Sliding towards a surveillance society

Many people seem to be quite complacent about having the US’s NSA, the UK’s GCHQ, and other government agencies spy on people’s communications and compile dossiers on their lives and associates because they have been convinced that they are under serious threat and that such measures are necessary to keep them safe.

British novelist John Lanchester is one such person, repeating all the usual alarmist rhetoric about the terrorists targeting us because of who we are and for our supposedly superior values, completely ignoring the fact that there are other, more concrete, causal factors at play.

We do have enemies, though, enemies who are in deadly earnest; enemies who wish you reading this dead, whoever you are, for no other reason than that you belong to a society like this one. We have enemies who are seeking to break into our governments’ computers, with the potential to destroy our infrastructure and, literally, make the lights go out; we have enemies who want to kill as many of us, the more innocent the better, as possible, by any means possible, as a deliberate strategy; we have enemies who want to develop nuclear weapons, and thereby vastly raise the stakes for international diplomacy and the threat of terrorism; and we have common-or-garden serious criminals, who also need watching and catching.

I get all that. It doesn’t thrill me to bits that the state has to use the tools of electronic surveillance to keep us safe, but it seems clear to me that it does, and that our right to privacy needs to be qualified, just as our other rights are qualified, in the interest of general security and the common good.

That pretty much sums up the attitude of those who are willing, even eager, to succumb to the authoritarian state.

So The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger invited Lanchester to see the files on the activities of the GCHQ that had been released by Edward Snowden. After carefully going through all the material, some of which that the public has not yet seen,, Lanchester concludes that much of the GCHQ’s activities are appropriate when they deal with targeting specific individuals who are contemplating specific acts. But he then goes on:

The problems with GCHQ are to be found in the margins of the material – though they are at the centre of the revelations that have been extracted from the Snowden disclosures, and with good reason. The problem and the risk comes in the area of mass capture of data, or strategic surveillance. This is the kind of intelligence gathering that sucks in data from everyone, everywhere: from phones, internet use from email to website visits, social networking, instant messaging and video calls, and even areas such as video gaming; in short, everything digital.

What this adds up to is a new thing in human history: with a couple of clicks of a mouse, an agent of the state can target your home phone, or your mobile, or your email, or your passport number, or any of your credit card numbers, or your address, or any of your log-ins to a web service.

Using that “selector”, the state can get access to all the content of your communications, via any of those channels; can gather information about anyone you communicate with, can get a full picture of all your internet use, can track your location online and offline. It can, in essence, know everything about you, including – thanks to the ability to look at your internet searches – what’s on your mind.

He says that there has been less outrage over the Snowden revelations in the UK than in the US and the rest of Europe because the UK government has much greater secrecy powers and does not have codified protections for speech and the press. But he adds that they are on a dangerous road.

People misunderstand what a police state is. It isn’t a country where the police strut around in jackboots; it’s a country where the police can do anything they like. Similarly, a security state is one in which the security establishment can do anything it likes.

We are right on the verge of being an entirely new kind of human society, one involving an unprecedented penetration by the state into areas which have always been regarded as private. Do we agree to that? If we don’t, this is the last chance to stop it happening. Our rulers will say what all rulers everywhere have always said: that their intentions are good, and we can trust them. They want that to be a sufficient guarantee.

Information is power. We live in an age where the government says it has the right to know everything about you but says that you do not have the right to know anything about what it does that it does not want to tell you. This leads to a dangerous imbalance.


  1. left0ver1under says

    The greatest enemies are those on wall street and other excessively wealthy scumbags.

    US foreign policy is driven by their demands, causing most of the world’s “terrorism” (e.g. the rise of islamic extremism in Iran leading up to the 1979 revolution), some of which isn’t actually terrorism (e.g. Somali piracy is more about retaliation than terrorism, if one checks the facts). Many countries that are or have been communist (e.g. Cuba) or islamic dictatorships would never have been, had the US run a civilized foreign policy.

    The terrorism the wealthy scumbags cause then give governments an excuse to spy on those who aren’t causing the problem.

  2. trucreep says

    I agree that a lot of what the country does is influenced by these select few wealthy individuals, but they’re almost like sharks in that when they smell blood, they move in to feed. Meaning, they may not be the cause of foolish foreign policy, but they move in once the damage has been done and exacerbate it.

