Monday


surveillance

The national security state came of age during the Cold War, under perpetual threat of a sudden, catastrophic nuclear exchange that could terminate civilization almost instantaneously at any time, and which was therefore an era of institutionalized paranoia. In the national security state, the response to perpetual danger was perpetual vigilance — one often heard the line, the price of peace is eternal vigilance, which has been attributed to many difference sources — and this vigilance primarily took the form of military preparedness. The emergence of the surveillance state as the natural successor to the national security state is a development of the post-Cold War period, and is partly the result of a changed threat narrative, but it is also partly a response to technological advances. During the Cold War the technological resources to construct a universal surveillance state did not yet exist; today these technological resources exist, and they are being systematically implemented.

In the universal surveillance state, the state takes on the role of panopticon — a now-familiar motif originating in the thought of English Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, but brought to wide attention in the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (cf. A Flock of Drones) — which has profound behavioral implications for all citizens. It is well known not only to science but to even the most superficial observer of human nature that people tend to behave differently when they know they are being watched, as compared to when they believe themselves to be unobserved. The behavioral significance of universal surveillance is that of putting all citizens on notice that they are being observed at all times. In other words, we are all living inside the panopticon at all times.

Rather than the rational reconstruction of the state, this is the perceptual reconstruction of the state, in which all citizens have a reason to believe that they are under surveillance at all times, and at all places as well, including within the confines of their homes. The tracking of electronic telecommunications — today, primarily cell phone calls and internet-based communication — means that the state reaches in to the private world of the individual citizen, his casual conversations with friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbors, and monitors the ordinary business of life.

In order to effectively monitor the ordinary business of life of the presumptively “typical” or “average” citizen, the state security monitors must develop protocols for the observation and analysis of this vast body of data that will differentiate the “typical” or “average” citizen from the citizen (or resident, for that matter) who is to be the object of special surveillance. In other words, the total surveillance state must develop an algorithm of normalcy, in contrast to which the pathological is defined — the “normal” and the “pathological” are polar concepts which derive their meaning from their contrast with the opposite polar concept. Any established pattern of life that deviates from the normalcy algorithm would be flagged as suspicious. Even if such flagging incidents fail to reveal criminality, disloyalty, or other behaviors stigmatized by the state, such examples can be used to further refine the algorithm of normalcy in order to rule out the “noise” of the ordinary business of life in favor of the “signal” of pathological behavior patterns.

Those with a hunger for conformity will perhaps interpret a descriptive algorithm for the identification of normalcy as a prescriptive guide to a life that will not attract the attention of the authorities. Many, of course, will give no time to the thought of surveillance. There will be others, however, who are neither indifferent nor conformist, but who will court if not provoke surveillance. And just as the algorithm of normalcy gives a recipe for conformity, it also gives a recipe for non-conformity. Spectacular instances of non-conformity to an algorithm of normalcy will invite surveillance, and this will have potentially unexpected consequences.

One can only wonder how long it will take for individuals hungry for either fame or notoriety — and not caring which one results from their actions — manage to hack the pervasive surveillance state, pinging the system to see how it responds, and using this same system against itself to catapult some individual into the center of national if not global media attention. One could, I imagine, obtain a number of cell phones, land lines, email addresses, and begin using them to exchange suspect information, and eventually be identified as a special surveillance target. If this activity resulted in an arrest, such an experience could be used by the arrested individual as the basis for a book contract or a legal suit about compromised civil rights. Indeed, if the perpetrator was sufficiently clever they could construct the ruse in such a manner as to implicate “sensitive” individuals or to cast serious doubt upon the claims made by law enforcement officials. Such a gambit might be milked for considerable gain.

Given the currency of celebrity in our society, it is nearly inevitable that such an event will occur, whether motivated by the desire for fame, infamy, wealth, power, or self-aggrandizement. Just as Dostoyevsky wrote in a note appended to the beginning of his short story, “Notes from Underground,” (a passage of some interest to me that I previously quoted in An Interview in Starbucks), such individuals must exist in our society:

The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed. I have tried to expose to the view of the public more distinctly than is commonly done, one of the characters of the recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still living.

