Prism and the making of our idiocracy.

This is not the time for cliché or sound bite, but to paraphrase Tony Blair, I feel the hand of history (or the all-seeing electronic eye) just to the right of this keyboard. And your keyboard actually. And your webcam. Oh, and your telephone. Indeed, if your toaster has acquired the ability to engage in two-way communications, the all-seeing electronic eye probably knows how you like your toast. And your crumpets.  It has probably told its all-seeing master (or mistress). And they have made a micro-judgment about the fact that your toast is underdone (an unsound choice unless matched with slightly underdone bacon) and that your crumpets are ever so slightly rubbery.

If outed by a former contractor with an overdeveloped sense of global citizenry and a keenness to stop enjoying the liberties of a free man, the all-seeing electronic eye’s master (or mistress) would tell you that you had nothing to worry about if you are merely going about your business in a law abiding way. Afterall, a small detail about your toast (and crumpets) going to the all-seeing electronic eye is a small price to pay for all this security you are enjoying. And you are enjoying it, right? And you might hopefully respond to the representative of the all-seeing electronic eye that they were talking total rot. Because this is only in small part about being law-abiding, it’s mostly about creating and enforcing obedience and compliance.

It is the beigest political paint that dries the quickest, and Prism is set for maximum beige.

Its effect on politics is so beiging it might have been painted on the panels of a British made car of the 70s

Being a useful idiot…

Of all the things to be miffed about with Prism one of the most random (and least important) is that nearly all of the IR scholars who write through the ‘inspiration’ and, er, prism of Foucault are probably right. And this is not good. Because I’ve only ever met several ‘Foucauldians’ who haven’t been eminently irritating, and painfully certain that they have seen the one-true light of a bald French bloke who was good at re-historicisation. In their world the rest of us are pre-Foucault. If only we had seen that one true light too. (I exaggerate slightly for effect: I know a few Foucauldians who I strongly admire, and who live far enough away now to make it a really large effort to beat me about the head). Anyhow, necessary caveats in place… these buggers are right. The dead-hand of the state is not dead at all. It’s alive and desperate to create passive political bodies. The frightening tone of Richard Aldrich’s brilliant book on GCHG has been transformed in my mind from a frightening dystopia into underplay of the agenda at hand. But people like me are useful idiots because we tend to see the strengths in bureaucratic, political and judicial oversight mechanisms (and lecture about these strengths in glowing tones), and in assuming that just as the ordinary soldier sees themself as a reflection in their enemy, then security officials see themselves in those they serve. And if they do, it’s a poor reflection of the Biblical maxim do unto others what you’d have done to yourself. (I can feel the tautology of ‘if you’re law abiding’ coming on again… tell that to the select many who ran into certain British police forces during the 70s and 80s.. but by the by).   There’s also an endless amount to be said about the quantity of data we voluntarily contribute to that mystical place ‘the internet’, which has evidently contributed to our own surveillance…. But that’s also by the by.

 The myth of absolute security:

So, how did we get here?

External stimulus (but not one more dramatic than the Cold War, cue post-colonial thinkers to explain this missing gap) + defence of budgetary territory + technical capacity + functional creep – politicians without the wit to say no = the myth of absolute security and all that goes with it.

So, 9/11 and 7/7 in the UK were seen as ‘wake-up’ calls, and were immediately labelled as intelligence failures. But this was unfair. Intelligence agencies had never said that they offered blanket protection, and why should they: they can’t. But it was quite clear that the press (and however you read the reflect><lead function of the media) and a large part of the public assumed that they indirectly paid into this national security slot machine, the security wheels whizz round, and as regular as clock-work security comes flying out in a clattering din of happy contentedness. But in the real world of real people, intelligence and security is a clever system of processes and people that gets lucky more often than it gets unlucky: ‘we only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time’ as one of the Brighton bombers was quoted as saying.

So, the myth of security began with a massive public misunderstanding of what intelligence is and does. It was then compounded by weak politicians who either misunderstood it themselves or decided it would be mighty funny and/or convenient to confirm this myth and avoid some issues that are firmly parked in the ‘too difficult’ box. Political science point: how, narratively, do we now row back from this misunderstanding? No-one who wants to get elected again is going to point out that the security-slot-machine is a game of chance, and you might lose your money. Time and time again.

The agency response appears to have been many-fold, but we can tell a two-fold story: 1) a desire to avoid being tarred as having failed to meet up to (unreasonable) expectations, 2) a desire to expand budgets and political turf at a permissive moment. These have dovetailed with the ease and speed with which ELINT/SIGINT/SOCMINT can be collected and stored.

