Why was this massive surveillance system created?

The recent revelations of the existence of a massive widespread global surveillance system under the control of the US government lead to the obvious question of why it was created at all. I think it resulted from many reasons, all of which converged to this one end.

The most common answer (that it is needed to fight terrorism) can only be at most partially true. I have long felt that the terrorist threat was not an end in itself but a means to an end, a way to scare people into acquiescing to giving the government more power. But even conceding the argument for the moment, the law of diminishing returns suggest that beyond a certain point, the vast amount of people and expenditure that is required to collect and store all this information results in only marginally greater safety.

After all, if this system is so powerful as a danger detection and prevention device, how come it missed the Boston bombers? Assuming that the Tsarnaev brothers are the guilty people, they do not strike one as criminal masterminds who would have had the knowledge and skill to carefully hide their tracks. One suspects that they were using their phones and email and Facebook and all the other things that the NSA has been collecting and analyzing. And yet their plans were not anticipated.

I suspect that another part of the reason for the growth of the surveillance system is simply the internal imperative driven by technology. As technology and computing power grows, it seeks ways to be utilized. There are always people pushing at the boundaries trying to find new ways to apply it. The catch is always money and what the dimmest bulb has long realized is that all that you have to do is shout ‘terrorism!’ and the government will throw money at you with no questions asked and, even better, with little or no accountability or public debate. So it does not surprise me that all these powerful new technologies are being used in the service of allegedly fighting terrorism. It is a cash cow that is easily milked.

But those are the most benign reasons. The more sinister one is that the more information the government has on you, the more power it has over you. One of the worst arguments used in support of the excessive surveillance powers of the national security state is when people say that “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about”. This was recently advanced by the British Foreign Secretary and senator Lindsey Graham. This argument is pernicious because it is used to inhibit opposition by implying that the people who oppose the policy may be having something to hide. It is an attempt to intimidate dissenters.

The point is that all of us have something to hide for a myriad of reasons. And all of us are criminals, even if we do not consciously break laws. We live in a world of complicated laws that we unwittingly break all the time. If you use the internet at all, the chances are that you have broken laws. If you have ever used your office phone for a personal call or used the office computer for non-work related activities, you have committed an offense for which you could be fired.

The reason that having the government keep a complete dossier over you is bad is that if your name comes to the attention of the government for any reason whatsoever, say for expressing political opinions that it feels are dangerous, all it has to do is to troll through its data cache and find something that is illegal or even just embarrassing and they have a weapon over you. In the past, they would have to observe you after your name came up. Now they don’t have to bother. They can just go back and see what you did before they were aware of your existence.

Take a simple example. It turns out that whistleblower Edward Snowden contributed to Ron Paul’s campaign and may have libertarian instincts. If the government now thinks that such people may be security risks, they can simply go through people’s stored data and refuse to hire anyone whose profile suggests that they might be a possible danger. And the job applicant would have no idea why they were not hired.

This is why another bad argument excusing the NSA surveillance state is that since Google and Facebook have so much information on you, what is the harm in the government having it too? Isn’t it preferable for them to have it since they are not using it to make a profit but to protect the country? The catch is that the government has much more punitive power than private companies. The private companies want to make money. They have no incentive to get you fired from your job or to put you in jail. The government has the power to really affect your life.

I think that all this data gathering serves mainly as a long-term insurance policy for the oligarchy. I think the government-oligarchy axis is well aware that the increasing concentration of wealth in an ever-smaller number of people is likely to lead to greater unrest in the future. They need to be able to monitor people in order to nip in the bud any sign of organized protest that might emerge before it gets too large. Things like the Occupy Wall Street movement created real alarm in the ranks of the oligarchy because it took direct aim at the root cause of the problem in the country. (In future posts I will give some examples of how Occupy protestors across the nation have been infiltrated and targeted so that they could not organize to protest the power of Wall Street.)

The classic case of an overarching government surveillance state was the secret police called the Stasi in East Germany, so well portrayed by that excellent film The Lives of Others. The whole point of the Stasi was to keep tabs on any people who may get uppity ideas about freedom and democracy and prevent them from being catalysts of change that might challenge the existing order. That goal has not changed with the current situation. What has changed is that the US government now has powers that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the Stasi.


  1. Nick Gotts says

    The private companies want to make money. They have no incentive to get you fired from your job or to put you in jail.

    Not necessarily true. For example Google and Facebook have recently run into controversy in the UK because they pay little or no corporation tax here, despite making vast profits selling advertising to UK firms. How useful it could be to them to collect information on their critics, and even individuals in the revenue authorities.

  2. sailor1031 says

    ““If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about”. This was recently advanced by the British Foreign Secretary and senator Lindsey Graham.”

    I’m guessing Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Sam Adams, John Hancock (to name only a few) would have thought they had something that needed hiding. I guess the great american dedication to freedom allows only one revolution, no matter how despotic the government may become. We may rest assured that someday, if not already happening, this database will be used against peaceful dissidents just as it would have been in the old USSR or Dritte Deutche Reich had they had the technology

  3. Corvus illustris says

    … the obvious question [is] why it was created at all. I think it resulted from many reasons, all of which converged to this one end. ¶ The most common answer (that it is needed to fight terrorism) can only be at most partially true.

