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Aug 26 2013

It’s only 29 years late

Bruce Schneier has a few words about mission creep: everything is looking like terrorism to our surveillance state.

One of the assurances I keep hearing about the U.S. government’s spying on American citizens is that it’s only used in cases of terrorism. Terrorism is, of course, an extraordinary crime, and its horrific nature is supposed to justify permitting all sorts of excesses to prevent it. But there’s a problem with this line of reasoning: mission creep. The definitions of "terrorism" and "weapon of mass destruction" are broadening, and these extraordinary powers are being used, and will continue to be used, for crimes other than terrorism.

Back in 2002, the Patriot Act greatly broadened the definition of terrorism to include all sorts of "normal" violent acts as well as non-violent protests. The term "terrorist" is surprisingly broad; since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it has been applied to people you wouldn’t normally consider terrorists.

The most egregious example of this are the three anti-nuclear pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, who cut through a chain-link fence at the Oak Ridge nuclear-weapons-production facility in 2012. While they were originally arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, the government kept increasing their charges as the facility’s security lapses became more embarrassing. Now the protestors have been convicted of violent crimes of terrorism — and remain in jail.

One other interesting twist: did you know psychologists have actually looked at the effect of constant monitoring, and among them are stress, distrust of authority, and conformity?

As the world’s governments march toward universal surveillance, their ignorance of psychology is clear at every step. Even in the 2009 House of Lords report “Surveillance: Citizens and the State” [pdf] – a document that is critical of surveillance – not a single psychologist is interviewed and, in 130 pages, not a single reference is made to decades of psychological research.

We ignore this evidence at our peril. Psychology forewarns us that a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on – a beige authoritarian landscape in which we lose the ability to relax, innovate, or take risks. A world in which the definition of “appropriate” thought and behaviour becomes so narrow that even the most pedantic norm violations are met with exclusion or punishment. A world in which we may even surrender our very last line of defence – the ability to look back and ask: Why did we do this to ourselves?

This authoritarianism is going to be the legacy of this last decade, and it’s going to be to Obama’s lasting disgrace that he contributed so blithely to it.

43 comments

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  1. 1
    unbound

    Starting to remind me of the Twilight Zone episode Mirror. It’s about a coup, but there is a mirror that makes the new leader think absolutely everyone around him is out to get him.

    How can our government be a government of the people if it so afraid of all of its citizens that the people are always the prime suspect?

  2. 2
    sundiver

    I’ve always been a bit embarrassed that the spooks aren’t tailing me. I wish they would; anyone tailing me would suffer a horrible death. From boredom. That said, I hate to break this to you PZ, but the authoritarianism has been going on for a bit longer than a decade. I date it back to around 1980 and the Reagan crowd. It’s been intensifying ever since. Some people I know put it back to around 35,000 BCE, or whenever the first conman found the first bunch of fools and started religion.

  3. 3
    jaytheostrich

    “Psychology forewarns us that a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on – a beige authoritarian landscape in which we lose the ability to relax, innovate, or take risks. A world in which the definition of “appropriate” thought and behaviour becomes so narrow that even the most pedantic norm violations are met with exclusion or punishment. A world in which we may even surrender our very last line of defence – the ability to look back and ask: Why did we do this to ourselves?”

    It’s called North Korea, and it’s freaking horrible.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    steve oberski

    How dare you criticize our dear leader !

  6. 6
    Aliasalpha

    It’ll only be a matter of time before my vindaloo fuelled farts will have me arrested as a bio-terrorist

  7. 7
    unbound

    @2 – It’s definitely been around for more than a decade, but some form of authoritarianism is always around. It is a matter of degree, and where the current trends are taking us.

    There has been times when there has been inappropriate surveillance of various groups. However, there was a time when such wrong-doing could be taken to court. Those days are now gone. Heck, there are all kinds of law-breaking behavior that are no longer prosecuted anymore…and therein lies the problem. Not that the law breaking activities happen (as will always be the case), but that the ability of the people to use lawful methods to correct them are disappearing; whether it is due to lack of prosecuting, laws that prevent corrections, or simple ignorance to even know to correct the problem.

