Accountability and Intelligence: The Surveillance State’s Foreseeable Fall

I promised a longer and brighter view of where a world of mass surveillance is headed.

Surveillance means power, but it also means accountability. The deep state is trying to impose perfect accountability on others, and to preserve perfect unaccountability for itself. That can’t last. Employees of the deep state cannot be expected to have its back, when the deep state doesn’t have their back. The war on whistleblowers, and now the frantic ban by James Clapper on any deep state employees talking to the media without prior permission from their superiors, smack of panic, of a white-knuckle approach to the politics of information. The deep state knows that they can win individual battles, such as by imprisoning John Kiriakou or Chelsea Manning; with respect to their employees, their position appears to be that the beatings will continue until morale improves. They want to intimidate unauthorized leakers, and need a constant stream of Espionage Act prosecutions to do it with. However, they cannot, in the end, win this war.

The same technologies that are making personal privacy harder to maintain (which they like), are also undermining government secrecy. Even right now, it is scarcely burdensome to copy 250,000 confidential cables onto a single “CD-ROM”, labeled “Lady Gaga” to deter military intrusion, and disclose the cables to the press. In the future, military/intelligence networks and security practices will need to be extraordinarily secure to deter a vastly increased level of disclosures of classified information. Nothing whatsoever about the state of their network security, now or in the future, suggests that they would be capable of developing or consistently maintaining the level of security needed. All you need to know about the NSA’s approach to its own security is that they at some point thought it a good idea to hire an external contractor to provide sysadmins to manage its internal networks. For perfect internal security, every deep state employee has to be trained in high-level information security, and has to practice those techniques unfailingly. With anything less than perfect internal security, the failing dam of government secrecy will burst.

At the same time, the rapid pace of technological change is more and more mismatched with the processes of government. Our republican deliberative process was designed in the eighteenth century expressly to slow down decision-making and exclude the unreflective views of the vulgar rabble. It is almost as unsuited to making high-speed decisions as the ill-fated eighteenth-century parliament of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Luckily, many people are working on new, more directly democratic forms of governance that can translate the popular will more quickly and effectively into government policy. These changes are not, I regret to say, coming to the United States first. Our Constitution is extraordinarily hard to change. We will find ourselves overtaken first by small, technologically advanced countries (Iceland? Denmark? Singapore?), and we are only likely to change ourselves when the mismatch between our self-conception as a bastion of freedom and the state of the world outside our borders becomes too great. Till then, minor domestic initiatives like the growing national popular vote interstate compact and the contemptibly implemented PR exercise “We The People” provide some hope for significant future democratic reforms, because they signal at least an appetite for elite accountability.

In a climate of information freedom, war will become harder, not easier, to wage. War depends essentially on the ability to lie to people about what is being done in their names. In this, again, the President has been complicit, fighting the release of torture photos from Abu Ghraib among others. A compliant national press can be induced not to publish the photos of drone victims, but a lively international and online press cannot be coerced in the same way, and it makes little difference to Internet news consumers whether the photo is published by an American or an international news operation. Knowledge of war crimes and abuses can be depended upon to spread more rapidly, and may generate more universal understandings of what constitute human rights violations. The Wikileaks model is easily replicated.

So let’s consider what the deep state will have to give up in order to maintain the mass surveillance programs it loves so much. If it is meaningfully confronted with the prospect of universal, rather than selective, transparency, and therefore with its own people being transparent and accountable, it might well become more persuaded of the merits of selective, rather than universal, surveillance. An uncontrollably transparent world is the deep state’s deepest fear. In the end, if the deep state refuses to allow us to be reasonably private from them and from one another, they will be forced to be transparent and accountable to us as well.

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