Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Surveilled Imagination – A World Watched to Make Information

NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks about his leaking of information about PRISM

This is a short essay on surveillance as commodity acquisition and the social contract. I have been following the story of PRISM, which according to the United States Army Field Manual, as quoted by Mother Jones, is
“A subsystem of collection management mission application, is a Web-based management and synchronization tool used to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of theater operations. PRISM creates a collaborative environment for resource managers, collection managers, exploitation managers and customers”.
Based on information leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contracted manager for the National Security Association, PRISM is used to collect and monitor information from millions of people inside and outside of the United States of America. Unless you have been offline over the past week, you have probably heard about this, as it is just beginning to have consequences, due largely to the extent of the allegations and the time it took for most governments and public figures to understand precisely what the PRISM Leak means. It means so much and could be of such far-reaching consequences that many of the departments and institutions responsible for this sort of knowledge were initially silent, presumably trying to fathom it. One of the more intelligent speculations I saw about PRISM was from Guy Verhofstadt, President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament. Guy tweeted;
“#prism How has data been used and is it in conflict with EU data protection? The Commission, best @BarrosoEU must answer this at next #EP”
I am sure Mr Barrosso is looking into it right now. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to PRISM. But I want to back off slightly from the revelations of PRISM to what it means in broader terms. I want to ask here, what is the reality of surveillance? I mean mass surveillance; "the pervasive surveillance of an entire population, or a substantial fraction thereof" (Wikileaks).

I started following the developments around the PRISM leak on Twitter as they were published on The Guardian website. I noticed this tweet from Mark Vanderbeeken (Senior partner at Experientia and editor of Putting People First, Turin, Italy);
“But is it actually possible to return to a non-surveillance world? The genie is now out of the bottle”
I replied to Mark that it is not possible to 'go back' to an imagined "non-surveillance world" (if that ever existed); but what we are actually witnessing today is the process of shifting power and control under the auspices of digital technology and the mass surveillance it makes possible. In writing this I thought particularly of the life of Christopher Marlowe, the famous playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare. Marlowe was at the center of a surveilled society, a society which was undergoing dramatic changes. Marlowe worked as a spy, and was also the subject for surveillance, dying at the age of 29 in 1593 as a result of an altercation in an inn under suspicious circumstances.

Up to his eyeball in surveillance; Christopher Marlowe 1564-1593 (spy poet trouble maker)

Surveillance today is beyond anything Marlowe could have imagined even in his most extravagant stage drama. With a massive digital network of communication, mediation and simulation now well established around the planet, it is possible to gather information about people at a level of detail unparalleled in human history. Many nation states are now spying on their general populations. Information is collected en masse and stored not for individual identification, but to construct patterning in the population. Mass information is about demographics, trends, movements on a large scale towards ideas, issues or cultural trends. At the same time individual privacy is no longer possible for anyone that uses digital media, although encryption such as Tor does hide connections between people and sites online.

"The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the Second World War. Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential prerequisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country." -  United Kingdom House of Lords Constitution Committee, "Surveillance: Citizens and the State" (2009)
I returned to Twitter, filled with ideas about what mass surveillance was doing to our societies. If the constant unmonitored gathering of information by the public and private security industry ("70% of the intelligent budget of the USA today goes to private contractors like Booz Allen" -whistleblower Chris Pyle) is damaging democracy and individual freedom, what else it is doing? I dug up my favorite theorists when it comes to information and the body politico in a globalized interconnected 24-hour digital society. I see the perceived need for surveillance as part of the "deterritorialization of production" (Negri & Hardt) and this can be transparent or opaque. All are networks monitored and this includes production. Surveillance creates what is one of the most valuable resources of the 21st Century, information. Mark Getty, chairman of Getty Images, once said, "Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century". I believe surveillance is the State using the tools at its disposal to create a vast resource. So the problem with surveillance is structural. Information is resource. Value is added by scarcity, effect and processing. In this sense surveillance is monopolistic as it can only be created on a mass scale by a level of infrastructure that has a budget of governmental proportions. I could spy on my neighbors, or even a town, but it could not be used in any meaningful way and besides it is illegal. The government on the other hand is already doing this and a lot more.

