Does the Great Firewall Protect me from the NSA?

Yesterday I tweeted in jest (and in French) that it felt weird to think that the Great Firewall of China might be protecting me from the NSA. Since then that thought has been percolating in my brain, and I’m not sure it’s a joke anymore.

I live in China, and the Great Firewall is a daily hassle. All of Google if off limits (think about that: all of Google means not just the search engine but gmail, shared documents, youtube, g+, blogger and a ton of things you never knew were Google), but also all of WordPress, most of Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, most of the world’s online newspapers, and so much more I can’t even begin to list it. In fact, the most disturbing thing about it is that you never know if something will be accessible or not.

It’s a daily hassle that’s only circumvented using VPN services, when the Chinese authorities aren’t actively trying to down their servers (Astrill has been patchy for the last few months, and I recently subscribed to Vyper as a backup, but it’s not much better.)

It used to be easy to see the Great Firewall as a great evil that was thankfully contrasted by the open nature of the Internet in the rest of the free world. Not so much anymore. I’ll say this for the way the Chinese approach it at least: it’s not sneaky. You know the rules: if it’s allowed, you’re being spied upon.

The latest NSA/GCHQ surveillance scandal is yet another element of proof that my worldview was just plain wrong. There’s a saying in French that means roughly the same thing as the English expression Catch 22: choosing between Plague and Cholera. As the extent of the Western secret services’ spying on their own citizens is revealed, I realize that as unpalatable as the above choice may seem, even that choice is denied to me.

In China, I am blocked from 4/5ths of the useful Internet and spied upon. Outside of China (or when I’m using a VPN service) I can access the whole Internet (more or less) and be spied upon. Either way, my communications are neither secure nor confidential.

There was an argument in the days following the first Snowden revelations that the US government would have to recant otherwise the whole US cloud and its giant Internet companies would suffer. Clearly, that has not been the case, and even if it was the US and UK government have made it clear through their actions that they care not one whit about privacy. It’s not that the moral argument has been lost, it’s simply that morals don’t even come into it.

Worse, the lack of reaction of other Western governments who (we can only assume) are not directly involved in these spying activities shows where they stand on this issue: they’d rather have the ability (albeit one step removed) to spy on their own citizens thanks for the NSA’s largesse than protect said citizens’ privacy.

The only sensible way of looking at this from a random Internet user’s perspective is to assume that everything you do online can be spied upon. It’s probably safer to assume that most commercial VPNs are compromised as well. That’s a scary prospect, one that would have seemed somewhat unbelievable in dystopic SciFi novels two decades ago.

And just to conclude, I’m not naïve, I know full well that the Great Firewall does not protect me from the NSA. What I have in effect is Plague AND Cholera. What a cheerful world we live in.