On why everyone has a stake in surveillance reduction

In a week dominated by surveillance and privacy issues, the Economist has done its level best to rationalize why Barack Obama has chosen to expand the surveillance state.

Basically, the magazine’s argument is that although the actual threat from terrorism is disproportionate to the surveillance overkill by the state, that overkill can still be justified (politically speaking ) because the political impact of security lapses is just as vastly disproportionate to the actual body count. Seen in that light, the surveillance society is really not about protecting the security of the public. It is about protecting the government’s own credibility. Conclusion : If only those damn Republicans didn’t make such a meal out of the occasional security lapses, we could all relax, and the state could stop tapping your phone.

That argument is a stretch. In reality, Obama has shown no sign of regret and reluctance in the way he has chosen to extend the surveillance programmes that he denounced as unconstitutional while he was a candidate, but then expanded once gaining office. Yet by way of counter example, the Economist offers up the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston. Clumsy they may have been as terrorists, and relatively low in terms of body count – however tragically, only a relatively few innocent bystanders were killed or injured. Yet if the brothers had struck last year during the election campaign, the Economist argues, Republicans would have used the Boston bombings to up-end the entire presidential campaign:

Terrorism is basically a political communications strategy. The chief threat it poses is not to the lives of American citizens but to the direction of American policy and the electoral prospects of American politicians. A major strike in America by a jihadist terrorist group in 2012 would have done little damage to America, but it could have posed a serious problem for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. For the president the war on terror is what the Vietnam War was to Lyndon Johnson: a vast, tragic distraction in which he must be seen to be winning, lest the domestic agenda he really cares about (health-care, financial reform, climate-change mitigation, immigration reform, gun control, inequality) be derailed.

If you listen to the pundits and talking heads, we are now supposedly engaged as citizens in striking the right and proper balance between our need for security on one hand, and our privacy rights on the other. That assumes the process to be more rational than it actually is. As the Economist concludes, there are at least three forces hard at work in keeping us in a state of chronic anxiety, and ripe for surrender to the surveillance state.

One such culprit is the media. Terrorist attacks and the related angst and morbid curiosity drive television ratings right through the roof. Secondly, politicians feed the fear of terrorism (or of boatloads of refugees steaming towards our shores) to rally support for a range of repressive responses that are more about image polishing than any imminent threat. Thirdly, the terrorists know the drill about those first two elements – and thus, they pick media-friendly, politically loaded targets.

I’d add a fourth factor to that list. The intelligence agencies also have a clear vested interest in promoting the imminence of terrorist threats as a job creation scheme and empire building exercise, in which the politicians become their virtual captives. For example :

For Mr Obama, this is a no-win situation. The only thing worse than missing a terrorist attack because an NSA surveillance programme had been blocked would be having the NSA leak that the terrorist attack was missed because you blocked their surveillance programme. Now, having given the NSA what it said it needed to prevent any nasty surprises, he finds himself dealing with a different nasty surprise: the leak of the NSA programmes themselves. And that surprise has made the chances of accomplishing anything on the issues Mr Obama really cares about – healthcare, climate change, immigration reform, inequality – more remote than ever.

Well, boo-hoo for Barack. As mentioned, a lot of evidence exists to indicate that Obama has authorised (with gusto) actions in the surveillance/security arena. He’s championed everything from denying justice and compensation to the innocent victims of rendition, to operations against Fox News reporter James Rosen to the domestic phone tapping revealed this week by Edward Snowden. These choices go far beyond mere attempts to defend the White House political agenda from Republican scare tactics. (The lack of traction the Republicans have got on the Benghazi non-scandal shows that the Obama White House need not let itself be driven by such tactics.)

It is probably worth summarizing the scale of the surveillance campaign being overseen by the Obama White House. Snowden revealed to the Guardian the existence of a secret order that requires phone company Verizon to provide information to the NSA (on an ongoing and daily basis) about all phone calls in its system, both in the United States and other countries. As the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, this order shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrong-doing.

To repeat : Verizon has been required to provide daily phone records for all communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls. This means that any phone calls by New Zealanders to the US carried by Verizon – whether for personal or business reasons – would fall under the ambit of that order. We are being asked to trust the US not to mis-use such data to further its own national interest. We are also being urged to live in denial (by Prime Minister John Key) that this is a problem.

