then I felt very manipulated by my society, maneuvered into being a commercial lawyer serving interests that I didn’t think were important and isolated from everything that I thought was important for human beings. I had the legal skills and some understanding of the process. And I thought that this was something I should focus on as my tool of change.
Of course I didn’t know how. I continued my education. I chose one NGO in London to work in for free, as my internship. I was still working for the law firm all the time. It was quite an intense year. There were some NGOs doing interesting work, and I thought that I would join them. But once I got inside an NGO, I realized that this was not exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to be part of a large entity where I couldn’t influence the directions and core values. It might say “human rights” on paper, but I didn’t really feel part of it. That was an important experience. I guess at that time I simply wanted to escape.
So I decided to go to Mexico to do development work. I came back to Warsaw to earn money for the ticket. When I was here, I talked to various people and asked them for advice. I was really confused about how to work toward what I wanted. My goal was to do something meaningful for my society and deal somehow with this rediscovery of human rights and power relations in my studies, in the process of writing my very theoretical dissertation. I wrote about how the discourse of human rights was being manipulated by politicians to exclude certain social groups through such concepts as the “terrorist” or the “illegal alien” — people formally excluded from legal protection. I analyzed how George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin were using that discourse and where they differed. This was a very important analysis for me, but I didn’t know how to put it into practice. So, I guess, this Mexican plan was just an escape.
When I was back here in Warsaw, people asked me why I was going to Mexico. “There are so many tangible problems here, why don’t you deal with those?” they asked. It was the time when we had the two Kaczynskis ruling the country. They openly said that we don’t need a constitutional tribunal or the division of power. They seemed to believe that they know best what people should be doing and how people should be thinking. It sounded very authoritarian. It sounded like Mexico was right here in Poland, so I didn’t have to go somewhere else to find the same problems. After each conversation, I became more involved in Polish issues. I thought about staying. I made a deal with the law firm to do only their pro-bono, NGO-related work. Through this, I was able to map the human rights-related work in Poland and get to know this world. I also kept meeting more and more people.
It took another year, but I realized that I should found my own NGO. Since that suggestion came from the human rights lawyer Adam Bodnar, I call him the godfather of Panoptykon. I went to Budapest to talk with the Open Society Institute (now Open Society Foundations) and with professor Wiktor Osiatynski, who is at the Central European University and was on the OSI board. He and Bodnar, behind my back, had a chat. Apparently the professor asked, “Is she crazy or reliable?” And Bodnar said, “She’s reliable. But she should be doing her own stuff and not projects with other NGOs.” Both of them pushed me toward this decision. It was an interesting process with many curves along the way. I was really excited to take that step, though I never believed I could manage an NGO. In my first reaction I told Adam Bodnar that this was a crazy idea and I couldn’t do that. I’m a lawyer, maybe something of a philosopher in my thinking, but I’ve never been a manager. But there was no other other way: I had to get out of my position. I could no longer pretend that I was a commercial lawyer.
So I took the risk. We created Panoptykon from scratch. I got together with three other friends, one from my law school program and two others we found through networking – they seemed interested in doing something like this. Pretty soon, it was only my law school friend and I who could work together on a day-to-day basis. We searched for money. It took one year, because we had to prove our worth to potential donors. In the meantime we supported ourselves with different jobs. With the first grants – from OSI and the Polish Batory Foundation – came our first real employees. And that’s how we started.
And you took the name from Foucault.
The big challenge for us was to think of a name. There were four of us talking about it. We were in agreement that human rights are very important, but we have to look at them through the lens of power relations, and information is the key to the exercise of power. We are not really free, just governed in a different way. But how could we frame that topic so that it’s understandable to other people? Finally we got to the name Panoptykon — meaning exactly what we want to prevent from happening. Until today, people say to us, “But that’s a negative name, that’s something I don’t want.” But until now I cannot think of a better – positive – way of putting this goal in one or two words. So I think I’m quite happy with the name.
Tell me what Panoptykon does. What are you most proud of in terms of success, and what remains the biggest challenge?