    How many war crimes are our leaders in the military and government guilty of in the past decade or so? How many prosecutions of the leaders have you seen? There have always been a few that slip through the cracks, but that is a far cry different from no one being prosecuted.

    To expand even further, this is becoming a frightening trend even in commercial industry. When the Verizon CEO announced several years ago publicly that he was working on a deal with Apple to be the only other provider of iPhones so that other providers (beside them and AT&T) could not sell iPhones, that was direct collusion (which is illegal…got an airline CEO thrown in jail in the 1980s) which resulted in…nothing. I even wrote my senator who promptly ignored it and sent a response about current wedge issues that don’t really matter in life.

    Many aspects of your life are being negatively affected by behavior of our government and their willingness to treat all citizens (real people) as potential criminals and all corporations as the ones to be protected.

  8. 8
    grumpyoldfart

    This authoritarianism is going to be the legacy of this last decade

    So stand up and fight against it? Or just sit there and cop it sweet?

  9. 9
    robro

    Twisting language for propaganda purposes by authoritarian powers and the abasement of our rights in the interest of “security”…I hear echoes of Orwell and Chomsky. The former dates back to the 1940s, of course. Chomsky has been speaking out about the abuse of “terrorism” for decades. For example, it has long been used to describe anyone opposed to Israel overrunning it’s neighbors.

  10. 10
    Lofty

    If everyone on earth wrote “n*clear s*itcase b*mb” into every email they ever sent the NSA boofins might go critical. Drown the bastards in false positives and they may just have to give up.

  11. 11
    Gregory in Seattle

    We are turning into the old Soviet Union, step by step. First came the one-party state*. We are developing a constant state of supervision, including government-sponsored programs to encourage neighbor to spy on neighbor. What next?

    * While there are still some social differences between Democrats and Republicans, they are largely indistinguishable on matters of economic, environmental, religious, foreign and domestic policies.

  12. 12
    tsig

    Those who sell freedom to buy security will wind up with neither.

  13. 13
    Gregory in Seattle

    @tsig #12 – The Ben Franklin quote is, Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

  14. 14
    paulburnett

    Why can’t the DHS declare graffiti artists or inner-city gangs or drug dealers “terrorists” and do something about terrorists inside this country, instead of haring all over the planet?

  15. 15
    Gregory in Seattle

    @paulburnett #14 – That is the justification they are using for installing spy cameras on every street corner and tall building.

  16. 16
    chigau (違う)

    paulburnett
    graffiti artists?
    seriously?
    Although…now I’m picturing a 24-style TV show depicting the brave men who take down … people with cans of spray-paint.

  17. 17
    Akira MacKenzie

    …and it’s going to be to Obama’s lasting disgrace that he contributed so blithely to it.

    But… But… ROMNEY WOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE!!!

    (Cue the usual lecture on political pragmatism with the usual clichés: “lesser of two evils,” “baby-steps,” “you don’t really care about atheism/feminism/social justice,” etc.)

  18. 18
    procrastinatorordinaire

    @unbound

    When the Verizon CEO announced several years ago publicly that he was working on a deal with Apple to be the only other provider of iPhones so that other providers (beside them and AT&T) could not sell iPhones, that was direct collusion

    Collusion? It seemed like a perfectly ordinary exclusive distribution contract to me. Airlines colluding with each other to keep ticket prices high is a completely different issue. Apple’s deal was not preventing you from buying a phone or making a phone call.

    There are lots of different phones from lots of different manufacturers available. Nobody needs an iPhone.

  19. 19
    irisvanderpluym

    That mission creep is a done deal. Laws and powers allegedly enacted in the name of terrorism have targeted (among other U.S. citizens): an award-winning documentary filmmaker, an accomplished criminal defense attorney, supporters of Chelsea Manning, reporters and editors at the Associated Press, ordinary Americans suspected of drug activity, non-violent Occupy protesters, anti-war organizations, environmental activists, groups opposed to U.S. immigration policy/labor laws/racial profiling, supporters of Palestinians and the Israeli divestment campaign, anti-NAFTA activists, anti-death penalty groups, Ron Paul supporters, pro-Muslim lobbyists, unspecified “church groups” and rich old white conservative d00ds with little airplanes.