What the US government is collecting is so-called “metadata” about phone communications : ie, the identities of the sender and recipient, and the date, time, duration, place, and unique identifiers of the communication. The Obama administration has said the content of the calls is not being read. Even if true, that’s little consolation:

..,.Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets – anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we’re gay or straight. The who, when and how of communications are often more revealing than what is said or written. For example : repeated calls to Alcoholics Anonymous, hotlines for gay teens, abortion clinics or a gambling bookie may tell you all you need to know about a person’s problem.

The NSA also operates its so-called PRISM network of Internet surveillance that is separate and additional to this phone monitoring system.

[PRISM] collects data from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Established pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, PRISM allows national security officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, if targeted at foreigners ‘reasonably believed’ to be abroad, even if the surveillance takes place on US soil. The law forbids intentionally targeting data collection at American citizens or anyone in the United States. But, according to [Glenn] Greenwald, the law allows for the targeting of any customers of participating firms who live outside the US, or those Americans whose communications include people outside the USÖ.NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM as its primary source of raw material, and accounts for one in seven intelligence reports.

OK, so now for the New Zealand connection. Key has (sort of) rejected concerns as to whether the GCSB has used the data derived from PRISM to get around the ( current) legal restrictions on the ability of the agency to spy on New Zealanders . As David Fisher reported in the NZ Herald:

Mr Key, who is the Minister in charge of the GCSB, told TV3’s Firstline the bureau did not get information about New Zealanders through the data harvesting system Prism to get around a ban against spying on its own citizens.”I can’t tell you how the United States gather all of their information, what techniques they use, I just simply don’t know. But if the question is do we use the United States or one of our other partners to circumvent New Zealand law then the answer is categorically no,” he said. “We do exchange – and it’s well known – information with our partners. We do do that. How they gather that information and whether they use techniques or systems like Prism I can’t comment on that.”

Parse that ramble and its evident that we’re getting from Key what I’ve previously called prophylactic ignorance. If Key doesn’t know (or can claim not to know) how the US got its data, and the GCSB can share in it in the normal course of intelligence data exchange but no one tells GCSB Minister John Key which bits were legally (or otherwise) obtained, then he’s still safely within the zone of plausible deniability. And if he can claim to be in the dark, he can hardly be blamed for keeping us in the dark, too – right? The way this works is less a case of Yes, Minister than its more dodgy sequel : What – Me, Minister? Surely not.

Of course, it is always unrealistic to expect centre right governments to restrain these sort of activities. For all their supposed concerns about individualism and the abuses of state power, what this really boils down to is a zeal for extending the freedoms to do business – and even that doesn’t extend to the likes of Kim Dotcom. Centre right parties in New Zealand give every sign of having no interest whatsoever in defending civil rights. (Much as they abhor the PC excesses of the Nanny State, they’re entirely at home with the privacy intrusions of the Daddy State.)

Worryingly, centre left governments seem to be just as prone to pandering on defence/intelligence issues, but for quite different reasons. The main motivator appears to be an over-riding fear of being painted as peaceniks soft on security risks. That was one reason why the Clark government threw so much money and resources at the armed forces and security services throughout the 2000s. The last Labour government gave the Defence Establishment everything it asked for and more besides, diligently promoted Anzac Day celebrations, and colluded with Winston Peters in supporting the SIS in its bumbling persecution of Ahmed Zaoui. On security and surveillance matters, the two major parties, especially since 9/11, have spoken virtually as one.

How do we get off this runaway train of state surveillance ? This may seem a pretty forlorn hope when legislation to expand the powers and operations of the GCSB is coming down the pike, as we speak. Surprise, surprise – the surveillance powers of the GCSB are being expanded while the oversight mechanisms remain as threadbare as ever. New Zealand’s compliant participation in the global surveillance programmes initiated by the US has little to do with any existing threats to our own security, or with any rational risk assessment of future danger. It springs from a desire to play in the big leagues.

Par for the course. Whether it be in Hollywood or Langley, Virginia, John Key has never met a greater power that hasn’t left him feeling weak at the knees. Yet so long as we continue to take such a keen vicarious interest in prime time terrorism, Key will continue to feel that this is time and resources well spent. So will the media, and so will the intelligence agencies – and the relatively few terrorists out there will hardly be able to believe the attention they’re getting. Because one way or another, we’re all in the surveillance business now.


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