The main challenge was to reveal a problem that people don’t see. We came to realize that in this country we are embedded in a very liberal discourse. We are being taught by politicians that all the big debates have been sorted out. This is Third Way politics, like Tony Blair did it. Poland was heading in the same political direction when we started Panoptykon. We thought that the main challenge and goal was to destroy this picture of us living in a liberal world with nothing else to win by explaining to people how they are really being governed, how there’s a power struggle going on and why their freedom is at stake. It’s an abstract challenge but at the same time a fundamental one.
Talking about success, we started the debate on the concept of the surveillance society, which began to appear in the Polish public debate and which hadn’t happened before. It happened not because of our theoretical work but because of many particular campaigns centered around concrete topics. We were able to build our campaign around these specific cases, and as a result many important public intellectuals started to identify surveillance as a problem. I perceive this as our main success.
It seems also the main challenge because surveillance remains a sophisticated problem. People who are struggling with simpler needs – poverty, lack of income, social exclusion – these are the people who are often the victims of surveillance, but they don’t enter the debate. They don’t deal with the problem because it seems distant to them. But people who live comfortable lives and have power also don’t see this as their business. So we don’t have many natural partners ready to dig into the problem. It’s a huge challenge just to explain what is at stake. Sometimes we laugh about this: we create problems that people don’t want to see. Many don’t want to leave their comfort zone to see the problem. We not only face lack of awareness – we have to deal with the state of denial. So, it’s a real challenge to explain and encourage people to do something about it
Our main method of action is rather sophisticated legal work. As lawyers, and most of us are lawyers, we identify a piece of legislation, either existing or proposed, that would result in more surveillance or where the surveillance seems unjustified. We agree that some forms of surveillance can be justified or necessary – sometimes you have to use data about individuals for common benefit. But very often surveillance in this country is applied just because it’s the easiest way and we ‘ve gotten used to using data. Many uses of surveillance are very far from what I would see as necessary and proportionate.
We focus on legal actions and interventions and on public debate, working with opinion-shaping media. We don’t go very broad. We don’t go to tabloids or main TV stations. Even when we’re on TV and we’re quoted in the news, it’s always detached from the surveillance concept. It’s too complicated a message for this audience. Knowing that, we choose to communicate our mission to people who can understand it: some politicians, some journalists, and some experts like the ombudsman or the commissioner of data protection in Poland. These are our natural partners.
Can you give me several examples of the cases you’ve worked on?
The biggest case that we’re working on, and we’ve worked on for much of the time that we’ve existed, is mandatory, blanket data retention in telecommunications. In Poland, we have a law that forces telecom operators to store data, which was originally generated for commercial purposes. This information shows how, with whom, for how long, and in which way we communicate – with our mobile phone, PC, and so on. According to the law, this data must be stored for 12 months, in case it becomes useful for law enforcement. It used to be 24 months, but after our campaign it was shortened to one year. We thought that this retention of data –on the grounds that it may become useful if you turn out to be a terrorist — reveals the modern concept of surveillance. We no longer wait for someone to become a suspect. The state forces operators to collect that data for the day that it becomes useful for law enforcement. They can knock on the door and ask for that data at any time during that 12-month period. It’s a comfortable situation for law enforcement, but it’s uncomfortable for citizens to feel that, as a matter of fact, they’ve all become suspects.
This metadata can reveal a lot about our networks, habits, lifestyle, and routines. It shows how we move around the city and the country. It reveals who calls me and whom I call. In correlation to publically available data, on the Internet for instance, it can say a lot about things that we don’t want to reveal to the state. For us, this became the typical example of how modern surveillance operates. We started to argue against it. We pressured the European Commission and the Polish government to explain why they needed to collect all this data about every citizen and store it for a year or, as it was originally planned, two years. It was a very long process. We did many things. We conducted public debates. We sent Freedom of Information Access requests to the police, the intelligence agencies, and the office that supervises telecom companies to see how many requests have been made over the years. We were able to show that the number of such requests in Poland was incredibly high compared to other countries.
In the United States, those requests have to go through a court. Is that the case here in Poland?
