Wednesday, 9 October 2013

All your base are belong to us

The Daily Hate has decided that the Guardian is guilty of the "greatest damage to western security in history", which is rather belittling towards Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, to mention but a few. Glancing at the front-page headline, you might assume this was direct testimony by the head of MI5, Andrew Parker. On closer examination, it turns out that this quote comes from "Whitehall insiders", which is the usual euphemism for government press officers. Along the way, the paper that loves Britain notes that the Grauniad has produced a "handbook for terrorists" (according to an unnamed "government official"), that editor Alan Rusbridger was born in Zambia (aha!), and that he looks a lot like Edward Snowden (you never see them in the same room, do you?)

Meanwhile, the Torygraph berates the Beeb: "BBC reports MI5's warning about terrorists and Snowden leaks. Not one mention of the Guardian". Hilariously, the paper provides the full text of Parker's speech, which does not mention either Snowden or the Guardian by name, suggesting that the BBC may have been guilty of unforgivable accuracy. It's probably safe to assume that this hysteria largely reflects the overheated atmosphere of the industry ahead of the decision on press regulation, with perhaps some opportunistic misdirection by the Mail after the Miliband battering (and revenge for Steve Bell's hilarious "Daily Downfall" cartoon strip this week - "Get aus von mein bonker!" is genius).

Before you assume I am about to praise the Guardian, I'm not (except for publishing Bell). I'm actually going to highlight the commonality between its position and that of the Mail, which is that both remain unable to fully address the NSA/GCHQ affair due to their respective ideologies. The Mail's is perhaps the more obvious, though illogical and contradictory in its manifestations: the agents of the state must not be questioned, except when they try to regulate the press; and our national security is so fragile that admitting the secret services can eavesdrop on phone or email conversations (which many of us took as read) puts us all at risk.

The ideology of the Guardian was nicely illustrated last week in an extended essay by John Lanchester. This started with bemusement at the lack of outrage over the surveillance revelations: "And yet nobody, at least in Britain, seems to care. In the UK there has been an extraordinary disconnect between the scale and seriousness of what Snowden has revealed, and the scale and seriousness of the response. One of the main reasons for that, I think, is that while some countries are interested in rights, in Britain we are more focused on wrongs". This is a classic liberal interpretation - we lack constitutional rights and thus we fail to defend abstract principles; our polity is advanced by case law - we wait for a "wrong" to occur so that we can establish a precedent.

Lanchester does identify the guilty parties and their totalising ambition - "To put it crudely, Google doesn't just know you're gay before you tell your mum; it knows you're gay before you do. And now GCHQ does too" - but he fails to tease out the significance of this symbiotic relationship. In other words, the desire of the security services to cherry-pick this vast store of data results in business receiving a near carte blanche from the state to gather as much as it can for commercial purposes.

This in turn means he fails to spot that the interests of both parties are served by the internalised control of society - i.e. a system in which we willingly submit to surveillance and inspection. The commercial rationale is the quid pro quo of privacy for utility: you give a little up to get a lot in return. The state rationale is the defence of the realm and personal safety, hence the importance of stories about child abuse, porn and cyber-bullying, which makes the threat (usually to our kids) personal. This blindness comes out in his treatment of Foucault's use of the Panopticon metaphor, which is worth quoting in full.
"The prospect this presents is something like the 'panopticon' which Enlightenment philosophers advocated as a design for the ideal prison in the 18th century, and about which the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in his book Discipline and Punish. 'He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.' 
When I first read Foucault's account of the panopticon, where the individual at the centre can simultaneously see and judge a whole multitude of other individuals, I thought it was brilliant but overheated. Now, it actually seems like somebody's plan. That's what we risk becoming: a society which is in crucial respects a giant panopticon, where the people with access to our secrets can see, hear, intercept and monitor everything."
This is quite stunning in the way that Lanchester flips Foucault's "he", the prisoner who has accepted the responsibility of self-repression, to the "individual at the centre" (i.e. the warder in an actual Panopticon) who monitors all the prisoners. In doing so, we shift from the pathology of the observed to the power of the observer. Lanchester makes this switch despite earlier noting that the UK is the most heavily CCTVed nation on Earth - perhaps there might be a link between this and the lack of public outrage. His analysis is a comforting liberal trope, in which free individuals are menaced by an intrusive state and where regulation and civil rights are the appropriate tools to restrain the latter. It ignores the hegemonic relationship of the state and business, which becomes obvious if you update the metaphor to modern times: a private prison run for profit stands in for the Internet companies.

A counter to the claims of Andrew Parker (not to mention the hyperbolic right-wing press) was provided in the Guardian this week by Yochai Benkler, the US law academic who coined the term "commons-based peer-production" (he is an advocate of software that is free to produce, rather than free to buy).  Benkler considers the NSA program to bulk-gather telephony metadata to be unjustified. There is "nothing to support the proposition that the program works at all, much less that its marginal contribution is significant enough to justify its enormous costs in money, freedom, and destabilization of internet security. No rational cost-benefit analysis could justify such a leap of faith".

Again, this fails to note that the state harvesting of telephony metadata is a byproduct of a commercial process, and that presumably the latter has a positive cost-benefit. To argue what is essentially the software engineering maxim of YAGNI ("you aren't going to need it"), in respect of state harvesting, does not mean that the data will not continue to be gathered by the telcos and others and that it will remain an irresistible temptation for the state. If one surveilled phone call leads to the arrest of one terrorist, then the whole programme will be considered justified. What price a few billion dollars on surveillance if the avoided cost is another 9/11?

Being the home of dissenting opinion, the Guardian group does at least allow some space to those who see a little more clearly, notably John Naughton. In last Sunday's Observer he noted how the "predictive analytics" of Big Data can produce valuable information, based on personal data, who's ownership is alienated by business, and also how errors and structural biases can cause that information to become authoritative despite being misleading, i.e. the confusion of a model with reality.

But Naughton's critique is also partial (and classically liberal), treating privacy and reputation as species of personal property. Though business is correctly identified as the key agent here (they are interested in you, the state is not), the trope assumes a one-way process in which independent people, who probably read the liberal press and are protective of their rights, are denied ownership of their rightful property. In fact, the process is two-way: business is moulding our behaviour and thoughts in a manner that even the state has hitherto not aspired to do, though once the capability is there, you can be confident it will eventually be used.

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