Tuesday, 8 July 2014

One way glass

The Washington blog recently argued that mass surveillance is neither particularly new, nor particularly effective (at least in achieving its ostensible aims):
And top security experts – including the highest-level government officials and the top university experts – say that mass surveillance actually increases terrorism and hurts security. And they say that our government failed to stop the Boston bombing because they were too busy spying on millions of innocent Americans instead of focusing on actual bad guys. 
Others argue that enforced transparency just keeps us safe. This may be true up to a (very small) point but two things worry me.

First, the disturbingly disproportionate amount of effort devoted to mass surveillance trawling expeditions that dredge up what look, in the light of day, to be industrial quantities of trivial factoids. Stefan Wolle, the curator for Berlin’s East German Museum was eventually able to take a look at what the Stasi had on him. On the face of it, they needn't have bothered:
When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew ... A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other...

...The lesson, is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.
As reported by Matthew Schofield in McClatchy DC. Worthless, that is, except to the sort of control freak who might be interested in the water cooler world of office politics as a barometer of loyalty and dissent among subordinates and as a tool for manipulating them.

Second, the glass is only transparent in one direction. When it comes to powerful individuals and institutions, we see through a glass, darkly. 114 files documenting containing serious allegations are handed over to the authorities and nothing more is heard until almost twenty years after the alligator's death when the files are found to be missing.  Now that might have been a clerical error, but given what we know about the track record of those in power when it comes to destroying or hiding potentially embarrassing documents, I'm not filled with confidence.

Good job we have a free and fearless press to keep 'em on their toes. Except it turns out that the press have been involved in their own mass surveillance operation, with similarly unimpressive results. They can pay private detectives, bribe bent coppers, hack the phones of dead schoolgirls, so you'd have thought that no wrongdoer would have been safe from the Murdoch hacks' spy net. And yet the flamboyant Jimmy Savile managed to safely fly under the radar of the celebrity and paedo-obsessed News of The Screws from 1955 to 2009, whilst another prime target, Rolf Harris managed to start abusing in 1968 and still have his reputation outlive that of the Screws. And shouldn't the current alleged Westminster paedophile scandal have been grist to the Screws' intelligence-gathering mill? You'd have thought that they'd long since have either gathered enough intel for an All The President's Men scoop, or to have been able to exonerate a few public figures and name and shame those trying to libel them.

But like the spooks, they're too often letting the big fish get away while scooping up the sort of gossip and trivia that's more or less useless for keeping people safe, but rather useful for manipulating them. Likewise, the police were seemingly looking the other way, whilst conscientiously videoing every hippy who turns up at an environmental demo and going undercover to bed the female ones, like low-rent James Bonds infiltrating a harmless vegan version of SPECTRE. 'Do you expect me to talk?' 'No, Mr Bond. I expect you to eat tofu.'

With all this alleged scrutiny and transparency you'd think we'd see more of the big, important stuff coming. Yet the sort of thing the watchers are supposed to be watching for always seems to come as a bit of a surprise. End of the Cold War? Nope, didn't see that one coming. 9/11? Sorry, we were looking the other way. 7/7 bombings? Well, we just weren't expecting them to be British blokes. Arab Spring? Er... Yet it's keeping us safe from threats like this which forms the justification for what otherwise looks like out-of-control corporate psychopathy:
According to Dr. Hare, corporate psychopaths are glib, superficially charming, have a grandiose sense of self-worth, are pathological liars, conning, manipulative, lack remorse, are emotionally shallow, callous, lack empathy, and fail to take responsibility for their actions. He believes that criminal and anti-social definitions of psychopathy are inappropriate for corporate psychopaths so a revised definition should be used to detect them.

All psychopaths thrive off of the feelings of power and control they get from dominating their victims, but corporate psychopaths victimize people in primarily psychological ways. They seek out leadership positions because money, power, status and control are what make them tick...

...It is not difficult for these psychopaths to rise to very high levels in corporations, particularly in today’s uncertain and constantly changing corporate climates...
Characteristics of Corporate Psychopaths and Their Corporations - Summary by J. Scarlet

I'm becoming less and less convinced by the sort of manipulative people in leadership positions who come out with a stream of glib, plausible justifications for this sort of one-way openness (because national security/defamation/commercial confidentiality/won't somebody please think of the children/too big to fail/oops, we lost the files/we'll have to wait until the official inquiry has published whitewashed its findings, or Hell freezes over, whichever comes sooner/whatever). Personally, I think the cult of leadership and the sort of people it attracts has a lot to do with these sort of double standards and abuses of power.