That was another problem. Not only were they collecting and storing the data and making it available to law enforcement, but there was also no independent oversight of this process. The police, the intelligence agencies, or the prosecutors can go directly to telecom operators and simply demand the data. That’s why we had one million requests a year, and more recently almost two million. An additional problem is that everybody collecting the data uses different methodologies so it’s difficult to compare results. The numbers might even seem okay depending on how you interpret them. Let’s imagine that the police are looking for the perpetrator of a serious crime – for example, a murder in the middle of the city. It seems acceptable that they request all the data from all BTS towers in the center of the city to correlate data with the place where the weapon was bought. In fact, they might have to use a huge amount of data to make correlations to identify the suspect. In some cases they might actually be able to justify taking the data of hundreds of thousands of people. But the problem is that we don’t have any control over the system. Thus we won’t be able to verify if the data use was justified or someone was abusing the data. For example, in Poland we had a particularly worrying case of the surveillance of a group of journalists. It turned out that some intelligence agents were requesting data to identify the journalists’ sources. And they were able to do so. So, that was an abuse of the system, without a doubt.
Over the last four years we have managed to start a serious debate about the lack of democratic control over the use of telecommunication data. More and more institutions joined the debate: solicitors, the Ombudsman, the Prosecutor General. As a result we’ve seen some legal changes. The first change was shortening the period of data retention. Now the government has presented initial proposals to create a supervisory mechanism and a unified system for collecting the data — so that we as citizens can check how many requests there have been over the year and maybe even if requests for own data have taken place. Quite a few changes are being considered very much along the lines of what we suggested. It’s much too early to say if we’ve won something meaningful. But the process of change has been started.
There was also the big ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) fight. You might have heard that in Poland here was a big anti-ACTA campaign. At Panoptykon we also run a campaign against Internet blocking. At some point, the government wanted to block Internet sites. In order to do that they would have had to filter all Internet traffic, which would have allowed them to monitor all the traffic going through the cables. That would have been an infringement of the right to privacy and a deep surveillance of communication. The Polish digital rights community, including us, won all those fights: there is no Internet blocking, no ACTA agreement. Nobody knows how ACTA would have been implemented, but it would have allowed private companies like U.S. corporations to force Polish Internet companies to reveal user data just to pursue private interests such as going after people who download files without permission. In Poland, downloading files is legal. Only if you share content without permission, then you break law.
The biggest campaign we’re dealing with now is the fight for a new data protection framework in the EU. It turned out that the European data protection law is outdated, at least in the context of fast developing technologies. That’s been clear for years. Now the European Commission has come up with a proposal, which is not perfect but certainly better than what we have now. That proposal started a huge debate because a majority of influential Internet businesses don’t want to go that way. They want to preserve the old regime. Now U.S. companies active in the EU don’t have to observe the same standards. They offer services under American law, which is based on an entirely different logic than European law, and get benefits from that. We want the same rules for everyone and real legal protection. We would be okay with diminishing some administrative burdens, which we don’t see as important, but we want strong and harmonized principles.
We’ve been fighting for this for the last couple of years. It’s incredibly difficult. There’s a huge amount of work because it’s a major piece of legislation. There were almost 4,000 amendments filed in the European parliament, which means a simply incredible amount of paperwork. As far as I know, there’s never been a file that large in the parliament, so nobody knows how to deal with it. There’s a flood of lobbyists coming in with arguments against the new law. And there are five very active and 10 semi-active organizations in Europe working on this issue, including Panoptykon. If we lose, we will miss an opportunity to have a better, stronger law for decades.
Until now, we managed to start a serious public debate in Poland. The Polish government created a special working group to deal with the proposal. We are negotiating on the part of civil society. We are the only ones in Poland really involved in it. On the other side of the table, we have all the major companies – from Internet giants to banks and the biggest union of private employers. The government is taking both sides into account. It’s quite transparent. We have access to the negotiating documents. So far, many of our recommendations have been accepted. But it’s still an ongoing process, so it’s hard to know how it will end up. We’ve had a major success just by putting up a barrier to that flood of critical lobbying and communicating to people and the media that this is an important issue. We should not let the companies destroy this legislation.
I’m curious how the Snowden case has played here in Poland. Has this helped open the question for people? The only person I’ve talked to here in Poland about the case asserted that Snowden was a Russian agent!
The case destroyed our hopes for a little bit slower work schedule over the summer! [laughing] Now we have serious time management problems because of Edward Snowden. But we are also very grateful for this. There’s been a lot of debate around this issue in Poland. And we’ve been instrumental in making that debate even hotter. So, it helped a lot in the work I’ve been describing.
