Sunday, June 30, 2013

Spying: the Drunk Says The Light Is Better Over Here

It bears consideration to think about the day-to-day operations when people decide what to look for, amid the mountains of eavesdropped conversations collected by PRISM and other local or corporate surveillance operations.

When you consider the deadliest terror attacks, in terms of taking lives, in recent history -- from 9/11 to the Boston Bombings, from the Anthrax letters to Timothy McVeigh to the Spanish train bombings... they were generally perpetrated by a few individuals, at most small rogue groups, operating within a relatively small network. They didn't smear their plans all over communications systems. They relied on their own systems and networks, their own resources, because they already knew the US and other Western countries were pretty good at monitoring transactions within their own systems. So by traditional wiretapping methods, that made them hard to catch, and that was their plan. The surveillance authorities' response was, we have to Hoover up ever more information in order to catch the tiniest rarified interactions that these dangerous people have with the rest of our bigger System.

A much easier and more tempting target for eavesdropping authorities is, of course, the large networks of political dissenters working within the system. According to the logic of bureaucracy, well, it's difficult and expensive to try and ferret out these Black Swan threats like terrorists that come from nowhere. So we can show our paymasters much better results if we spy on publicly known organizations that our paymasters don't happen to like, e.g., political protesters. According to this chain of logic, if YOU contribute a few bucks to the Sierra Club every month, that means you're ecologically minded, which means there's a small chance you may have some connection to the Earth-First! people who burn SUV's in dealerships at night and set fire to unfinished apartment complexes. And then from those crimes, somehow we move from there to assuming there's a connection to political terror bombings that actually take lives. So therefore, because the real bomb-throwing political terrorists are hard to find, we can "show results" and "get promoted" if we monitor a lot of normal, peaceful citizens who might have some convoluted connections to a disfavored ideology. By the twisted logic of economics and statistics, if we just monitor a few hundred million Sierra Club fans, we're more likely to hit upon an actual terrorist, than by doing police work. Or at least, the electronic monitoring _costs_ less money, so let's go for it.

As you can guess, this logic ends up being pretty much equivalent to that old joke about the drunkard looking for his lost keys under a lamp-post. He probably dropped them over in the darkness by his car, but he's searching under the lamp-post because "The light is better over here". These wiretapping authorities keep expecting the next big terror attacks to emanate from Greenpeace or, to be fair to the other side of the aisle, they expect geriatric Tea Partiers to jump up off their Rascal scooters and bomb a Federal building. To the credit of both organizations, Greenpeace and the Tea Partiers keep disappointing the eavesdroppers.

So it makes you wonder, when the government says "PRISM has averted 50 terrorist attacks this year," how many of those supposed terror plots actually rose much above the level of environmentalists slashing SUV tires or Tea Partiers super-gluing the doors to an IRS building.

I've already touched-on, briefly, the fact that PRISM, gigantic as it is, is only a part of an even more massive data-gathering plan -- what else should I call it? A "culture" on the part of large agencies? A "movement"? A "lifestyle"?? -- where everyone from your local police to your ISP to your grocery store, seeks to amass your data and communications. And even if we believe the Federal Government when it swears it's only using your eavesdropped data for purposes of combating terrorism, the other agencies -- including your local police department -- may not be so nobly motivated.

Boston Police Accused of Spying on Protesters and Intimidating Dissidents

The ACLU Massachusetts has successfully requested and obtained a trove of files from the Boston Police Department that reveals that officers of the law have for several years conducted detailed surveillance on peaceful protesters... including well-known activist groups such as the Greater Boston chapter of the CodePink anti-war organization and a local branch of the Veterans for Peace movement. In dozens of cases, officers with the BPD intervened and interrogated activists with these groups and others who were not breaking the law. Even still, officers regularly wrote-up their findings in a scathing tone that suggests malicious intent in dossiers sent to federally-assisted fusion centers to be shared with the FBI.

And guess what? At the same time as they were spending all this effort assembling dossiers of those filthy hippy peaceniks, information about the Boston Bombers dropped into the FBI's laps -- and then basically fell by the wayside, as they didn't have enough manpower to pursue it. Everyone was so busy chasing political protesters that the FBI didn't think a warning from the Russian government was important enough to pass on to the local police.

FBI Knew Earlier of Boston Bombing Suspect

You'll see that accusation in this Todd Gitlin article, and a long list that details how interested these surveillance authorities were in following the activities of fringe protest groups, and you'll see circumstantial evidence that as many as 1/3 of the "crimes" that political activists such as Occupy Wall Street get arrested for, are actually sting operations led by government agents provocateurs, in other words, activities that would likely never have happened at all if government moles and undercover operatives hadn't actively led them and called activists to participate.

As Glen Greenwald discussed in a recent speech to a Socialist conference -- don't let the location scare you, it's well worth reading -- the people who want most badly to clamp down on information security are the ones who receive money and power in exchange for propping up the status quo.

Hence it's no surprise at all that Palantir and Booz Allen Hamilton, the companies doing the PRISM eavesdropping for the government, also calculated that big private entities like Bank of America would be willing to pay millions of dollars per year to use this eavesdropping information to legally attack and smear political and media opponents of the bank, like Anonymous and Glen Greenwald. More on that later today.

So this is yet another reason why the PRISM system is a step up from previous government surveillance -- because it Hoovers up everything, and thus makes it more likely that peaceful protesters and ordinary citizens will get targeted based on their political beliefs. Indiscriminate eavesdropping is not a "neutral" technology that can be used for either good or bad. In the everyday operations, it's pretty much guaranteed that the surveillance operators will concentrate on groups that seek to work within the system to change the status quo, rather than the truly deadly threats, the terrorists who are rogue and unpredictable. Simply because there's more documentation on the people working within the system, and narrow self-interest leads the surveillance operators to believe that's the likeliest avenue for threat to come from.

So if you think this eavesdropping system is, in the final analysis, protecting you from terrorism, I'd argue you are mistaken. The yield in safety from terrorism is tiny compared to the vast advancement in suppressing dissent, change, accountability, and your own political rights to hold opinions at variance from the status quo -- in either direction. If you think you're "safe" because you happen to agree with the political leanings of the Administration that does the wiretapping -- again you're wrong. Both political party Administrations keep tabs on both sides of the political spectrum, because, in their minds, they are monitoring "radicalism" rather than just a political ideology. As the dragnet keeps unfolding and keeps getting larger, it's inevitable that YOU will get caught in it, regardless of your political leanings. Nobody is safe from it -- EXCEPT those who control the surveillance. Hence my proposal, we need to subject the financial and government powers to the same surveillance as they are performing on us.

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