So, whilst we can all see why such a response is rational, or at least explicable, it maintains a critical bind, which can be illustrated via part of the response to the disgraceful attack on the soldier Lee Rigby. Investigative journalism then suggested that the accused had been known to intelligence, some even suggested that one of them had been recently approached to spy on Jihadists.  The security slot machine appeared to have stopped spitting out security coins, instead it looked like in some circumstances like it didn’t know when it had three of a kind showing. Again, this is unfair, but the narrative exists, and does so because it is useful and helpful in some respects.

The European rescue of the all-seeing-electronic eye

No, I don’t actually think there’s a European rescue, but there will almost certainly be a lot of European resistance and friction to what we have learned about Prism. When I wrote a paper and gave evidence to the European Parliament in 2010 about the Passenger Name Record issue, there was a great deal of anxiety about how this information would treated, stored and used. And more widely and philosophically about the merits of a foreign power having such a wide array of EU citizen’s data. But let’s be clear: PNR is the smallest sprat in the sea compared to the revelations about Prism. In the light of Prism, the debate we had about PNR was so pointless it almost wasn’t worth the trip to Madrid to discuss it (cough). And it will have no doubt amused the Russian government to see that the response to their request for PNR data (which mirrors the arrangement the EU has with the US) was laughed out of the room (and I am sure the Russian government were not disappointed nor surprised by this) whilst the news of Prism loomed large on the horizon. Whilst such views are not popular in these parts, the EU underplays the strength it has in big-data, and the ability it would have to act as its own security bloc, if only it could line up in something of the same direction.

Where do we go from here?

Well, nothing will change. So forget any notion that this seismic event will generate change. It will generate a lot of political hot air, and a lot of protests. But no-one will dare challenge the myth of absolute security, and it is on that premise that the whole system sits.

Security is created by economic growth, and the access to the benefits of and means by which economies grow. There will always be those who want a fight. No matter how good life is. We should pay these people negative attention. But we won’t need to worry about the mass of population if we know that there is an absence of grievance. And economic growth cures most grievances. Just as in COIN, the aim should be to reduce the fighting core to the smallest number, not to label the largest number of people as combatants. The best thing the politicians of the US, UK and the rest of Europe could do in response to this crisis is get their economies motoring again.

Leave the toasters to do their business in peace….


14 thoughts on “Prism and the making of our idiocracy.

  1. Charles says:

    Nothing will change? Wouldn’t that be the case if we don’t bother to challenge it, which is basically what you recommend?

    A big problem that I see with this is that it’s either the (insert security organisation here) that is recording everything in order to apparently make us more secure, or it’s Google doing it in order to make money.

    You’re right, we’re screw- I mean, we should just go with it. Resistance is futile and all that.

    • Rob Dover says:

      My view of ‘nothing will change’ is more a ‘philosophical’ shrug of the shoulders than a reasoned position. Several things mitigate away from reform (if that’s the right word): 1) path dependency – security structures don’t roll back, particularly when their activities are protected under secrecy rules etc 2) political and business elites (see FT story yesterday) are fully incorporated and thus finding the right modes of influence to affect change are really problematic, 3) these technologies and modes of being are increasingly wended into consumer goods, and we like consumer goods, and are generational (the young are more relaxed broadly, about these things).

  2. Daniel says:

    I might be reading this wrong but I get the sense that you see this process/situation as inevitability and that the focus on improving the economic circumstances and the security situation will ease (and then the need/demand/desire/push for all this new and improved means of spying will not be an issue).

    If so (and my apologies if I have read you wrong) that ignores that dynamics that’s driving this massive consolidation and development of surveillance apparatuses as well as the very real issue of privacy.

    The Pan-option state does not simply accrue or develop by itself and the dovetailing of past circumstances (9/11 and 7/7) into the agenda of those driving this change seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse (ie your position that the believed paradigm shifting events/shock drove a demand for such an increase rather than proving an opportunity to enact such an increase). That sounds like a sort of invisible/inevitable hand of technology type position.

    The surveillance state and its development existed prior to 9/11 with such things like Watergate and the various outings/defections/exposes of various intelligence staff have shown that the agenda exists and has exists for a long time. Certainly in the modern context technology has enabled such a drive and desire but the maintenance of power has always demanded such means.

    Such levels of surveillance and security are not seen before developments (in that we may have crossed a Rubicon of sorts with the sheer level of means in which to track and trace going over a tipping point rather than just a linear accrual). One of the key points of the recently released information is that agencies like the NSA seem less focused on a targeted approach and now with the new data collection centres aiming to hoover up as much information as possible about anyone rather than selectively target individuals.