The whole privacy discussion in Europe and the new data protection law touches on American law. When the European Commission and the Parliament started working on this issue, there was a discussion about whether new provisions should prevent access to data by foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies (like the NSA) without judicial overview. Except where there is a legal basis such as an international agreement, common standards, and a court involved, we should never give the data of European citizens to foreign entities. Such a proposal was initially included in the draft law, but at a later stage of legislation it disappeared – apparently under the pressure of the U.S. government. After the PRISM revelations came out, that discussion came back. All the politicians who before consciously ignored the issue said, “Of course we recognize that this is an urgent need.” So, this helped move the conversation forward and pushed people on the conservative side of the European institutions to say – at least rhetorically – that this was something “we had to discuss”.
On the other hand, it proved to be not much more than rhetoric. The European and national institutions did nothing to show that they were serious about their concerns, that the whole PRISM affair required a deep change of policy toward the United States. Can we really trust business, not because of bad intentions but because U.S. law forced them to act that way? These businesses don’t represent us. They represent narrow-minded economic interests, which rely on a good relationship with the United States.
Every year, we organize something for the anniversary of 9/11 under the label of Freedom From Fear Day. We commemorate that tragedy by saying that yes, it happened, but we don’t want the politics of fear to dominate European politics. We don’t believe that we have to sacrifice freedom for security. Absolute security cannot be achieved. We will never live in a completely secure environment. So there’s no point in abusing the argument unless you want to limit freedom. We try to expose this hypocritical and dangerous approach. This year, we wanted to force major politicians from Poland to sit down with us at the table and talk about programs of electronic mass surveillance: what is Poland’s approach, how can we know that the Polish intelligence agencies never use data from programs such as PRISM, thus circumventing our legal guarantees. Polish law establishes much stronger guarantees than what the United States has. We posed many difficult questions, but nobody answered them.
So far there’s been no real debate about PRISM, just political rhetoric saying that we are very angry and it’s terrible what they did. But there were no serious political responses to these allegations. So we want to push them a little bit. We don’t know if it will work. But one thing we know: without Snowden, we wouldn’t have been able to start that debate. Of course we knew that this was happening, we were completely aware of American law, aware of FISA, aware of the law that explicitly authorizes corporations to reveal data about foreigners, including us, to U.S. intelligence agencies. But we didn’t know the full extent of that data collection endeavor and that there was literally no supervision. The FISA court cannot be treated as independent oversight. It’s a secret court that has authorized one year of bulk data requests.
We very much respect Snowden’s decision to reveal these abuses. I’m not making any judgment about him as a person. Even if we discover that he was cooperating with Russian and Chinese intelligence or that he did it for money, I don’t care. He did something important for the debate. If someone proves that he is Russian agent, I have nothing against the United States going after him for that. Until now, though, we have no evidence of that and a lot of evidence that what he did was for the public interest. That ‘s why he should be considered a whistleblower. That’s why we’re considering a solidarity campaign, an open letter signed by citizens to the U.S. government, and a push in the EU to nominate him for the Sakharov Prize. We want to put political pressure on the United States not to persecute him.
The case of Bradley Manning shows that Snowden wouldn’t be treated the proper way if he were detained. We don’t want him to be tortured. We’re also concerned that Polish politicians didn’t pay adequate attention to his situation. There were some comments on Twitter by the Polish minister of foreign affairs that obviously we would not give him asylum in Poland – as if Snowden’s request for asylum didn’t even deserve serious consideration by competent authorities.
Have you taken any cases to the European Court of Human Rights?
No, even though we perceive ourselves as a lawyers’ organization. We have three main domains of activity. One of those is being a watchdog: monitoring the political processes and alerting the media when we see something going the wrong way with regard to surveillance. We do advocacy: pushing decision makers and companies to change their practices and the law. That takes a lot of media work. We also engage in awareness-raising and education: first doing research, then sharing our accumulated knowledge in the form of guides and reports. Occasionally we also do social surveys and carry out analyses of publically available data.
But what we don’t do yet is strategic litigation. We are only seven people and four years old. We didn’t think we could cope with strategic litigation. It takes a year to do one case – a lot of time and good lawyers. It’s something we would really like to do, but we’re waiting for our organization to get more capacity to do that.