    “Partially true” is very diplomatic language on your part, since it’s been written about in unclassified places beginning no later than the early 1980s. Of course back then it was The Russians Are Coming! The real start was when the post-1947 Harry Truman–like all presidents after him (possibly excepting Eisenhower)–realized that Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” could be an aspiration rather than a warning.

  4. Kimpatsu says

    I will accept the “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” argument when politicians like William Hague and Lindsey Graham start having sex in public…

    When I was 14YO, I was given a pair of binoculars for Xmas. With them, I found that I could spy on everything the people across the road did. I never saw them doing anything the least bit criminal, or even salacious; however… Oh! The THRILL of being able to observe them whilst they were completely oblivious to being watched. I am convinced, based on my own teenage experience, that, as with the TSA, where we know high school dropouts laugh and point at the penis size of passengers being scanned, much of this has to do with the deliciousness of being able to spy on people for the thrill of it, with nothing to do with security.
    Would anyone agree with me?

  5. says

    Whether it was intentionally done for this or not, it makes a lot more sense than building such a mass, indiscriminate database solely for the purposes of rooting out terrorism. The sheer amount of data gathered would seem to make it nearly impossible to find something so comparatively rare as a lead on a terror plot among on that noise. Given the details I’ve read, it seems like a classic classification problem. I did some number crunching here to see what kind of results they might hypothetically get using automatic classification algorithms, and unless their system is way more crazy awesome than I can imagine, good terror leads are going to be drowned in a storm of false positives.

  6. Corvus illustris says

    Oh sure–some of the lower-level people may be driven by voyeurism of the ear (auditeurism?). But Mano probably reads the real driving power correctly as “… all this data gathering serves mainly as a long-term insurance policy for the oligarchy.”

  7. mnb0 says

    @5 Kimpatsu: not me. I have tried it as a child too and got bored within a few minutes. Sorry.

  8. Paul Jarc says

    Even this is granting too much to the “I have nothing to hide” argument. I could be guaranteed that my information would never be used against me, and that still wouldn’t be good enough. Other people are working for reforms that would make my life better, and as long as they are at risk of their information being used against them, I share a small part of their risk. I stand to gain from their victory, and so I also stand to lose from their defeat.

  9. slc1 says

    Boy, my old bud, Don Williams, with whom I used to spar over at Matthew Yglesias’ old site and who was a drive by troll for a week at Ed Brayton’s blog this past March, would find a home here with his conspiracy theories. He and Prof. Singham would make beautiful music together, playing their conspiracy theories off each other.

  10. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    It’s worth remembering that the Stasi and similar organisations in Eastern Europe had a big part in the destruction of the societies they served. They cost a lot, used up human and material resources that could be used elsewhere, confirmed the peoples they watched in their distrust and suspicion of the government and damaged the governments’ claims to have right to govern.

  11. sailor1031 says

    I don’t actually see how this database could be used to predict terrorist activity; at least not without generating a mountain of false positives, as nkrishna points out, and that should scare everybody. How many people will be investigated and harassed, have their lives damaged and maybe destroyed by overzealous, under-intelligent investigators?

    Where this database can produce real results is in the post-facto investigation of activities once a suspect or suspects have been identified. All their contacts can then be trolled at leisure. Unfortunately this will also produce false positives as anyone, however innocent, is caught in the net.

    Having seen the delicacy with which TSA, FEMA, Border Patrol, ICE, FBI, CIA etc approach the execution of their duties, we should all be very afraid.

  12. sailor1031 says

    OBTW, be careful what you post as such communications and eMail are also subject to NSA perusal. As I remember, the original justification for that was to apprehend pedophiles……..

  13. keljopy says

    I’m pretty sure there’s no conspiracy theory here. The government can and has used minor crimes that they normally wouldn’t bother with to get people to do what they want. For example they have used minor crimes like “lying” to a federal agent (even when it’s an accidental untruth or something they the person isn’t sure about and misspeaks) encountered when surveilling suspected terrorists (of people in no way involved in terrorism, actually in one case told by This American Life it was a person who reported a suspected terrorist to the government) to force otherwise innocent people to work for them in places like Afghanistan, telling them if they do what the government wants their crime will be ignored, but if they choose not to, they will get the book thrown at them.

    With the government spying on everyone all the time and all the minor and/or accidental crimes we commit on a regular basis due to the complicated nature of the law there is no doubt the government will use it to get anyone to do anything they want. They can and have done it to some people already, no reason to think they won’t expand this power if they can.

    It’s like a police officer told us in driver’s ed. If they are suspicious of a driver for something but don’t have “probable cause”, all they really have to do is follow them a few miles before that person will inevitably commit a minor infraction and they can pull them over. With this sort of surveillance going on it won’t be just driver’s and suspected criminals, but everyone going about their daily lives who will have to deal with this sort of thing.

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