    [citations at the link. TW: blogwhoring.]

    Aside from America’s Owners, certain heads of state and a handful of top officials, it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone who does not potentially fall within the scope of anti-terror laws as they now operate in practice.

  20. 20
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    An example of mission creep:
     
    I have been the target of a Homeland Security investigation for about 9 months for bringing 6 grass leaves into the US (scientific material), 1) which I declared at port, and 2) which I had a permit to import. I have been detained, had my scientific materials confiscated, and have had to retain an attorney, meet with agents, subject my lab to inspection, submit documents, etc. My collaborators have also been contacted and “interviewed”. I have yet to be told what they even imagine they might charge me with, other than “failure to declare” the material…this, despite that my declaration form is in evidence and clearly describes the material that was confiscated.
     
    I’m a botanist. I study plant evolution. Flowers, and shit. Be very afraid.
     
    I was told that minimally I would never be able to enter the country again without a private search of my luggage and person. Since then, I have only traveled internationally once, but true to their word, they had an agent on hand to pull me aside in customs. Given that she addressed me as Dr. Epiphanes (my passport doesn’t include any indication that I have a Ph.D.), I’m pretty sure that I’m in the system. I guess I will always have to book long layovers to accomodate the extra attention.

  21. 21
    DLC

    You know, PZ, there is always Room 101 for those who need encouraging. . .
    #1984

  22. 22
    unclefrogy

    I can’t wait for the more dramatic effects of global warming to make themselves known.
    all of the security measures that I am aware of are dependent on a stable infrastructure to operate.
    and a stable economic structure. Much of the measures are implemented by private contractors and depend on them to function.
    The fact that Snowden was not a government employee but a contractor employee is significant..
    The importance of his actions is not so much what he revealed in the papers but that he was unlike Manning a contractor employee and that know one knows what he has or how and where he got it from despite the assurances from the government that there are safeguards that prevent the unauthorized access to the “data”.
    The other thing to not forget in all of this is that it is dependent on contractors who are above any other interest in it for the money . No body is going to do anything or give away anything for free!

    the climate is changing and we are doing next to nothing to prevent it. When the crops fail we are through no matter how much “energy ” we have or gold we hold.
    uncle frogy

  23. 23
    carbonbasedlifeform

    A quick comment about National Security Letters, which are issued by the FBI instead of subpoenas — the effect is the same, but the FBI does not have to go in front of a judge. NSLs were invented in the 1980s to get information vital to national security quickly. Or, at least, that was the intention.

    Do you know which FBI field office issued the most NSLs? It was in that hotbed of international terrorism, Las Vegas. They were used in investigations of financial misconduct in casinos. I am all in favor of investigating skimming and money laundering at casinos, but don’t try to pretend that it has anything to do with national security.

  24. 24
    maxdevlin

    While I agree that mission creep is something we must zealously guard against when it comes to anti-terrorist surveillance, but can’t you come up with a better example than people breaking into a nuclear weapons facility? Do you really want to try to run government based on an “it’s not illegal if you have good intentions” rule?

  25. 25
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    did you know psychologists have actually looked at the effect of constant monitoring, and among them are stress, distrust of authority, and conformity?

    Has anyone told god this? After all, he monitors everything, or so we are told.

    It also means that a society that monitors its subjects’ behaviour has got increasing reason to do so: more monitoring means more distrust of authority, and more conformity, but stop monitoring or monitor less and a lot of people who distrust authority won’t have so much reason to conform.

    There has been a long history of what “everyone knew” that psychologists showed they didn’t but everyone still knows the same things as before.

  26. 26
    unclefrogy

    What is terrorism then if it is not based on the intentions of those who do it?
    By definition it’s purpose is to generate terror then are you suggesting that every arson fire (fire bomb) should be considered a terrorist activity even if the motivation was insurance fraud?

    uncle frogy

  27. 27
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Do you really want to try to run government based on an “it’s not illegal if you have good intentions” rule?

    Cutting through a chain-link fence protecting government property is illegal anyway. The question is, can it reasonably be defined as terrorism because it is around a nuclear-weapons-production facility?