Many citizens believe it is necessary to be surveilled. Paul Sheehan, a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia wrote that the problem for those seeing Edward Snowden’s leaking of information about PRISM as a heroic act based their assessment on  “The final inconvenient fact is a practical one: all government agencies except the tax department do not have the time, the resources, or the interest to examine the activities of private citizens without good reason. Most of us are of no interest to the government unless we are doing something dangerous to others. Paranoia is invariably self-absorption” – (Tuesday 11 June 2013). With his use of Newspeak ('Paranoia is invariably self-absorption'), Sheehan totally misses the concept of information as a resource. What if information is not gathered to catch the feared ‘bad guys’ but in order to create something of value? If this is so we have to ask how the subjects that are surveilled contribute to the creation of this value. The government does not have the ability or interest in monitoring the daily activities of the majority of the population. But it does have an interesting in monitoring mass opinion, demographic behaviors and cultural shifts that occur in the governed population. This is largely done without the consent of the people. While laws are introduced to contain and combat security threats, the same legislation used to create these laws can be used to create the ‘oil of the 21st Century’.

The most worrying possibility is that the leaks we are seeing now are not particularly relevant to the security apparatus, that these low-level figures in the system releasing information are actually playing into the argument for a greater degree of security and monitoring and as a result there will be tighter controls and less transparency in the future. The news of PRISM was first broken in May 2006 by Walter Pincus writing for USA Today

"Disclosed that the NSA "has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth," attributing that information to "people with direct knowledge of the arrangement." The newspaper continued: "The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans - most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews."
Today Pincus is writing about a history of surveillance in the USA, but few people seem to be paying attention to him then or now. Pincus states "It is worth noting that two days after the USA Today disclosure, a Washington Post poll showed that 63 percent of those polled said it was acceptable for the government to collect tens of millions of phone records, while 35 percent considered that unacceptable."

Mass surveillance contravenes the social contract, as an infringement upon the right of the sovereignty (the people) to full disclosure of the body politic;

"Rousseau emphasizes that the general will exists to protect individuals against the mass, not to require them to be sacrificed to it. He is, of course, sharply aware that men have selfish and sectional interests which will lead them to try to oppress others. It is for this reason that loyalty to the good of all alike must be a supreme (although not exclusive) commitment by everyone, not only if a truly general will is to be heeded but also if it is to be formulated successfully in the first place" - Entry, "Rousseau" in the Routelege Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Craig, editor, Volume Eight, p. 371
For this reason there must be disclosure in order for democracy to be restored to those countries currently operating secret mass intelligence networks against their own citizens. The PRISM affair can be argued to be an attempt by one man to manifest disclosure. This is an idea shared by others. Dean and Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore Simon Chesterman writes in One Nation Under Surveillance – A New Social Contract to Defend Freedom Without Sacrificing Liberty (Oxford 2011) of a need for a “new social contract” that should be characterized by three principles:

(1) The intelligence powers exercised must be public,
(2) The entities carrying out these functions must be legal, and
(3) Accountability for activities of intelligence services must be consequence-sensitive (as opposed to having the aim of deterring or responding to abuse) (See Dreier).

These three additions to the Social Contract will change the nature and affect of mass surveillance on society. However, if the reason behind the mass surveillance that has developed in many nations is because of the value of information then there is unlikely to be a change in relation to the social contact. It is at this point we must consider the role of capitalist ideology in mass surveillance. If "Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century" then the masses of information gathered on the public is valuable. If surveillance is made public, legal (i.e. a result of due process), and driven by consequences then it will cease to have the same value according to commodity relations (i.e. scarcity, processing into tangible goods etc.). It is at this point I consider we are now at a crossroads for the continuation of the human project. How we move forward on this question will alter the community of the species.

One Nation Under Surveillance: A New Social Contract with Simon Chesterman (click on image)

There will always be surveillance and in an age where information is as valuable as oil there will only ever be more. But can information produced by surveillance be used for bettering society rather than controlling the more radical/progressive (depending on your perspectives) elements? Instead of using surveillance to create ‘security’ alone we could be using this information to organize community action, make free media for people to use, creating databases for culture, art, and knowledge. If we can collect the data from the phone calls people make, why can’t we make a system where information is shared for knowledge, art, science and research, social development and solidarity? This is a surveillance system that would take the forms of open information, universal access, networked and self-organizing systems run by users.

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