23 June 2013

Government surveillance - it’s always time for deicing.

Ruminations of a cynic.

I have borrowed for this headline a bit of the concluding line from the essay The State of Surveillance by A.J. Adler:
We have been called on the plane to look out the window, and even it was by some guy from a Twilight Zone episode, there is frost on the wing. It’s time for deicing.
Aside of a sincere wish that the above linked essay be read by as many people as possible, I have (but of course) a few words to say on the subject. Since these few words will definitely exceed a normal size of a comment, here we are.

Reading the essay, I found myself classified by inference (not sure that A.J. read that overly long post of mine on the subject) with people who, according to him, say "that there is, in fact, nothing new in these so-called revelations." He adds to that:
At once they seem aimed at defending the government from charges of extraordinary or improper activity – even as government officials are daily claiming that national security has been harmed by revelation of what was not previously known – just as they seem aimed at discrediting the reporting as hype.
I hope I am not seen as one of those who defend the government - it is contrary to my basic and acquired instincts, no matter what the government in question does. Nor am I too keen on discrediting the reporting, although it is definitely at least partly a hype and comes via a sleazebag (Glenn G.).

But let's talk about spying in general, after all the government surveillance falls squarely into this, a bit more generic activity. One of the first "official" cases of using spies is the case of 12 spies sent by Moses (it also tells, by the way, what happens when the intelligence brought in by the spooks doesn't satisfy the political branch, but this is not relevant to our topic). Spying was for a long time a reviled occupation, especially when conducted by one's enemies. Even today in most countries spies are generally despised, none more so than the CIA employees for some reason. Not that it puts any hurdles in the way of using the spies' services. Still, when the issue of governments snooping after their own citizens arises, again and again the eruption of public fury is encompassed only by the level of public's surprise.

Sorry, A.J., there is still nothing new in these revelations. The means of surveillance improve, but the general purpose and general methodology remain basically the same, from the first time someone (be it a tribal shaman or someone else of a similar public stature) started collecting information on his brethren. Since the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia allegedly invented the writing, it will be a safe bet that some of their clay tablets went into the first surveillance repository. When Gutenberg's movable type went into serial production, it will be a safe bet to say that the first "standard" forms for complaints to police (including the secret one) were produced and used fairly quickly. The librarian that invented cross-referencing system couldn't have guessed what magnitude of contribution to secret police's archiving and retrieval systems it was. And the ubiquitous data mining: Hollerith machines weren't, strictly speaking, real computers in today's sense, but their use by Nazis may have been the first use of basic data mining techniques for nefarious purposes.

As for the currently evolving story: we have simply came to the point where the abundant supply of magnetic memory made the storing/retrieval of huge volumes of data required for the purpose available at a reasonable price (for the government, and what is reasonable when Joe the taxpayer is considered?). And then the collection started - just because the data is out there and the people who want it are out there.

And now we are coming to the main point: the people. Isn't surveillance a calling for some people? Starting with the twitching curtain in your neighbor's kitchen window (the irresistible tool of many a thriller writer) to the fly-on-the-wall James Bond type characters - can we agree that it takes a special kind of person to go into the spying business, be the spying of a kitchen curtain kind or of more glamorous Mata Hari - esque variety?

Can we agree that our (democratically elected or otherwise) politicians, no matter how much they despise the spies, find their predilection useful nevertheless and employ them in droves, because they (the pols) know very well that knowledge is power and the more knowledge they have the better? Don't we ourselves applaud the exploits of our spies and greedily follow the media stories about their successes, in the rare cases when such successes go public?

Don't we all elect our politicians, lazily overlooking the fact that most of them are of a special breed too: the power hungry liars, thieves and/or manipulators? Don't we hand them the keys to our wallets, to our armory, to our kids' education etc, including the right to employ and to empower those among us with taste for and abilities of snooping?

No, I am not saying "Nothing to see here. Move along". I am just saying that our democracies are built upon a fragile foundation of checks and balances. As we invoke those checks and balances to control (more or less successfully) our politicians, our military, our treasury etc, so we should keep a vigil around our spooks, lest they become too powerful and too data-greedy.

We cannot (and shouldn't) eliminate the spooks, since they are a necessary part of our existence in the fractured and unfriendly environment. But we should be aware of their (natural) attempts to exceed the limits of their mandate, no matter what their reasons are. And we shouldn't act surprised by what we consider to be their excessive zeal or outright villainy, it's an unfortunate side effect of employing potential miscreants. Surprise is a mother of defeat.

Yes, this is one of the cases when cynicism, with an added pinch of pessimism, will do better. At least I believe so.

P.S. Just another ominous accord for the whole subject:
FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged the law enforcement agency uses drone aircraft in the United States for surveillance in certain difficult cases.
See what I mean? No surprises here.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Seems to me the Knesset version is little more than a pleasant illusion. Since the myriad winners must join to form one opposing another also composed of myriad winners. Still comes down to one on one, no?

SnoopyTheGoon said...

My favorite aspects of the Wandering Jews spy story are the petulant God and the "sexed up" intelligence.

I'm not at all invested in any revelatory claims about these events. The ice can have been on the wings since long before take off. It is nonetheless never a bad thing when one finally looks out the window and opens one's eyes. As you say.

I'll be writing again soon about what I think are the specific dangerous elements of the current surveillance regime. That's in addition to a natural propensity for abuse, on which you rightly close.

Otherwise, many thanks for the recommendation to your readers!

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Essentially yes, but we have some small variations from one coalition to another. Like the current one, unstable as it is. I would say it is a bit more interesting, if not all that exciting.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

I did nothing more than your article deserved. Will be waiting for the next one.