Several years ago, during a session at Harvard Law School led by a small group of Google executives, I asked one of those executives about his company’s strategy behind starting services in categories where there was no obvious direct business benefit. The answer that came back fascinated me. It was, “We look for second and third order effects.” (Earlier JP Rangaswami and I came up with another term for that: “because effects.” That is, you make money because of something rather than with it.) I hadn’t thought about it until now, but I believe Google’s ability to monitor online activities by individuals on a massive scale serves as a model for governments to do the same.
I bring this up not because I believe Google models government surveillance (even though, without intending to, it does), but because I believe surveillance by governments inevitably causes second and third order effects. The least of those is to chill personal expression. The greatest of those is terror.
The more I think about those effects, the more Hannah Arendt comes to mind. Arendt studied totalitarianism in depth, and its use of terror as a technique for state control of citizens.
I read and re-read Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism when I was in college, in the late 1960s. That was a time of revolt in the U.S. (most notably against institutionalized racism and the Vietnam war), and both of Arendt’s totalitarian state examples — Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union — operated in recent memory, and still served as models. While I don’t believe we are headed to a totalitarian end in the U.S., I do believe the current news suggests a vector of policy and action ratcheting gradually in that direction.
So I encourage revisiting what Arendt said about the paralyzing unease that state monitoring of personal communication induces in a population. And also what she says here:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.
Check your feelings for a reaction to this question raised both by Snowden and blow-back against him: Do we really know what’s going on?
Without that question, we wouldn’t have an NSA. Or a CIA.
What we need is to take the third order effects of total surveillance into account. Because one of those effects is to put the population itself into a state of terror. And chilling effects are just the first step in that direction.
So, while the feds may be looking for the needles of bad actors and actions in the haystack of all people and their communications, knowing that all of us are subject to suspicion is bound to make us think more than twice, as for example I am right now, about using the terms “terror” and “terrorism” in something I publish online.
Here are some links I’m accumulating on the topic of PRISM and other forms of government surveillance here in the U.S.:
- Jacob Applebaum, of Tor, giving the 29C3 Keynote: Not My Department, December 2012, about the surveillance state.
- The Homeland Security Apparatus: Fusion Centers, Data Mining and Private Sector Partners, by Beau Hodai, May 22, in the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch.
- Boundless Informant: the NSA’s secret tool to track global surveillance data – Revealed: The NSA’s powerful tool for cataloguing global surveillance data â€“ including figures on US collection : the original Guardian story by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, published 6 June and updated since. (Greenwald’s series on security and liberty, including the above and much of the below.)
- The government response (.pdf) and the Guardian’s window on on it.
- Tech companies concede to surveillance program, by Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times.
- Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations. The 29-year-old source behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA’s history explains his motives, his uncertain future and why he never intended on hiding in the shadows. Q&A with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I do not expect to see home again’ Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong guardian.co.uk, Sunday 9 June 2013 16.17 EDT. Contains a video. The kid looks solid and sane.
- Spy agency seeks a criminal probe in to leaks, by Timothy Gardner and Mark Hosenball in Reuters.
- Sources: NSA sucks in data from 50 companies, by Marc Ambinder in The Week (6 June) More about the NSA from Ambinder’s book, Deep State: Inside the Government’s Secrecy Industry.
- Cowards! by Michael Arrington in Uncrunched (lots of links there)
- Silicon Valley Joins the Surveillance State, by Bloomberg’s editors
- We are shocked, shocked…, by David Simon (yes, that David Simon)
- White House petition: Create a new privacy-focused amendment to the constitution that gives citizens equal rights to government for privacy (100,000 needed, 9 so far)
- Privacy matters â€” even if you think it doesn’t, by Joseph Ratliff (also with lots of links)
- You’re a suspect, by Tristan Louis. Bottom lines: The issue is not whether data was gathered but transparency and the right of every citizen or resident to review their own personal data. That ability will continue to maintain our reputation as a a beacon of freedom and a country of personal choice, not an Orwellian nightmare standing side by side with more repressive governments.
- NSA Prism: Why I’m boycotting US cloud tech – and you should too, by Trevor Pott in The Register. “When a country goes off the rails, why should we trust its computing systems?”
- Lauren Weinstein looks toward absent “back-doors” to Net company servers. Also Internet shattered by spies, spooks and disgust.
- The Guardian says PRISM enables “collection directly from the servers” of a bunch companies
- Greenwald: Some Parts Of NSA Story Wonâ€™t Be Published: â€œWeâ€™re not engaged in a mindless, indiscriminate document dump, and our source didnâ€™t want us to be,â€ said Glenn Greenwald, the author of the Guardian story about the government monitoring phone and Internet records, in BuzzFeed.
- Marcy Wheeler on the “cyberwar directive”
- The real story in the NSA scandal is the collapse of journalism â€” Summary: A bombshell story published in the Washington Post this week alleged that the NSA had enlisted nine tech giants, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple, in a massive program of online spying. Now the story is unraveling, and the Post has quietly changed key details. What went wrong?
- NSA Data-Scooping: A Coming Backlash in Europe? The same big U.S. Internet companies that reportedly handed over data wholesale to the NSA have been promising compliance with tough EU privacy standards. By David Talbot in MIT Technology Review
- How the U.S. Uses Technology to Mine More Data More Quickly, by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau in the New York Times
- Assange: US rule of law suffering ‘calamitous collapse’ by AFP
- NSA’s backdoor key from Lotus Notes, at Cypherspace.org
- Why Does a Terry Standard Apply to Querying the NSA Call Records Database? by Orin Kerr in The Volokh Conspiracy
- Q&A on the NSA Leak, by the Heritage Foundation. (This one defends the government, and says it’s no big deal.)
- PRISM vs. Tor, from the blog of the Tor Project.
- My thoughts on the NSA scandal, by danah boyd.
- DOJ Argues Secret Ruling Over Secret Unconstitutional Surveillance Must Remain Secret Because It’s Secret, in TechDirt.
- Government Secrets and the Need for Whistle-blowers, by Bruce Schneier. We know all of this not because the government is honest and forthcoming, but mostly through three backchannels — inadvertent hints or outright admissions by government officials in hearings and court cases, information gleaned from government documents received under FOIA, and government whistle-blowers.
- “Terrorism” in Google Ngram Viewer, 1800-2008.
- Larry Hunter, the Cassandra of Digital Privacy, in the Boston Globe
- ‘Big Brother’ and Big Data, a Wall Street Journal editorial, behind a paywall. Its final words: What our self-styled civil libertarians should really fear is another successful terror attack like 9/11, or one with WMD. Then the political responses could include biometric national ID cards, curfews, surveillance drones over the homeland, and even mass roundups of ethnic or religious groups. Practices like data-mining save lives, and in doing so they protect against far greater intrusions on individual freedom.
- Okay, I’m cutting it off here. There’s plenty enough already.
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