Behind the Silicon Curtain
“Mister Obama, Tear Down this Wall!”
Linda M. an IT professional and SA member discusses the recent revelations about US internet spying. Peaceful revolution ultimately brought down the Stalinist surveillance states of Eastern Europe and tore down the Iron Curtain. Now the challenge is to pull down the Silicon Curtain.
In a flurry of articles recently published by the Guardian and substantiated by the Washington Post, it has been revealed that the United States Government has been operating a massive surveillance program targeting US citizens and foreign nationals, without warrant, and without discrimination. Further reports exposed the stunning extent of the partnership between corporate America and the government in spying on innocent individuals, and even journalists. No less than nine of the largest Internet and telecommunications companies in America have been implicated. These companies, which include Microsoft, Google, Apple, YouTube, Skype and Facebook are accused of providing the NSA with direct access to customer data on their servers in real-time, via a system known as PRISM.
The PRISM system
It is impossible to know all of the exact details of what is recorded, because after all, this was a secret, leaked report. The government asserts that the court order leaked pertains only to telephone call Meta-Data. But further revelations about PRISM indicate the NSA has direct access to the servers of these companies. That would mean that virtually everything that you do on the Internet and on the telephone is technically available to the government, whether you have committed a crime or not, so long as it passes through the servers of one or more of the companies named.
Using PRISM, potentially everything you or your children do on the Internet could be recorded. Everything you say to your spouse on the telephone, every search you make in Google and every post you make in Facebook. Every photograph you share can be saved. Every picture you linger over on a porn site. Every word you say when you talk dirty on the telephone to your lover can be preserved forever, and can be accessed at any time by government employees with sufficient clearance. Every time you click Like, every angry comment you post in a blog, every Skype conversation you have, including every friend in every contact list or address book you use. Every email you send, and indeed, every page you navigate to in your web browser. Everything can be captured, and most of it will be available to be read. The primary exception, at least for now, is privately secured, privately encrypted communications, which cannot be read if the encryption keys are strong enough.
Part of the shock of these revelations involves the perceived betrayal by companies which historically have been entrusted with some of the most intimate aspects of our lives. The documents portray these large companies, like Google and Facebook, as acting for all intents and purposes like Junior G-men for the US security apparatus. Although companies like Apple deny their complicity, there is little evidence to suggest that Apple would not cooperate fully with the government if issued with a secret court order compelling them to do so.
Of course, you are not meant to know the details of any of this. The government is purple with rage that it has been leaked. Certainly, Apple, Google and Facebook are likewise not happy at the betrayal of their betrayal. For the most part, the same secret court orders which establish the surveillance also prevent companies from revealing the existence of the surveillance. So denials by Google and Apple of complicity may be reasonably be interpreted as nothing more than continued compliance with the same secret gag orders.
There is no denying however, that something big has been going on for a long time. In the last year, the hunger for detailed personal information about real identities from companies like Google has been intense. Google and Facebook have begun soliciting “real names” and crucial private details, especially pertaining to online friends. Google has brought out Google Glasses, which record continuous live video of users as they move about and meet with people. Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) is used to identify users in real time. Along with information from other devices in the vicinity, FRT is able to create as complete a profile of a person in time and space as it is practically possible to do. Given the Guardian's revelations, there can be no doubt that the government automatically obtains complete records of all of this data, as it is created. Thus every person wearing Google Glasses is, wittingly or unwittingly, acting as an unpaid Federal Informant.
The great irony of all of this is that, at least until Google Glasses becomes more prevalent, the only people who are safe from this surveillance are the terrorists and professional criminals. Terrorists and professional criminals know how to avoid digital information sources, and when necessary, they know how to use the Internet securely. Hence, they are seldom caught. Osama Bin Laden had ceased using virtually all forms of electronic communications from before 9/11. Bin Laden was thus invisible to the global dragnet. It took 10 years to find him. He was ultimately located using nothing more than good old fashioned police work, when he was turned in by a neighbour.
Total Information Awareness
What is driving this manic spying effort? It's called, “Total Information Awareness”, a strategy first conceived in the feverish imaginations of hyper-ventilating Pentagon officials in the late 1980's. It was based on a false premise - the idea that given enough information, the actions of all human beings could ultimately be predicted and prevented, at all levels of society. This idea is readily disproved with a bit of simple mathematics, but it has not stopped billions of dollars being spent on these programs.
Bad ideas are no barrier when it comes to Pentagon spending programs. After the Patriot Act was passed, Total Information Awareness finally got its chance to slip past the critical faculties of both Congress and the American people. The Patriot Act enabled the Military-Industrial Complex to do an end run around the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, by effectively creating a permanent emergency in America.
In spite of all the information provided by TIA, human beings are still required to explicitly investigate and examine the data collected on specific individuals. No computer yet devised can make sense of it all as humans can, or use it to predict even the most trivial incident of terrorism. Thus even blundering terrorists are able to escape the net; the Boston Bombers were well-known to both the FBI and Russian Intelligence, but nothing that the brothers did leading up to that day gave any clue as to their ultimate plans. In any event, Total Information Awareness has not delivered the security it promised.
Worse than a failed strategy, it is a pointless strategy. Despite the exceedingly rare exception, the government's surveillance programs reveal the reality; that terrorism is an almost non-existent problem. Your chances of getting taken by a shark are significantly higher than your chances of dying in a terrorist attack. But the government has not seen fit to declare a “War on Sharks”, and plunge the whole country into a state of shark-anoia. So something else must be going on.
