Monday, January 13, 2014

Questioning the Panoticon

Revelations via Edward Snowden about the NSA's practice of vacuuming up every smidgen of data about everyone from the internet continue to inspire efforts to envision the contours of our Panopticon society. The Panopticon was a design for an institution, a prison, imagined by the 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Such an edifice would allow a central observer to see all the inmates at all times, if that observer chose to look at any particular one. Guess we've wandered inside such a thing, at least those of us who inhabit the web.

Steven Levy has long chronicled the development of the tech industry. In the 80s he introduced a general audience to the existence of "hackers"; more recently he offered a journalistic window into Google. This month he has published an intriguing article in Wired titled How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet. The whole is worth reading. Here are some bits of Levy's well-sourced story.

Some companies seemed perfectly comfortable turning over information about their customer bases to the NSA. …Technology companies are another matter. It’s almost a cliché when tech CEOs claim that without the trust of their users, they would have no business. They depend on customers’ willingness to share information….

“At first we were in an arms race with sophisticated criminals,” says Eric Grosse, Google’s head of security. “Then we found ourselves in an arms race with certain nation-state actors [with a reputation for cyberattacks]. And now we’re in an arms race with the best nation-state actors.” Primarily, the US government....

... For years, companies from espionage-happy countries like China have been spurned by overseas buyers who didn’t trust their products. Now it’s America’s turn. …

Levy is a gentle observer, both of the tech companies who are his homies (and his bread and butter) and of the spooks who we've learned infest the same turf. He finds them very similar -- certain that they work from good purposes and uncomprehending that outsiders might question their reach or motives. Both kinds come across as a terrible mix of innocent and dangerous. Perhaps the NSA revelations have killed off any lingering generalized innocence about digital technology being inherently a force for freedom.
Thomas E. Ricks has been a military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The US war machine is his subject and at least some of its members respect his reporting. So when he writes a blog post titled The more I listen to American intelligence officials, the more I edge toward Snowden, he's not some radical blowing smoke.

I've been really ambivalent about Edward Snowden, especially since he landed in Russia. … Yet I have been struck that everyone under the age of 30 I've asked thinks he's a hero.

… It is possible that Snowden did the right thing but in the wrong way. Indeed, he may have helped the United States but committed a crime in doing so. Yet that begs the question: What would have been the right way? Especially given the reckless disregard for the law shown by American national security officials over the last decade, he was right to be wary of going the civil disobedience route. We've seen the killing of American citizens held to be "enemy combatants," and intelligence officials certainly talk about Snowden as an enemy who has inflicted severe damage on their operations. Add two and two and you get a secret execution warrant for one Edward Snowden. Is that speculative? Absolutely. Ridiculous? Not if you have been paying attention to the erosion of boundaries (between civilian and military, war and peace, public and private, and most especially the militarization of intelligence operations).

… until there is more accountability for the crimes committed by U.S. intelligence officials over the last 10 years, I am not inclined to let secret policemen and spies be the moral arbiters of our society or the interpreters of our constitutional rights -- in fact, I think the burden is on them, not on me.

Again, the whole is worth reading.

When people who have been at home inside the circles of the great start asking real questions, be they reporters or tech executives, there may be room for those of us who have always been outside to move the colossus a smidgen. I hope so.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

Yeah, it's hard to see a way he could have done this that would not have risked it being buried along with himself. They do kill when they decide someone is a risk to their power base and I think that could include a president. If he had gone to Congress, as some in Congress claimed he should have, what kind of guarantee would he have had that they would not have buried it and him also. The farther we go with it, the more it seems he took the only possible route. But at a high cost to himself. And will this information really change anything? Not if Americans are quick to forget about it.

My father-in-law, who worked in communications told my husband when he was a boy that they already know all there is to know about anybody they choose. They had so many ways all along. So what can really be done about it now?

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