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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Prism, Big Data and the Bloody Tudors

I am easily irritated by most history programmes on TV, mainly because they contain little history, and occasionally because they contain nuts (Starkey, Ferguson). Most are little more than a collection of tired televisual tropes, preening presenter tics and thundering platitudes. Dan Snow staring with furrowed brow into the middle distance on location is obviously not on a par with AJP Taylor talking to camera in a darkened studio. The problem is not dumbing down, or inflated budgets, but our desire for the subject to be presented in the neatly-bound and personality-driven form of a historical novel. This explains the current popularity of the Tudor era, both in the bestseller lists and on TV. When Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory are being cited as experts on Renassance England you realise why Michael Gove's ambitions for patriotic and heroic history enjoy popular support.

One partial exception to this has been The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, which is currently running on BBC 2. Though this was popular history of the National Trust variety (much on fashions in ruffs and dental hygiene), and the decision to put Ian Mortimer in front of the camera added nothing to a voice-over, its focus on the material basis of life was a refreshing change, and it did produce more insights in a few throwaway remarks than were managed by the wall-to-wall speculation on Anne Boleyn's sex life. One particular point that Martin noted was how the growth of the secret state under Francis Walsingham went hand-in-hand with an increase in the use of torture and condign punishment (notably hanging, drawing and quartering), though he explained both in the context of understandable fear, i.e. the repeated attempts on Elizabeth's life and the Spanish Armada.


The obvious modern echo is the way that increasingly intrusive surveillance has marched lock-step with the normalisation of torture and the abrogation of the rights of the powerless. The story of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes is as much about intelligence as institutional abuse and extra-judicial killing. We like to think that intelligence and coercion are mutually-exclusive, hence the belief that "intelligence-led policing" is an alternative to stop-and-search. We don't like to think they are complementary. This gives rise to the trade-off in Obama's initial comments on the NSA/Verizon revelations: "You can't have 100% security, and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience". In fact, you can't have 100% security full-stop, not because there is an inescapable trade-off between security and privacy, but because there is a trade-off between the rights of different individuals (cf. the US tolerance of unregulated gun ownership). The aggregate trade-off is between personal utility and collective mayhem - the justification for the necessary state outlined by the one-time Tudor schoolboy, Thomas Hobbes.

No Elizabethan would have questioned the authority of Francis Walsingham to spy on them, because it was being done (literally) in defence of the realm, even if they might dispute the Protestant Elizabeth's claim to the throne. The notion of privacy develops over the course of the 17th century and is primarily an artifact of the political compromise between the gentry and the state, recorded in the evolution of political thought from Hobbes to Locke. The core of that compromise is the right of the wealthy to be secure from property seizure by the state. The Anglican compromise under Elizabeth marks the initial steps towards the state's acceptance of freedom of conscience, the ideological expression of that material independence. The institution of systematic spying coincides with the emergence of the private realm.

In the twentieth century era of mass democracy, we retained a belief in the sanctity of private property (e.g. not steaming open other people's letters), but we also accepted that popular opinion (the will of the people) was a collective entity that could and should be manipulated through persuasion and propaganda. The tension between these two, the private and the public, was at the centre of Orwell's 1984, but the book assumed that only the totalitarian state had the capability to invade the private sphere. In late 1940s Britain, the private interests of business might affect opinion through the popular press, but it was assumed this could be stopped at the front-door ("I'll not have that in the house!"). This idea, that's it's the state we need to worry about, remains central to the popular critique of the infringment of civil liberties.

The modern idea of Big Data (so much more reassuring than Big Brother), and the related "hive-mind" meme, can be seen as the privatisation of the twentieth century idea of collective intelligence (we should always remember that privatisation means a joint enterprise between the state and large corporations). A fundamental premise of Big Data is that the hitherto hidden pattern is only visible with the maximum amount of data: it is therefore omnivorous. The claim that it is "only metadata", or that data-mining is less intrusive than routine airport security, misses the point. It has to be all metadata to be most effective.

This inevitably leads to the demand for more and more data, for omniscience, and thus for the boundary of what constitutes metadata to blur, just as News International's phone-hacking blurred the boundary between legitimate public interest and intrusion. A good example of this is advertising in Gmail. In order to know that you're interested in buying a smartphone, the software needs to spot the repeated use of related keywords in your email body text. Google don't want to read your message, in the sense of discovering your opinion about a friend's utter incompetence in using an iPhone. They want to plug into (and help mould) your hopes and desires at a much more fundamental level.


That's why the leaked material about Prism and the targeting of individuals had a strangely amateur air about it, like the dork who claims to hang out with the cool kids. This impression was reinforced by the naff PowerPoint and dodgy logo, which looked like relics from the 1980s. The reported budget of $20 million is tiny, if we assume the programme is actually gathering and analysing data in volume (this wouldn't give you blanket coverage of more than a single city). Perhaps the leak is part of a political campaign to secure a bigger budget.

The inevitable Orwellian trope that is wheeled out on these occasions is misleading ("They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type", according to one source, which is clearly ridiculous). In 1984, control is exercised through propaganda (the daily two minutes hate) and self-repression, more than through surveillance technology. Hysteria and paranoia are carefully cultivated. You can see this at work in North Korea today, with its old-school leader-mania and fear of imminent invasion, but you can also see a (slightly) more sophisticated version of it in the anti-paedophile campaigns and routine denigration of "scroungers" by the British press. We need our daily hate. A mild form of this paranoia informs the media clamour around the failure of the state to pre-empt the Boston bombings and the Woolwich murder. We oscillate between attraction and repulsion for the all-seeing state.

The revelations about "snooping" by the NSA/Prism/GCHQ should not come as a surprise, nor should the willingness of technology companies to accommodate government access. They haven't had their arms twisted. Rather they have offered the state a quid pro quo to prevent government restrictions on their commercial practices. The NSA apparently considers Silicon Valley "home advantage". The technology companies are possibly more embarrassed by this revelations than the NSA, as it won't help them expand globally if they are seen as stooges of the US government, though the de facto interconnection of big business and the state is common everywhere.

The NSA's boast is ironic given the USA's frequent complaints about Chinese government-backed hacking, though the real irony is how similar both states appear to be in their approach (the "Great Firewall of China" is just more in-yer-face). There are the capabilities to zone in on individuals, but equally important is the ability to track aggregate trends and thereby potentially manage the flux of popular opinion. That is what both large corporations and states are most interested in. Rupert Murdoch must be looking on enviously. Francis Walsingham, were he propelled through time, would be boggled by it all.

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