    That in itself is less a hallmark of an intelligence agency seeking to use intelligence to locate and neutralise threats, perhaps its an admission that its become more difficult to do their jobs (which I would agree that is the case) and more of an admission that the only way to deal with the new threat is near total blanket surveillance and scrutiny. But also run in with that is the simple mechanic of the increase in surveillance of general people, citizens of states to never before seen levels to the point that privacy is now a topic of debate and concern.

    Yes entities like Google and others are hungrily slurping up the data that many people are happily (and in some cases unknowingly providing) and that circumstance is also one of increasing concern but unlike a business which is mostly just trying to get you to buy stuff an intelligence agency is not. They have different agendas and operate with far less scrutiny and oversight than Google and have also been utilized in the past as secret police apparatuses against the general populace.

    Leaving aside the hellish potential for information overload and no actual improvement in the ability to detect or defuse possible threats due to the sheer weight of dots to connect the fact that everyone and anyone is now a possible target or source of info less due to any specific need and more simply because the system has them means to do so is the primary concern here. Nothing to hide/nothing to fear rings a bit hollow when privacy is being reduced to near to nothing. Such circumstances are the hallmarks of totalitarian states, not democratic ones.

    Yes modern threats need modern means to deal with them. But the sheer hoovering of information up as a substitute, at least as it appears to me, for a greater focus on actual analysis and assessment doesn’t have to primarily be about a direct attack on any individual’s privacy and the sheer intrusiveness of the system being put in place. You might not be doing anything criminal (at least for now) but no one (except those participating in reality TV possibly) wants their intimate and private moments to be known or exposed for the very fact that such words as “intimate’ and “private” are applied to them.

    Just because the state can see into your private life and see all your intimate details (be what they may) is not in itself justification for the state to be legally allowed or even able to do so. Nor is the fact that there might be threats out there in society possibly plotting the states downfall an excuse or justification to pare things back to nothing. As has been seen with the sheer random nature of the recent attack in the UK what means was there to profile or anticipate such a random act?

    Possibly in the future the technological means may exist to see into one’s mind and if so then the little freedom that Winston Smith cherished so much in 1984, the few cubic centimetres of space in his own head, will also be gone.

    With technology plugging us in and connecting us more and more this is not another liberal agenda issue which has been rehashed and discussed before (and no I won’t be getting into any discussion of that French guy for similar reasons as you) and the point you make (possibly in jest) that if you haven’t done anything wrong then what have you got to fear as a framework for the discussion completely chops out the other side of the debate, ie why should such levels of scrutiny exist beyond the justifications (above mentioned events) given by those who push them, ie what is the limit? How far and what exactly is the value of privacy, is it a right? And what shape will a society with little or no privacy take etc.

    Now I don’t normally wear the tinfoil hat but trying to ignore the rise of a near total system of surveillance is also akin to ignoring previous states which have made use of the near total surveillance of their times to maintain power and remove and challenges to that power (I won’t say the obvious example and go for the backup option of USSR or proxies from that period of time).

    The point being that you seem to be of no significant concern that such a system could or can be captured by those in power and simply used to nefarious ends (or that any political institution in the west could go down that road as evidence by your idea that getting the economies back on track will fix most of this) and that lets all just keep calm and carry on.

    As has previously been shown in history just because your are democratic, just and free doesn’t mean you will stay democratic, just and free and what’s the economy got to do in relation to those anyway?. Strong economies do not automatically create or even prefigure a society which is democratic, just or free. A strong economy and she will be fine, noting to worry about or see here and don’t bother to resist and you will be assimilated.

    I get the point of your post but positing a robust economy as the fix it for this dilemma doesn’t really seem to be very sound. Sure leave the toasters alone but how about leaving the people alone as well.

    Also I am sceptical that a sudden reboot in the economy (yeah right) will simply make all the surveillance go away. You seem to be making some sort of argument akin to other guys with last names starting with an F (Freidman and Fukiyama).

    Beyond that concern and not wanting to get all Red Pill or Blue Pill here technology must have limits as much as human agency. Simply put an emphasis on technology over people is to the detriment of the person. The only people that would want that situation are the robots

    • Rob Dover says:

      Very many thanks for your long and considered response.

      My evocation of economics, and growth in particular, is partial and was merely to set out a brief stall that runs ‘it would be better to remove one of the main sources of insecurity than continue to fully/manically engage in this particular security arms race’. So, I don’t think ‘growth’ is the all-curing magic bullet, but I do think it’s an important way of addressing insecurity. With the caveat that it cures our insecurity and not that of the developing world… (hmm).

