Tuesday, July 9, 2013


The “debate” over PRISM and other American and international snooping programs grows more pathetic by the day, still dominated by laments over these “evil” new technologies of data gathering and collation.

The latest “highlight” was conservative columnist Robert Samuelson’s regretting the invention of the Internet.  This is the return of the mad Irish King Cuchulainn cursing the ocean’s waves.

The Internet, with all its dangers and opportunities is here, Bob; get over it.  Or better, learn to manage it.

The same must be said for today’s new surveillance technology: it exists, and any national security agency that fails to use it should be disbanded.  The question is how are these new opportunities to monitor people and their communications used by the NSA, its colleagues and competitors.  It is a given that they can and do register and file just about every form and piece of human communication.  But, what triggers more particular and invasive attention to people or institutions?  And once closer looks are begun, who gets access to selected materials?  Who monitors the snoopers from both inside and outside the system, and what powers do they have to rein in irresponsible or unnecessary prying?  And who tells what about all of this to the people who, in a democracy, should have the ultimate power and responsibility?

These are hard questions, but familiar ones, since they recur often, whenever the balance of power between citizens and their states is transformed by technological or cultural change.

In this case, the ongoing development of surveillance technology and data gathering and mining, like the ongoing development of global use of the Internet creates both dangers and opportunities for both sides of the citizen/state balance of power.

On the one hand, for the 21st Century and beyond, the uncomfortable fact is that personal privacy is dead, and not just because of government supercomputers. The global distribution of mobile phones with audio or video recording capabilities has created an environment in which anything that happens “in public” is almost as likely to be recorded as your “private” phone calls, texts messages, snail- and e-mails, and probably more likely to be distributed with or without your permission.

But, there is a countervailing truth here: government secrecy is as almost as dead as privacy; people have never-before-equaled powers to rip the government’s blindfolds off their eyes.  The fatal flaw of secret systems, that they require human participation, and inevitably, every secret decision can produce active dissent, is nothing new.  But what is new and growing is the ability of whistleblowers to record events, and to distribute the recordings and their dissident criticisms to the world at large. Thus, what really be created is a new and different balance of powers between citizens and states, uneasy, instable, but still a balance of powers.

And the evidence suggests, people have already begun adapting to this new balance.  Even old folks like me have noticed that younger people have different attitudes toward and expectations for privacy.  They are prone to exhibit more of and about themselves than their parents did. Largely this is because they can; but it also because others can create these displays, with little to stop them, and that such exposures create far less embarrassment or social cost.  Note the political returns of Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford, just to name 3.  Every college newspaper, it seems, has either a sex or a porn column, which trade in what even fairly recent graduates might consider TMI, too much information.

This is not to say, there are no norms, but just to note that, for most people under 30 the limits on personal disclosure are looser than for older people.  When it comes to the NSA snoopers, the key task will be to determine the norms, not on what you can do, but on what you can do without inviting real surveillance.  If you can fly beneath that radar, and would-be terrorists have long known this and did not need Edward Snowden to tell them to be careful, you can do almost anything you want, until it is too late for even the most aware parents, potential employers or professional counter-terrorists to prevent it.

So, Norms for Our Time:  when you are on the phone or the Internet, assume your every move is being turned into government data, and when you are on the street or anywhere “in public,” assume there is a good possibility everything you say or do is being recorded. 
That’s relatively easy.  Personal and cultural change is constant and people are used to dealing with it.  Much harder is to define and apply rules and limits to powerful institutions like governments and their often-loosely- supervised security agencies.  They are much slower to understand, and much, much slower to adapt to new conditions than people.

After all, it has been 50 years since the US sent troops into Vietnam, and still there has been little recognition of how changes in communications and weapon technologies have made military invasion an exercise in futility.  The universality of digital communication is one key reason why old war-fighting tactics no longer work, and why local organizations cohere so successfully and durably.  The rapid escalation in portable or “improvised” (i.e. locally sourced) firepower is another.  Taken together, these changes explain why, as I like to put it, “In today’s warfare, the visiting team never wins.” 

Gone are the days of “secret wars.”  If a sparrow, much less a bomb falls, the destruction it causes will be publicly known via Twitter, Facebook and supremely, YouTube, not just by the home folks suffering the damage, who will inevitably be alienated from the outside forces responsible for it, but by the “visitors’ own citizens, who will know what death and destruction are being committed in their names. 

Increasingly, Americans are coming to understand that for every terrorist (in, or without quotation marks) killed by American drones in northwest Pakistan, hundreds of friends, relatives and neighbors, and hundreds of thousands of Pakistani fellow-citizens are turned into irrevocable enemies.  They can see the damage on their TV screens, computers and mobile phones. 

Similar secret US attacks inside Somalia, may have eliminated a few terrorists, but they have also strengthened the Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab’s legitimacy as an anti-imperialist force there.  Somalis, like Pakistanis, count the collaterally dead as their friends, those who killed them as enemies, and today’s communications technologies assure they, and anyone they can communicate with, can count corpses as easily or efficiently as domestic spooks can track your correspondence.  American diplomats on the ground recognize this blowback, but in Washington, other imperatives still rule.

Between whistleblowers and video cameras, government secrecy is dead as a doornail, or the concept of personal privacy.  The Video Era, like those of such earlier modes of communication as the human voice, the printing press, radio and TV, has created great opportunities for the consolidation of power in those who can control or best utilize those media.  But, equally, for ordinary people the new media, each time they change the world, also greatly empower individual communications to spread farther faster to an ever-growing audience. 

There is a new balance of power in communication and, as Darwin noted, adaptation is the only answer. 

David Marash

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