The answer is, fear. Fear, and budgets. There are so few genuine attacks, and so few actual terrorists planning mischief online that the FBI has repeatedly resorted to manufacturing plots. The FBI has been involved in the selection, cultivation, training and provisioning of a number of so-called conspirators, who from start to finish give every appearance of being nothing more than hapless patsies. Were it not for the patient, persistent incitement by the FBI, the acts which the FBI “thwart” would never happen. Because in almost every instance, the attacks planned have been shown to be clearly beyond the means, the inclination and in some instances the intelligence of the perpetrators.
It seems that in spite of the best efforts of the United States government, the world is becoming a steadily more peaceful place. That is not to say however, that there is less interest in politics, in direct action or even in resistance – quite the reverse. There is a general awakening amongst the working class, and the middle class, that citizens need to take responsibility and action to end the decades of decline in living standards, and the abuse and corruption in their democracies. The bad news for the security apparatus however is that this awakening is almost universally founded on the principles of non-violent resistance, not terrorism.
The US government is of course not ignorant of the fact that violence is on the wane and they are especially aware that “global terrorism” is largely a fiction. The fact that they are aware of this, yet persist with their surveillance programs is telling in itself; the real focus of all of this surveillance is political protest, and in particular, its organisers. Of almost equal importance is the chilling effect surveillance has on freedom of speech.
The Occupy movement was systematically subjected to extraordinary overt surveillance, with cameras placed prominently all around Zuccotti Park where they could be seen. Undercover Police agents routinely wandered through the camps, and occasionally conducted disruptive actions. Other undercover agents engaged in subversion, incitement and random harassment. Uniformed officers engaged in capricious arrests, and on arrest, protesters found themselves criminalised and subjected to deliberate over-charging by prosecutors. Tear-gas was used, kettles, truncheons, “zoning” and isolation, and every form of physical and emotional repression. It was later discovered that all levels of civil society was engaged in this, from the White House and Federal Law enforcement, including DHS and the FBI, through to State and local authorities and even the National Guard. As well, working in conjunction with civil authorities, the corporate media participated in a wide-spread propaganda campaign, showing themselves selectively deaf and mute to any political content coming from the occupations, while creating the widespread public perception that the Occupiers were filthy bums and hippy free-loaders. The net effect, as intended, was that the public stayed away in droves, with even the most sympathetic people afraid to be seen within the precincts of the Occupy camps, for fear of recrimination.
The object of the state in crushing the Occupy movement was three-fold; to demonstrate the seemingly omniscient power of the government, to engender a feeling of hopelessness and futility in the protesters, and finally, to create a climate of fear. In the systematic suppression of Occupy, we find almost every element of modern state repression demonstrated. At the base of it all, it is fear which best explains the government's almost manic obsession with surveillance and secrecy, particularly post 9/11.
The Silicon Curtain
Thus we see that the Silicon Curtain which has come down over America is little different in nature and purpose than the Iron Curtain which was once drawn across Eastern Europe. It exists to protect power and privilege. It is a natural expression of the fevered paranoia of elites. The United States, like Stalin's Russia before it, is an institution which has slowly driven itself insane with fear of retribution, haunted by the ghosts of the tens of millions it has killed in its many wars and the hundreds of millions it has impoverished at home and abroad by its greed and corruption.
This irony cannot be lost on those Americans who grew up during the Cold War. For it was the spectre of Stalin, with Beria, his Chief of Secret Police which most perfectly embodied the image most Americas had of Communism during and following that era. Disappearances, show trials, KGB spies, ubiquitous informants, betrayals by co-workers and friends, the Gulags, torture, outrageous prison sentences, State control of the Press, the universal bugging of telephones, and of course the perpetual manipulation of colonial satellites and engagement in endless proxy wars. All of these were things the American people came to associate uniquely with Stalinism and Soviet Totalitarianism.
Yet all of these techniques are today tools which the United States routinely uses to enforce its power, albeit wrapped in slicker patriotic nonsense and legalise than the Russians could ever muster. Today, that same list reads almost identically, but with a decidedly American flavour, peppered by euphemisms and double-speak without a hint of irony; “Renditions” have replaced disappearances, along with show trials, secret national security orders issued by secret national security courts, and an FBI that is far more shadowy than even Hoover could conceive. Internet surveillance, “If you see something, say something” campaigns, private prisons, and of course, Guantanamo Bay. Waterboarding, which is torture, is condoned without blinking, outrageous prison sentences are doled out to copyright violators, whistleblowers, and people who “annoy” police. And then there are the endless wars and manipulations of both allies and enemies alike. The American government, with all its industrial might, its capitalist zeal and its can-do attitude has finally beaten Stalin at his own game.
The United States government, in cooperation with their “Corporate Partners” has drawn its Silicon Curtain around America, and in the process has cast a wide net over most of the world, including New Zealand. But repression, which relies on constant and ever increasing force is expensive, and ultimately exhausting. Furthermore, it is also futile, if the government continues to alienate a majority of its citizens. The course followed by the Iron Curtain countries lead slowly but inevitably to the collapse of the regimes behind that curtain. When peaceful revolutions broke out in 1989 behind the Iron Curtain the whole, futile surveillance state crumbled under its own weight.
In response to these recent revelations concerning America's Silicon Curtain, we paraphrase with no small irony the words of Ronald Reagan in 1987, when we say, “Mister Obama, tear down this wall!”
-Linda M., SA.