One of the big cases in Bulgaria recently was wire-tapping within the government. It became a big issue there in the last elections. Is there a perception here that the government is uncontrolled even toward itself?
We never asked citizens about that, so I can’t quote any numbers. But I’m pretty sure that there’s such a perception. Once every three months we have a wiretapping affair here in Poland – the tape of something the prime minister claims he never said or something about someone attempting to corrupt someone else who turned out to be the former minister. It doesn’t always involve intelligence agencies, but sometimes it does and they have the tapes. Sometimes it’s just people recording other people, and that’s quite troubling for the society. It also shows the approach to surveillance. It’s not something that the political elite perceives as unethical. It’s a common tool for exercising power and thus quite acceptable.
You mentioned that you worked with the ombudsman and the commissioner for data protection. In the political world, do you have other allies? Or is it just a couple people in different parties and it depends on their personal interests? What about the Palikot party because of its libertarian bent?
Politics in Poland is quite pragmatic and cynical, though I don’t think that’s specific to Poland. I suppose it’s like that everywhere. We really can’t assume that any single politician is our ally because of their personal convictions or values. Their views tend to be quite dynamic and very much based on circumstances. Not a single party can be perceived as our natural ally simply because of their values, because these values do change.
That’s the case with Palikot. When Palikot started, I hoped it would bring some fresh air into politics. Very soon everyone got disappointed. I don’t know how to judge their change of tactics: maybe they would really love to change Polish politics but are unable to, or perhaps they simply no longer endorse the values they used to get elected.
In the Polish parliament, we are only able to work with individuals who believe in human rights, who understand the threats of surveillance as well as the meaning of proportionality and necessity. There are people like that, for instance, Jozef Pinior, the senator who has been very involved in the CIA renditions case, pushing the government to reveal information and acknowledge the abuses. Whenever there is a debate on surveillance or secret services, we can rely on him. But this is a unique case of someone with a spine and moral values.
Talking about non-politicians, our consistent ally is the Ombudsman – but even this cannot be taken for granted as that office could also be taken by someone not interested in human rights. Fortunately now we have someone who really understands the importance of this work – Irena Lipowicz – and she has a good understanding of data protection as well. Whenever she makes a speech, whether for us or independently of our work, we quote her heavily. She is excellent in explaining the sophisticated threats of surveillance in plain language. She realizes that it’s not just a question of rights or dignity but also a question of power relations. She says, “If you want to live a conformist life and behave the way your government wants you to, then give them more data. But you should think about whether you want to live such a conformist life.” Our present Data Protection Authority is also strong-minded and calls things by their proper names. With these two officials, we can work a lot.
When it comes to companies, it’s more complicated. They tend to build coalitions for a common fight on a particular issue but then take an opposite position on another issue. There’s never a consistent, long-lasting alliance. For example, with the ACTA and the Internet blocking debates, we had many Internet companies on our side. With data protection, now they’re on the opposite side and fight for less stringent protections.
You’ve talked about conformist attitudes. I can understand that – Americans can be that way as well. But here I’m surprised, given the level of distrust people have toward the government. There are suspicions about Smolensk, about even the Round Table negotiations going back to 1989. I would think that people here would be more automatically suspicious of government control.
Yes, that’s true. It’s surprising to everyone in the debate. Whenever I go abroad, I hear the same question. It’s not possible for us to research that particular social attitude – it would take quality research to understand why people have these beliefs. On the one hand, despite all the mistrust people claim to have, they do perceive the state as “their own democratic state”. Yes, nobody treats politicians very seriously and the public tends not to trust them. It’s just a crowd of people behaving in a ridiculous way in the parliament. We even pay for it, but no one wants to or has the courage to go and replace them. So we let them play their games. It seems to me that the public perception of the state is different. We perceive the state apparatus as “ours” and more reliable because it was built after the fall of Communism and it’s supposedly democratic. Even the police have quite high level of social trust.
When we talk about surveillance, and I want to underline this, we see it applying to both public and private entities. Private companies have become a much bigger issue now. Private companies have unprecedented powers in collecting data, analyzing data, and predicting our behavior. Their capabilities are far more developed in this regard than the government and that’s exactly where the conformism comes in. When we talk about the threats of surveillance, we have an equal concern about public and private sector, with an even growing concern over private sector and the state unable to protect citizens and stop private surveillance from going on.
