Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part V: And I Have Seen Blue Skies


There is a story by sci-fi author Greg Bear called Strength of Stones. In the far future, humankind has built Cities that are beautiful feats of engineering, that can move themselves to where they are most needed, governed by artificial intelligences seeking to maintain order and peace. The Cities monitor everything about their people, and mildly and consistently punish infractions of the city codes with exile. Within two generations, the Cities have exiled the whole human race. Actual human beings, in their messiness and irrationality and wilful sense of mischief, will never be able to be rationalized into a system of uniformly enforced algorithmic regulation, and without human beings to sustain them, the Cities themselves eventually began to die.

It can look, from this side of it, as if surveillance, criminalization and punishment will only increase; that there is an unstoppable drive toward a union of oppressors – corporations, police, intelligence services and the bureaucracy – that really deserves the name of fascism. On the morning after the Ferguson non-indictment, it seems especially legitimate to question whether we can achieve anything that looks like justice.

But looking ahead, I don’t imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. I view our 17 surveillance agencies, like the Cities, as containing the seeds of their own destruction. They depend on us; we don’t depend on them, but on each other.

Look up for a moment from the spectacles of suffering and defeat that the world always offers, and you will see that people still sustain each other, love each other, help each other. It is our natural human friendships that make the surveillance state, based as it is on the generation and demonization of the Other, so fragile and so likely in the end to fail. We can only be fooled for so long into feeling like we’re at war with each other; sooner or later, we wake up to how hard we are being manipulated.

Take, for example, people working within NSA, the FBI, or the CIA. The expectation has been that they will keep secret anything that will embarrass the government, and that in return they will be taken care of. They will be paid well, given a generous pension, and given a substitute family. However, the logic of the oppressors requires that they continually exert greater control and trust less. The agencies are being hollowed out, their work taken up by Booz Allen & Hamilton and a panoply of shadowy private security contractors. As the agencies become less able to recruit only white men, an unwelcome diversity of perspectives arrives. Their temporary solution is to implement ever more aggressive “Insider Threat Programs” and the like, which further reduce the sense of people working at the agencies that they are trusted professionals. In this context, then, demographic change in the attitudes of recruits will fuel more unauthorized whistleblowing. The end point will be an outward hierarchy in which nobody believes, and which has no moral proposition underlying its continued existence. Even were activists to do nothing – which we won’t – this essential fragility will only get worse.

Digital information is too easily spread for fascism to come about. Chelsea Manning managed to walk out with over 200,000 confidential cables burned onto a single CD-ROM marked “Lady Gaga.” Large data breaches are getting more common, because people simply can’t maintain the good information practices required to keep digital data secure, whether they’re NSA, you and me, or TJ Maxx.

Last, overreach is inevitable. The NSA has the power to spy on everyone, to manipulate court decisions, and even to shape elections. There is no internal moral compass that would prevent them from acting on all of the information they have. It is therefore inevitable that their acts will at some point publicly ensnare the elites as well as everyone else. The fall of General Petraeus was a shot across the bows to elite officials, telling them, if they can hear it, that they are not safe either – that the system they were told was all about thwarting terrorism, is as much about keeping tabs on them as anyone else. Hell, we’ve had a guy who financed terrorism in Congress for twenty years now, so who can draw a bright line that will insulate the elite from the machine they have allowed to be built? And once they realize that they are targets, why should they leave the system in place?

So let’s work for the changes we want to see, which for us (at the federal level) include a sunset of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, and at the state level include introducing bills to deal with mass police surveillance and police militarization. And let’s draw strength from the thing the surveillance state can never reach: The love and trust that we have in one another.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

PART I: End “Section 215” Mass Metadata Surveillance
PART II: CIA and Elite Torturers Win, The Rule of Law Loses.
PART III: Congress & Obama At Daggers Drawn – Except Where It Really Counts
PART IV: Surveillance Doesn’t Pay in MA
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