The overt celebrity state and the covert surveillance state are set to collide, perhaps spectacularly, the more power that is organized around the universal surveillance state. Given the fungibility of power, the political power represented by the universal surveillance state can be readily translated into other forms of power, such as wealth and fame, and the more political power that in concentrates in the universal surveillance state, the riper is this universal surveillance state to being used against its express intention. In other words, the attempt to turn the state into a hard target through universal surveillance, turns the state into a soft target for attacks that exapt the surveillance regime for unintended ends.

Politicians, while savvy within their own metier, like anyone else, can be woefully naïve in other areas of life, which virtually guarantees that, at the very moment when they believe themselves to secured themselves by way of the implementation of a total surveillance regime, they are likely to be blindsided by a completely unprecedented and unanticipated exaptation of their power by another party with an agenda that is so different that it is unrecognizable as a threat by those who study threats to national security. In the way that hackers sometimes cause mayhem and damage for the pure joy of stirring up a ruckus, hackers of the total surveillance state may be motivated by ends that have no place within the threat narratives of the architects of the total surveillance state.

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The Stratfor Hack

26 December 2011

Monday


I first received an e-mail on Christmas Eve from Strategic Forecasting that their website had been hacked and information had been compromised. I did some Google searches and found several websites with brief accounts of the hack, some complete with screenshots and more detail than the e-mail I received from Stratfor. I received a longer e-mail from Stratfor on Christmas Day saying that, “We have reason to believe that your personal and credit card data could have been included in the information that was illegally obtained and disclosed.” By today, Boxing Day, the story had made it to the BBC front page, ‘Anonymous’ hackers hit US security firm Stratfor.

It has been interesting and disturbing to me to see how this story has been reported. The focus has been on large corporations and political entities who have been subscribers to Stratfor; I have not seen one account in the press that mentions individuals who have subscribed to Stratfor, and for whom it would be a bit more difficult to pound the round peg of an individual into the square hole of nefarious corporate and governmental secrecy. I can imagine that if they got a subscriber list with names like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz that we would hear something about individual subscribers, but it is very much to the point that there are no such names: they already get their intelligence through government channels.

There are information freedom activists and transparency advocates who view such hacking activities as expressions of “freedom,” saying the “information wants to be free,” and that the information will ultimately wind up in the hands most capable of managing it, whatever hands those happen to be. There is also a tendency to lump to together such hacking activities with the recent “Occupy” protests and with the activities of Wikileaks in the recent past. On the video posted by the hackers on the Stratfor website (which I watched in its entirety) there were many pictures of the “Occupy” protesters. Also, the hackers included the full text of the anarchist pamphlet widely attributed to The Invisible Committee, and sometimes known as The Coming Insurrection. As I see it, this is a conflation, and an inexcusable conflation at that.

I have written several strongly-worded posts in favor of Wikileaks (Honesty as a Strategic Shock, Robert Baer on Wikileaks, and Once more, with feeling…); I do not believe that these leaks have compromised the safety of sources in the way that some critics of Wikileaks have alleged. Certainly Wikileaks has done far less damage to US security than infighting within the US federal government that has resulted in the outing of CIA agents under non-official cover (NOC), as in the Valeria Plame incident. Also, the ham-handedness of much US State Department and intelligence gathering operations usually manages to compromise US interests quite effectively without the intervention of any other forces, including politically hostile elements.

I have written a couple posts there were more or less critical of the “Occupy” protesters (Existential Due Diligence and Missing the Point), but was unable to go into much detail because of the lack of coherency of the “Occupy” protesters. The “Occupy” protesters are the ciphers or our time, and any media outlet seems to be able to read any kind of discontent whatsoever into their activities. They are, like the players in Hamlet, the abstract and brief chronicles of our time.

On my Tumblr blog, Grand Strategy Annex, I wrote about the news story Anonymous vs. Zetas Amid Mexico’s Cartel Violence, as it seemed to me at the time rather impressive that the Anonymous activists were willing to go up against the Mexican drug cartels, which are brutal organizations that will not scruple to kill and maim those who oppose them. Also, the public statement made by Anonymous at this time made it pretty clear that they were knowingly endangering themselves by their confrontation with the Mexican cartels, warning those not up to the fight to bail before they were in too deep.