      I agree with your paragraph on the non-equation between security, freedom and democracy. That’s all a given for me. As is the notion that those ‘who have nothing to hide’ etc, shouldn’t have to prove that they have nothing to hide on a daily basis. That doesn’t strike me as a healthy way to proceed, but that’s just my bleeding-heart-liberal pre-sets.

      9/11 and 7/7 don’t set the stall – you’re right to say it goes further back (but Watergate is the wrong example), how about the earliest days of US private intel(?).. but my point would be that the loosening of oversight and the ready expansion of remit by enthusiastic officials and scared politicians coalesce at that point.

      So, I think we agree more than we disagree – save for my general belief that economic growth can help to dissipate some security problems.

    • Daniel says:

      Points taken. And I do think we are more on the same side of this issue than opposed but devil is in the details and all that.

      I think the next step for the debate as it is today in the media and in the public area is to focus on how far is too far, where is the line? Perhaps not just a better definition and protection of privacy but a linking of that idea to an individual’s rights but also as one of the important aspects of what the supposed to define the type of society we want to live in.

      The problem though is that the various threads of the issue (digital rights, freedom of information, copyright, file sharing, Mega Upload, The Pirate Bay, Wikileaks, Facebook, Twitter, The use of social media in public protest and resistance to governments etc) are still not unified into the larger driver of the sheer seismic shift of the situation as much of the world moves further into the information age.

      The industrial revolution saw similar levels of upheaval and similar reformatting of the situation to suit the new world (old guard vrs new) but that often needed the unifying level of debate that came after the effects of the upheavals became clear and the threat of instability great enough to prompt a satisfactory response.

      Revelations about the NSA, the Arab spring and other similar situations individual are just events but in the larger narrative (if I may use that word) they do seem to be heading towards a point where the debate is going to be focused less on the individual issues and more on the need to build better structures to deal with that change.

      In the case of today we might even ask if the security apparatuses that exist as they are the best possible organs for the tasks they are given (intelligence, defence security etc). Perhaps the NSA and GCHQ, among others, given the original requirements and circumstances under which they were created (the world wars/cold war) are the best possible options for the job.

      Obviously no organisation is going to willing take redundancy, even less so ones that have far less oversight and scrutiny than their more everyday ilk but none the less the question needs to be asked. Overblown and highly secretive security and Intel apparatuses fairly reek of industrial age ideas, design and nomenclature and unlike the more scrutinised brethren (in regular govt and the private sector) are not exposed to the on-going pressures to change and adapt that more regular organisations and businesses are.

      The business used to be the hunting of spies, mostly professional, attached to nations and ideologies and somewhat low in number. Today the problem ranges out to the threat of a multitude of groups and organisations and even individuals (criminal, political, terrorist, nationalist etc etc), both internal and external, where anticipation of a threat is far more likely to be nebulously defined (ie terrorist) than with any clear means or realised response.

      And this is why the net is being cast so wide, implicit acknowledgement that the threat range is no longer narrow and easily defined but is now wide and vey vague. Given the terms of the threat, any time anywhere they could strike, it’s no wonder that the proposed means is to just take in all and every piece of info that’s available and try and make sense of it. My feeling is that, brand new data centre in Utah or not, that way lies madness.

      Given such a means of collection your opponents are less likely to try and hide from you by eliminating their data but smothering themselves in it, under layers of it, or just wallowing though it knowing that the more they spill the greater the info overload potential for you, DDS style. Deception in war and all that.

      In the terms of sheer events 9/11 and 7/7 were shocks to the system for sure but the uncomfortable questions in the light of those events and the noted and often semi obscured failures which took place prior and after reveal that while the information gathering part seems to be more or less accomplished the means to get anything from it was far less so.

      Where privacy and all that comes into this debate is that with the new means to take in greater and greater loads of data about anyone anytime is the concern not only does it simply violate privacy in a highly intrusive way but also that in an age where any individual wired into the network leaves a trail of information behind them which exposes and reveals far more than the simple sum of each piece of data/metadata would suggest.

      That data reveals who we are as much and possibly more than ever before and is akin to being able to read someone’s diary or listen in on the private lives. The issue then is not just the privacy of the individual but the right to privacy for an individual’s data. There is no point in having the freedom to not have a camera in your bedroom watching you 24/7 when all the information your digital existence leaves behind can be gathered up and formed into a highly revealing composite without restraint or oversight.

      Unlike a potential infiltrator who may try to hide their data or assume another identity we are very tightly bound and tied to the data we generate. Ask anyone who has lost their phone and their entire friend’s numbers and contacts.