That’s part of why people accept surveillance practices. They treat the state as domesticated, something they’re no longer afraid of, not appreciating that the state can turn against them, that it can be taken over by an entirely different political power, like right-wing fundamentalists. That’s not a ridiculous thing to consider in Poland. We already have people with Nazi and fascist views that they communicate openly. I don’t know why but people don’t think of the private sector as a threat. And they trust companies and believe that companies serve their interests. Society completely bought into the concept of the individual as a customer choosing the services we want – as if no manipulation or power struggle or surveillance was taking place.
When an ad pops up when they are surfing the Internet, they are happy to see it rather than upset. They don’t have to work so hard to find the product they want!
Many people make these claims. Only when we ask them, “How do you think they know you so well?” do they pause. We show them the data – from Cambridge University — about how much can be read from your online history, like your IQ, racial origin, religion, sexual orientation. These are things that you don’t think you communicate, but you do communicate between the lines by the way you browse. Of course if they saw only you, they couldn’t draw these conclusions. But because they have big data from millions of people, they can learn a lot from behavior on line.
As I said, we are creating problems that people are not comfortable dealing with. Not many people want to face the fact that we live under surveillance, but the number is growing. We always think we should start with intellectuals, people with good education, and then slowly, as more people begin to understand, we go beyond this bubble. We can’t do that immediately with a small NGO. That’s why we’ve adopted a strategy of writing rather advanced articles for our website. It won’t be read by millions of people, but we know that the hundreds or thousands who do read will understand.
What do you think is emerging now in Poland out of what we might call the disappointments with neoliberalism. Poland has done comparatively well. But there is high unemployment among young people, distrust of political institutions, and on top of that this technology that permits public and private entities powers that they previously did not have. What is your nightmare scenario? I suppose it would be the Panopticon. But what also would be your liberating scenario?
The most negative scenario in Poland would be simply if people do absolute nothing and pretend that there’s no problem even though they’re struggling with it everyday. It’s still more comfortable and easy to ignore the sources of the problem. Throughout history, people in this country already survived a lot. There’s a martyrology in society, a readiness to accept very difficult circumstances as if we as a society believe that life is hard and we should not expect too much from the state, which is not here to protect us. When the state was protecting us, it was an oppressive state. No matter how hard it gets, people here will opt for individual coping strategies – going to the black market, smuggling cigarettes from Ukraine to Germany as we did in the past. There are various coping strategies in which people excel. That’s what we like to say about each other: Polak potrafi (Poles can do it). People live their individual lives and don’t acknowledge that there’s a problem in the system and we need to rebuild that system.
As for the positive scenario, I don’t have trust in revolutions. Every dynamic change has its backlash, its negative side. But perhaps by being very disappointed with our current representative structures that no longer represent us, we start looking for something else: a slow evolution rather than revolution. I can imagine young people who are already fed and watered and not so hungry for consumerism might devote more time and attention to various forms of acting together in social enterprises because neo-liberalism doesn’t work so well. Of course we want money because we’re not a socialistic country in our thinking. And that’s a good thing. I do agree that income is important. I can’t imagine a scenario where they grow carrots and potatoes and exchange them. But they could go for something more social. I could see more city movements that reclaim city space, which in Poland is very scarce. For instance, it’s difficult to call Warsaw a city. Only in the last five years has the city started to have life in it. Before that it was like a desert. I grew up on the seaside in a small town of 7,000 people. When I came here for university, I couldn’t believe it was a city. It was a nightmare.
I see these movements emerging, but I don’t yet see how these structures replace parliament or corporations. But they could become alternatives for dealing with particular problems. I don’t see how to solve the bigger problems of a parliament that doesn’t represent us or a government that steals from us. But I hope that something will emerge out of these grassroots movements, whether it’s a city movement for more public space or people coming together to get more information about certain structures of power. Perhaps they’ll create NGOs like ours to monitor politicians and reveal corruption or informal movements like the anti-ACTA movement. I see people taking certain problems into their hands, including economic ones. If that started to happen in Poland, as it is happening in Germany, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere, that would be the positive scenario.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in this country, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Warsaw, August 23, 2013