  28. 28
    David Marjanović

    But… But… ROMNEY WOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE!!!

    The sad things are that 1) it’s true and 2) you know it.

    I’m sorry – the world really does suck.

  29. 29
    Great American Satan

    Antiochus – Wow. That’s intense.

    I will say that the nun mentioned in the article, if I remember right, was black. So obviously, pretty dangerous.

  30. 30
    laurentweppe

    a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on – a beige authoritarian landscape in which we lose the ability to relax, innovate, or take risks.

    Isn’t that the whole point? the less the plebs relax, innovate, display willingness to take risk, the less they are likely to rise against their inept lords and masters…
    At least until the breaking point where said lords and master incompetence leads to starvation, at which point self-preservation instincts will overide any acquired pavlovian submissiveness

  31. 31
    irisvanderpluym

    There is no consistent definition of terrorism. The closest I can determine is that terrorism means “violence America’s Owners and their government servants don’t approve of.” Violence against civilians for political ends is the traditional definition of terrorism. Unfortunately, that definition makes the United States government the 21st century’s worst terrorist organization—by far.

    This whole “mission creep” paradigm is infuriating: there should never have been any special set of laws (allegedly) only for those the U.S government deems terrorists. “Terrorists,” whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, are just mass murderers with a political/ideological agenda. They’re not special mass murderers. IIRC, intent is not magic. The same laws that apply to all of us should apply to them, and and the same laws that apply to them should apply to to everyone else who conspired to or commits mass murder. The Bushco terrorists should be tried in a federal court and if convicted, jailed; if not, set free. Same with al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son and everybody in Gitmo. Not assassinated by drones, not subject to special laws and rights abridgements, not tried in military tribunals guaranteed to secure convictions, as satisfying as all of that may sound. It’s tyrannical, un-American and antithetical to the rule of law no matter who is targeted. “Mission creep” is a euphemism for “what governments invariably do when vested with tyrannical powers.”

    The beauty of the rule of law is that it treats elite criminals and mass murderers exactly the same as common criminals and mass murderers. Gosh, I sure do miss it.

  32. 32
    alkaloid

    @David Marjanovic, #29

    The sad things are that 1) it’s true and 2) you know it.

    I’m sorry – the world really does suck.

    Keep right on telling yourself (much less us) that and don’t be surprised when things never get better for any of us. Ever.

  33. 33
    ck

    irisvanderpluym wrote:

    “Terrorists,” whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, are just mass murderers with a political/ideological agenda. They’re not special mass murderers. IIRC, intent is not magic. The same laws that apply to all of us should apply to them, and and the same laws that apply to them should apply to to everyone else who conspired to or commits mass murder.

    I’m starting to get tired of the phrase, “intent is not magic.” Intent may not magic, but it’s not completely irrelevant, either. The difference between a terrorist and a simple mass murder is intent. Just as the difference between regular or hate crimes is intent. A person that does harm out of indifference, greed or stupidity is bad enough, but someone who does it out of malice is more dangerous.

    “Intent is not magic” is intended to not excuse you for your misdeeds, but it shouldn’t mean that all misdeeds that have the same end are treated identically.

    Keep right on telling yourself (much less us) that and don’t be surprised when things never get better for any of us. Ever.

    So, four years of Romney would’ve been better how? Would you be teaching Obama a lesson, or simply indicating to the Democrats that they need to move farther to the right to get more votes?

  34. 34
    ck

    Oops. Second quote should be attributed to alkaloid.

  35. 35
    David Wilford

    If only it was just the surveillance state:

    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/26/how-surveillance-changes-behavior-a-restaurant-workers-case-study/

    God may not be watching us, but someone will be.