      The crux of all this is that the new expanded gathering methods of possibly outdated means of security and intel coupled with the ever expanding galaxy of data each individual generates is going to means that more and more of us are exposed to a greater degree but also that its very likely that the people and organisations trying to protect us from the grey and undefined threats are going to make more, not less, mistakes and errors in targeting and possibly eliminating (CIA drone strikes anyone?) those targets, legitimate or not while troving ever deeper into our private lives and personal details. Information overload.

      That is a new future and well-meaning or not those tasked with investigating will go deeper and further into our lives than ever before and currently the debate has yet to settle on how far can we go before the very things we are tasked to protect are destroyed or changed beyond recognition.

    • Charles says:

      Daniel’s responses reflect my thoughts, if I could gather them for a moment, and had the words to express them.

      From the basic end-user viewpoint, I see two things: 1. the process of law enforcement agencies gathering evidence and applying for warrants may be slow and cumbersome, but the process is there for a reason, and coming from a law enforcement background I am happy to give up my privacy when faced with a warrant, but I am not happy about it being collected and stored so someone can check up on me without similar checks and balances. 2. I understand that the NSA is supposed to have a process in place in order to limit access to the data collected through Prism, however the fact that this data was taken from the companies without a specific threat in mind really peeves me. I know Google has quite a collection of data on me, as it was part of the end-user agreement that I ultimately agreed to. The State should not have this data based on the possibility that they may want to look at it sometime down the track on the off chance I might want to cause someone harm or challenge the State’s authority. While the reactive nature of criminal investigations and law enforcement in general isn’t ideal, I would still prefer that to a Future Crimes scenario.

      Also, how on earth does a structure like Prism come about due to the slight threat of terrorism, when illegal drugs and those who peddle them seem to be a much greater menace to society? Or am I just being silly?

  3. W4rlord says:

    All data collected is processed by humans. Who else? All you have to do is find the right person and have good connections with him/her, as simple as that.

    Does it sound like a survival strategy from a previous age? Yes it is. IMHO it is not about Foucault. It is about Eco.

    Learn to spell NEOMEDIEVALISM.

    • Rob Dover says:

      I don’t dissent that the analogy of ecology is underplayed in our field. There is an interesting article in the latest issue of the Review of International Studies on this very subject.

    • W4rlord says:

      It is my fault, since I was not entirely clear. Eco is Umberto Eco, the italian writer and not the interaction. The new middle ages are already upon us.

  4. W4rlord says:

    If you wanted to say social connections then yes.

    Wanna see how the EU/UK/US will look like in say 10 yrs? Look how the previous communist countries look like now: say Poland or Czechia or Hungary. A closely controlled and aristocratic republic, with no upward social mobility, thinly veiled as a liberal democracy. Doublespeak will thrive (just as it did between 1948 and 1990), signs of poverty swept under the carpet, highborn and lowborn castes (NOT classes) clearly separated and similar stuff.

    And all that in the name of human rights, and equality and political correctness.

  5. Tech Note: NSA — Inspired by Hollywood
    — Think: Seven Days in May’s ECOMCON + Colossus: The Forbin Project + Terminator’s SkyNet + Roswell + Anchorman + Idiocracy + Google + Netflix + Amazon + DIRECTV Anywhere
    — Conclude: Yup, an insane comic cybernetic genius holding all of your credit card numbers with the predictive power of Netflix: — Near-Term Prediction: Q: “Honey, did you order a Google Car with a side of Kim Kardashian?”
    — Likely Long-Term Result: “My poor Krell. After a million years of shining sanity, they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.” — Dr. Morbius, Forbidden Planet

  6. Chirlity says:

    Sadly, I tend to agree with your philosophical shrug of the shoulders Rob – unfortunately nothing is likely to change.

    (it must be a tad embarrassing for the most secretive of all security agencies, the National ‘Security’ Agency, when it is unable to keep it’s own top secrets secret? Let alone anyone advancing the argument that it should be trawling servers for ours. Isn’t this like trusting a dentist with rotten teeth? I can only imagine the backside covering going on at the NSA / Booz Allen. Of course one really shouldn’t be too surprised. But that an outside (outside!) contractor is able to remove sensitive data offsite does hint at very basic data handling and device control failures. Chalk another one up to the litany of data security failures.)


    I think your point of an absolute security myth is very well raised. Similar questioning also needs to be raised on such questions as what we mean by ‘privacy’ and to what degree and purpose we deem security to trump it.

    I would commend to all the following short piece, Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’, by Daniel Solove, Prof of Law at George Washington University – This also neatly dovetails to Jack McDonald’s piece (It’s the violence, stupid) regarding future unintended consequences of all encompassing data gathering by governments.

    Let the global land grab for digital data hegemony continue…!

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