There are many different angles to the NSA/PRISM story. There’s the nitty-gritty points of law, the bits of the story that don’t add up and the inevitable stonewalling from sections of the security apparatus that don’t want to talk about metadata collection that most commentators consider to be a pretty big deal. Still, most of the debate is framed in the “Don’t snoop on me”/”A government’s gotta do what a government’s gotta do (to protect you)” dichotomy.
Instead, let’s talk about how metadata analysis kills people:
Once pursuing subjects of interest, the special operators could make use of advances in the exploitation of mobile phone traffic. According to those involved in intelligence work, the NSA had been recording the details of all calls made in Iraq for many months. This did not mean that they had the content of these millions of conversations, but could refer to dialling details of all calls made and received.
This brought dramatic changes to the intelligence business. If, for example, a cell phone was seized in a raid on a bomb maker’s house, this new tool allowed analysts to map all of the calls made on it during previous months. Using these same techniques, the Operation LIGHTWATER team could generate a computer picture of suspects and their contacts that looked, on the classified video screens like a spider’s web.
Raids could then be mounted, often having pinpointed the suspect’s whereabouts by mobile phone.
That’s from Mark Urban’s book Task Force Black, which I suggest anyone joining the Prism debate reads, if they haven’t already.
For me, the importance of Prism, and like efforts, isn’t the question of government invasions of privacy, but rather the ability of the government to use violence against a population. Regardless of the strategic end, analysis of metadata allowed the American government to pull apart Baghdad bomb networks in a way that would have been far more difficult without it, if not impossible. If a couple of thousand special forces soldiers could do that in a foreign country, think what the same capability could do in a domestic context. This capability, I think, is what re-writes the social contract in favour of the government. The reason for this is that it alters the latent balance of violence between the state and the population. I think, however, that this takes place alongside another changing relationship, which is the balance of violence between individuals and the population. In the security/liberty debate we tend to focus on the former, sometimes forgetting the latter. We don’t like big states because they can oppress us, but at the same time, these days, individuals can do that, too. Look at how reactions to the Breiviks of this world alter our societies. The works of Rousseau et al were written in a world where a couple of dozen people couldn’t fly planes into buildings and alter the course of international politics for well over a decade (inconveniencing the other seven billion odd people on the planet in the process). So we can’t ignore the flipside to this equation – the state has a duty to protect us from hard to pinpoint individuals and groups, as Rob pointed out on this subject earlier. What I think is missing from this, on the American government’s side, is a little frankness with the public. The choice isn’t “Either we use this and protect you, or we don’t”, it’s three-way: “Either we use this to protect you, or we double or triple our police and intelligence services to try and protect you, or we can’t protect you as much as you’d hope we could.” As Rob noted, it’s unlikely that states are going to stop trying to protect their citizens, nor, I think, are any calls for a ‘debate’ on such matters likely to change anything, particularly in America. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats look too different on civil liberties and security. Furthermore, is this single issue likely to significantly affect voting behaviour in the next round of elections? So, like Rob, I’m a little pessimistic about the situation changing any time soon.
The pessimist in me also likes that the state has some form of a stick to beat over the heads of the people that want to kill other citizens to further their political aims, because I doubt those types of people will ever go away. The libertarian in me doesn’t want a state that can oppress the entire population if it so chooses. The question, therefore, is how many sticks should the state be allowed to have? For this reason, I am incredibly wary of authorising the state to form and analyse metadata databases. I care if the government listens in on my calls, but I care more about being caught up in an algorithm for traffic analysis that mis-identifies me as a potential terrorist/person of interest. This is why I am against the UK government’s ‘snoopers charter’ despite the fact that ‘bad guys’ might get away. More police, security services and spooks might intrude into plenty of lives, substantial metadata databases qualitatively alter the relationship of the population and the state by virtue of the potential capabilities they enable. Regardless of the true capabilities of Prism (some say it might be more of a processing mechanism, than giant data-scraping mechanism), it highlights what metadata can do, and that’s a good thing.
I put emphasis on ‘potential’ because a) this is a theoretical argument in many respects (given the lack of firm facts) and b) because at current, I’m not too worried about the UK government oppressing large sections of the population, or going after suspected domestic terrorists Baghdad-style. Furthermore, I think that painting the government in the worst possible light, and ascribing government bureaucrats dubious motives pointlessly blurs the argument. I’m not worried about the UK government now, but I don’t know what the government will be like in 30-40 years. I have a good idea, and I suspect that it will continue to amble along like the UK parliamentary system tends to do, but I don’t know. The same goes for the American government. We can paint them in the worst possible light, but they’re still not quite as bad as, say, China or Russia, who openly coerce sections of the population that disagree with them. Regardless, I don’t want states (including mine) accumulating metadata, since that might change in future. Even if any access to metadata databases owned by the government are ‘black boxes’ which can only be accessed by court order, their very existence in government hands represents a latent threat to the population, which remains unrealised only for as long as governments adhere to the rule of law. Or, more likely, until they pass more laws to enable easier access.
Of course, there’s the valid point that the government has less access to this stuff than the plethora of private companies that do, but the last time I checked, Google didn’t have a paramilitary wing.