  36. 36
    whelve

    As an urban explorer and photographer I’ve experienced greater harassment in the past few years exactly because of the terrorism mission creep. I’ve got a strong interest in industrial landscapes, and abandonments in general.
    This past winter my friend and I stopped off to get a shot of the local BP plant, all while standing in the public way on a sidewalk. Next thing you know our car is blocked in by 4 black SUVs and 5 big burly security thugs are demanding to know what we’re doing and why.
    There was a very long back and forth in which they threatened to call police (go ahead, we’re doing nothing illegal) and I let them know that my photo of the smokestacks and high fence wouldn’t give an terrorist any more information than google maps and streetview could offer them. They eventually let us go, but not before one my companions caved and gave up his ID, which then made the rest of us give up ours (I’m still angry about that). There were lots of promises that we’d be getting a call from the FBI or NSA, which of course never happened.

    The National Counterterrorism Center released a report detailing why UE is a dangerous hobby to allow in light of national security. Not all urbexers infiltrate (break and enter premises that are currently in use) and many, such as myself, only explore abandoned places. Yet now I’m faced with arrest rather than a warning when the police spot me walking into an abandoned church, because I’m “helping the terrorists”. Sure I’m breaking the law (misdemeanor trespassing, most of the time) and should expect arrest, but the fact is that until the past couple of years the most I would get was a, “You know better, now get out of here.”, if they even bothered to pursue me.

    I can only agree with other commenters in that through surveillance and instilling fear the government has a very useful tool to control the populace and quell dissent before it gets past a grumble. While we may view the reports on how surveillance has nothing but negative impacts on a social system, the government seems to think those impacts are useful and good (and they are, to the government’s own end). I, for one, will do my small part to resist, and I can only ask that everyone else does the same.

    Paul at #14- Someone else already mentioned that those security cameras on light posts and tall buildings are there to watch for graffiti writers and drug dealers. What they failed to mention is that they don’t make much of a difference in the problem, but sure do make the residents of those areas feel like animals in zoo. The auto repair place has cameras all over the exterior of their building, one points straight at my back stairs. It doesn’t help me or my neighbors feel any more comfortable about our position on the edge of a high crime neighborhood. Neither did it help the police figure out who broke into the apartment downstairs.

  37. 37
    sonofrojblake

    A world in which the definition of “appropriate” thought and behaviour becomes so narrow that even the most pedantic norm violations are met with exclusion or punishment.

    Funny, when I read that, the first place that sprang to mind was the comment section on this blog.

  38. 38
    chigau (違う)

    sonofrojblake
    you could just go away

  39. 39
    fabianocaccin

    the authoritarianism has been going on for a bit longer than a decade. I date it back to around 1980 and the Reagan crowd.

    1982
    That such things can be predicted, I think is the most damning thing of all.

  40. 40
    sonofrojblake

    chigau:
    Indeed, I could. Thanks for splainin.

  41. 41
    Arawhon, a Strawberry Margarita

    Apparently sonofrojblake is so terrified of the Horde and its unwillingness to allow gendered slurs. Oh how he wishes to rebel and be a rape apologist, to be a maverick and loudly proclaim his racist ways. But alas, he will skulk and snipe and play the good poster unwilling to stand up to the jackbooted Femistasi and their Thought Police.

    The above is sarcasm and lots of snark.

  42. 42
    David Marjanović

    Keep right on telling yourself (much less us) that and don’t be surprised when things never get better for any of us. Ever.

    Well, You The People of the United States have one way out that I can see: amend the big-C Constitution to separate the head of state from the head of government and make the government dependent on Congress. That would end the two-party system. I can vote for the Greens or the Pirates and watch them end up in a coalition government, you can’t (absent an outright miracle).

    Good luck with that. 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the state legislatures it is, right?

  43. 43
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Hey, it works for drug policy!

    British tourist Keith Brown was sentenced to four years in prison after Dubai customs officers found a 0.003g trace of cannabis stuck to his shoe.

    Possession of painkillers like codeine and some cold and flu medication could result in a mandatory four-year prison sentence, Fair Trials International said.

    “What many travellers may not realise is that they can be deemed to be in possession of such banned substances if they can be detected in their urine or bloodstream, or even in tiny, trace amounts on their person.”

    Mind you, the next example might be false because the only source seems to be the website of an organization with a point to prove, Fair Trials International, and there is no name nor date attached: “Meanwhile, a Swiss national is serving a four-year jail term after three poppy seeds from a bread roll he ate at Heathrow airport were found on his clothes.”

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