All these movements strike me as very different social phenomena. Related, certainly, as all phenomena that share this world are related, but profoundly different. Strategic Forecasting is a private business that sells information to those who will pay for it; Wikileaks gives away information from those willing and able to give it away, and does so in what they believe to be the public interest; the “Occupy” protesters are an unfocused, disorganized collection of individuals with a variety of different complaints against present socio-economic conditions, which has only been given the coherence of a “movement” by mainstream media outlets looking for a story; finally, Anonymous is a collection of similarly unfocused hackers who perhaps have a vision of information freedom and transparency, but who fail to see the difference between Wikileaks and hacking vandalism.

It has been observed many times that human beings try to make sense of their experience. Sometimes they try too hard to make sense of their experience, and in so doing see patterns and meanings where there is neither pattern nor meaning. When Percival Lowell looked at Mars through a telescope, he thought he saw canals, and on this basis constructed a fanciful and beautiful and sad story of a dying Martian civilization building canals to bring water from the Martian poles thus to irrigate their dessicated planet.

Recently in my post on Futurism without Predictions I discussed a conception of understanding history that is based upon the recognition of patterns (or, if you like, you can call them strategic trends). Now I see that it is just as important to deny patterns that have no firm basis in fact, as it is important to project and extrapolate patterns and trends that are firmly rooted in events and experience.

Previously in A Reflection on Conspiracy Theories I discussed contemporary conspiracies, which have been given a new lease on life by the internet. With the resources of the internet, any individual can seek out vast amounts of highly specific information while more or less systematically avoiding any information that conflicts with their point of view. This has led to a hothouse in which conspiracy theories have flourished to the detriment of a rational conception of the world based in objective and verifiable realities. The essence of the contemporary conspiracy theory is discerning a pattern where there is no pattern in fact. This is as invidious to clear thinking as the failure to recognize realities that face us every day.

Some people today look at Wikileaks and Occupy protests and the Arab Spring and the hacks of Anonymous and they see one enormous movement differently expressed in different parts of the world, but all the tip of the iceberg that is about to sink the damaged and leaking ships of state that perilously cross the waters of history. Well, human history is filled with millennial expectation. Perhaps this is another relic of evolutionary psychology: those who have believed that something wonderful was right around the corner may have been strengthened with the intestinal fortitude necessary to keep plugging away.

Survival is all well and good — I am all for it, especially my own personal survival — but in the world today, changed as it has been by scientific, technical, and industrial revolutions, survival demands the ability to understand the counter-intuitive and to understand the realities behind appearances. I tried to make this point recently in Can Democracy Grow Up?, where I wrote:

“One of the crucial stages on the way to intellectual maturity is an ability to understand and to master counter-intuitive ideas. Science is largely constructed of counter-intuitive ideas. Mathematics consists of many spectacularly counter-intuitive ideas that only become more fantastic as work continues on them. Despite their character as social sciences, political science and economics also involve counter-intuitive ideas.”

One form that facile intuitive ideas can take is that of hasty generalization or apparent identification of a pattern. Where this is the case, it is the counter-intuitive idea to find the exception to the generalization or to call into question a pattern that is not adequately founded in objective evidence.

We, as human beings, overcame the first real test of counter-intuitive thinking when we resisted the temptation to escalate our wars during the Cold War, and, however brutal our proxy wars became, they remained below the nuclear threshold. In other words, with the nuclear arsenals of the Cold War we possessed the power to destroy our civilization and also very probably the power to exterminate our own species. The fact that we did not do so is to our credit.

Now we have a new technological challenge to our humanity: the internet has given as a weapon of mass destruction that targets not our bodies but our minds. The question now is whether we will once again rise to the challenge and, apparently contrary to the promptings of our instincts and the arguments of instrumental reason, restrain our destructiveness so that something of value can remain for future generations.

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