    Something I’ve taken away from Jeremy Scahill’s book Dirty Wars is that you don’t necessarily need financial motivation to completely destroy stable governments (although that is definitely a huge part), but just “ambition” or the will to carry out your plans. Cheney and Rumsfeld are, in my view, heinous war criminals that caused real harm to America. I have no doubt of that.

    “Many countries that are or have been communist (e.b. Cuba) or Islamic dictatorships would never have been, had the US run a civilized foreign policy.” – I think you’re absolutely right about that. Again, from Dirty Wars, Somalia and Yemen are in the state they are today directly due to the United States.

  3. Jeffrey Johnson says

    The Tea Party is a greater enemy right now, no matter how well intentioned they may be. They think they are doing something good and responding to some real threats, but they are largely ignorant of the negative impact of their economic ideas, which are based on simplistic accounting and not a proper understanding of macroeconomics, and their fears are based on paranoid conspiracies.

    Nobody could shut down the government or threaten the full faith and credit unless they were an active enemy of the United States. This is something a Bond Villain might try to do. The Tea Party is the Dr. Evil of American politics.

  4. Jeffrey Johnson says

    What bothers me as that this question about surveillance is so often framed in terms of all or nothing extremes.

    There are many options, and some kinds of surveillance are far less intrusive than others. The British public may be used to the country’s extensive system of CCTV cameras, and may be of the opinion that this system has protected them far more than threatened them. Similar systems in the US have met with more resistance.

    The real source of danger is in how the government exercises power, and whether it is properly restrained by public oversight and courts able to enforce the law and impose penalties on government agents or contractors who break the law. The real danger is the government being invulnerable to challenges from citizens, and able to cloak itself with secrecy in order to cover criminal activity, incompetence, and abuse of power. If these things are not taken care of, we are vulnerable to abuse of power with or without government surveillance.

    The extremes are absolute surveillance and none at all. In either of these cases, if the government power is not restrained by a balance of powers, by transparency and freedom of information, by laws and courts able to punish abuse, then none of it matters. The government possesses the most powerful weaponry on the planet, and if it wanted to arrest, beat, torture, intimidate, or kill anyone it wanted to, it could do so even if all surveillance was off limits to it.

    So stopping surveillance by itself does not protect us. Neither does automated large scale surveillance that gathers and stores data by itself harm us. The real harm comes when agents or contractors use the information gathered via surveillance inappropriately to focus on individuals in ways that violate their privacy or threaten their rights.

    Even if you agree with that point, the standard response arguing against surveillance is that the government can never be trusted not to abuse its power, and therefore no surveillance is acceptable.

    I agree the government should not be passively trusted. But I disagree that there is no way to restrain the power of the government. All it takes is the awareness and understanding and support of the public as to how to do that, and to politically demand it en masse. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Mostly there is whining and complaining about personal privacy violations, and predictions of doom and gloom and 1984 style nightmares.

    There are strong arguments supporting the claim that broad scale capture of data provisionally for storage and potential future usage can be a very important and effective part of powerful law enforcement and defense measures. There are also technological and political means to prevent such stored data from being abused. Agents shouldn’t be able to go look at a random person’s information at the click of a mouse. The data can be protected by strict access controls, and all access can be recorded by thorough auditing, and no access can be granted unless a digital certificate corresponding to a legal warrant is authorizing that access. Every access can be logged in association with the authorizing certificate. It is within the capability of computing technology to properly secure the data against random abuse, idle curiosity, or malicious intent.

    But this would need to be mandated and verified. There is an important question as to whether this is worth it. Well, there sure was a lot of complaining about not connecting the dots after 9/11. Such systems could give us the ability to connect dots far better than a system that only authorizes limited focused surveillance after the fact of a warrant, after a person becomes a suspect. And this data can be secured against intrusive unauthorized access at least as well as it is protected on Facebook, Google, or Verizon computers.

    If we have the political ability to block government surveillance, we also have the political ability to find middle ground that does not take powerful tools out of the hands of law enforcement and security officers, while still protecting the public against unauthorized access to use of the data, and against government abuse of power, which is a problem we must address anyway completely independently of the surveillance question.

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