Sunday, 9 June 2013

We need to talk about digital spying in the modern age - Part 4

It pays to reiterate here that intelligence agencies in Western countries - like the American NSA, the British GCHQ, and the New Zealand GCSB - are not the Orwellian leviathans that reactionaries would have us believe. They are generally filled with the nation’s best and brightest individuals who are sworn to protect their fellow citizens, but who are at the mercy of their fellow citizens for instructions and limitations on how much security they can offer and how much personal privacy they need to maintain. 

As Michael Hayden astutely said, Western intelligence can move the bar higher towards strictly protecting its citizens from only transnational terrorism and focusing their eyes and ears away from their home land. Or, they can lower the bar to catch more threats against the home land from people inside Western countries who may wish to do harm. This will require the eyes and ears to be turned also on Western citizens which may include programs like PRISM and a net loss in overall privacy.

This is the dilemma. It really comes down to understanding that the most likely threat against Western targets, in the trend of attacks in Boston and Woolwich, will come from disenchanted fellow citizens in the future. This will be a part of modern life for all Western countries, just like car crashes and obesity. Western intelligence agencies already know this and spotted the trend beginning in at least 2007 when the first digital corporation’s data was accessed by the NSA and added to the PRISM program. They realise that to protect their fellow citizens, they must track the movements of everybody to find out what the potential terrorists are saying. Since human communication relies almost exclusively on the internet, monitoring these people will require surveillance of well-known internet tools which are used by everyone.

As the PRISM program makes clear, the NSA is at a loss to approach this from a more focused way. They simply cannot come up with a way to split the potential terrorists from the normal peace-loving civilians without spreading everything on the table before they start searching. The dragnet method is their best shot at protecting those living in the Western world. 

A good way to think about this is considering searching through the rubbish outside a suspicious house. Pieces of evidence can be located in the bags to add more detail to the case, but the vast majority of the junk will be thrown away again once the search has moved on. If an innocent person’s personal communication is included in the “rubbish pile” - emails about the approaching 30th birthday party for instance – the intelligence analysts have far too much on their minds chasing terrorists that matter to worry about what you’re planning to buy as a present.

All this aside, it makes sense for people to be unsure of such a huge amount of power. If the government can essentially store every word or digital footstep for future use, then their ability to merge jurisdiction and legislation in enhanced phenomenally. This is undesirable in the extreme because those two foundations of democratic society are supposed to be separated. If your every digital move is being monitored, then the government can arbitrarily choose which of your transgressions it wishes to prosecute, lending the government incredible power which few people would be happy about. A robust case for a certain amount of privacy can be made using this argument.

And it also helps to think of the government as being made up of individuals, rather than as an impersonal entity. This is important because every person has their shortcomings, and not every person is ethical in identical ways. People that move into government circles are a snapshot of the society they hark from. In both civilian and government worlds there exists humans with empathy and without. The old adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” can be applied to the revelations of the NSA program PRISM.

But it is a far cry from talking about the fallibilities of some humans in power, to painting the entirety of the government as corrupt and greedy for more control. The truth is, the vast majority of civilian workers in Western intelligence agencies are good and caring people with their hearts and actions in the right place. America, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are lucky to have the intelligence workers they do and they should be given some credit for their actions.

So instead of whipping up another moral panic about the latest NSA surveillance revelations, perhaps it’s better to ask which reality in which one wishes to reside.

Do we want to have all our privacy and leave the government’s vast resources out of our lives to focus strictly on foreign threats?

If so, then as home-grown attacks happen - and they will happen - it needs to be understood that although the ability to protect against such atrocities was always there, the choice was made collectively to err on the side of privacy. It would be no one’s fault that these threats went unnoticed. In this reality the government is not to be blamed for seeing the attacks occur under its watch. The balance was agreed upon between the people and the intelligence services to be set at that level. But at least the discussion was conducted.

Or do we want to be protected from grassroots attacks and the threat of instant death or suffering by employing the government’s huge resources to monitor these individuals?

If so, then airports will need to retain their electronic body scanners, and we will need to hand over our water bottles and continue to take our shoes off before travelling in aircraft. And in the same vein, since there’s no easy way to isolate a potential terrorist in the thundering waterfall of internet traffic, the NSA will need to collect it all and filter out the patterns to find the threats hidden among our cities. Emails to co-workers, chats to friends, and documents sent to family will all potentially be gathered in the great dragnet of the NSA PRISM programs and others like it.

The idea of privacy will need to be rethought if greater security is truly desired. The NSA, with its enormous resources, has the ability to move that bar downwards to catch the threats posed by angry grassroots terrorists. But it needs to know how far it can go. The Western world’s intelligence agencies are at their citizen’s command; it is up to us to discuss where we want them.

New Zealand is already discussing where it wants the bar of its own GCSB monitoring capabilities. Although the historic threat of international or grassroots terrorism in very low in New Zealand, the issue is the same as in the United States. Citizens living in a modern Western society with constant access to the internet and light-speed communications need to understand that it is not just they as peaceful members of society who employ this great technology. If SIGINT agencies weren’t monitoring the internet traffic for criminals and terrorists, this would actually be a greater indictment on their competency. It is time to decide what privacy means for us in a world of interconnection and immersive communication.

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