Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Making sense of Snowden

[link] Saturday, April 19th, 2014

This is a fantastic example of how to conduct an academic discussion of a really contentious subject. It brings together academics and NSA people to talk calmly about what’s happened and what it means. The participants are Yochai Benkler, Bruce Schneier, and Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center and John DeLong and Anne Neuberger of the National Security Agency. The conversation is expertly moderated by the Berkman Faculty Director Terry Fisher.

It runs for 90 minutes, but is really worth it. So book some time off and watch.

Some thoughts triggered by it, in no particular order…

  1. Tempting thought it might be, I see little point in demonising the agencies (NSA/GCHQ). Most of the people who work in them are conscientious officials engaged on a mission which they believe to be important and necessary. One interesting aspect of the Snowden revelations is that they contain few, if any, horror stories of “bad apples” or corrupt officials abusing their powers. This doesn’t mean that such scandals don’t exist, but my hunch is that this is very different from, say, what went on in MI5 and the CIA during the Kennedy/Nixon/Reagan eras.
  2. The discussion so far has focussed too much on the details or the surveillance programs, and not enough on what the existence of such programs means for society and democracy.
  3. ‘Oversight’ has been interpreted as checking that the agencies strictly adhere to the rules that have been set for them by legislation and executive order. It seems clear already that much of this oversight has been inadequate and flawed. But there has been very little discussion of democratic oversight of the rule-making process itself. It is important, of course, to ensure that rules set by Parliament or Congress are being obeyed at the execution level. But what is equally important – and thus far under-discussed – is whether the rules that have been created by politicians are themselves wise, effective and proportionate. There is little comfort to be derived from government assurances that everything done by NSA/GCHQ is “lawful” if the laws themselves are flawed.
  4. There is an important difference between espionage and bulk surveillance: the former is directed or targeted; the latter is generalised and indiscriminate.
  5. In a way, the agencies were set an impossible task by politicians in the aftermath of 9/11. “Never again” was both the letter and the spirit of the injunction. Societies must never again be vulnerable to the terrible things that terrorists might dream up and conspire about. Charged with this terrible responsibility the agencies attempted to forewarn against any conceivable threat, and the only way they could invent to do that involved the kind of comprehensive surveillance that Snowden reveals. What we don’t know – yet – is whether the agencies were actually doing this kind of surveillance before 9/11, in which case there would be some further awkward questions to be asked.
  6. The “war on terror” proved to be a really pernicious ploy. A state of war implies an existential threat to the nation, which justifies and legitimates very drastic measures. Between 1939 and 1945, for example, Britain was effectively a totalitarian state, and all kinds of civil liberties were drastically curtailed and infringed; but the citizenry grudgingly or willingly accepted these conditions because they understood the existential threat. But the “war on terror” is not a war in that sense; it’s merely a rhetorical device. it did, however provide ideological – and in some cases legal – cover for massive extensions of intrusive surveillance.
  7. Secrecy is always a tricky concept for democracies Because, on the one hand, democracy requires openness and publicity (to ensure that citizens can give their consent to what is being done in their name by state actors); but at the same time, democracies may legitimately need to engage in some activities which have to be kept secret. In some cases, secrecy is legitimate: in 1963, for example, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved by President Kennedy’s decision to offer the prospect of withdrawal of American missiles based in Turkey in return for a Soviet decision to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. This offer was kept secret from the American public for the very good reason that if it had been made public then it might have undermined congressional and public support for the president’s handling of the crisis.
  8. Democracies therefore are always trying to strike a balance between openness and secrecy. This can be a very hard balance to strike, so not surprisingly democracies tend to fudge the issue by offering to lift the veil of secrecy just far enough to provide a semblance of accountability. One of the things we have learned from the Snowdon affair is how threadbare this semblance is. What we have, as one shrewd commentator observed, is not real oversight but “oversight theatre”.
  9. A useful way to conceptualise the problem is to imagine a horizontal line. Activities above the line – for example legislative rule-making – take place in public. This is where policy is formed. Below the line is the area of policy execution by the agencies, and is hidden from the public.
  10. It would be naive to assume that the agencies confine themselves just to execution. They may sometimes be active above the line – for example in framing legislation which meets their needs but which is couched in terms that conceal from an ignorant public and a complacent or incompetent legislature the real import of the legislation. This process has been especially visible since 9/11. In that context, it’s interesting that the legislator who co-authored the Patriot Act has publicly declared his dismay at discovering (pace Snowden) what his statute has supposedly authorised. And in Britain it’s clear that directors of security organisations can play an important role in framing legislation.
  11. In Britain there is a deeply-ingrained tradition of political deference to the security services. This could be because Britain is a society that is more hierarchical and deferential than most. Or it could be that sentiment rules: GCHQ, for example, is seen as the spiritual heir of the wartime Bletchley Park codebreakers, and thus rides on their heroic coat-tails. Whatever the explanation, there are suspicions that budgetary and other proposals from senior security officials receive more favourable treatment in Whitehall than do comparable demands from “civilian” departments. One former senior member of the Blair government told me that in all his time in the Cabinet he could not recall a single instance in which a request from MI5/MI6/GCHQ was turned down by Tony Blair.
  12. Politicians in most Western democracies – including the United States and United Kingdom – are astonishingly ignorant about the capabilities and potential of computing and communication technologies. The proposition that such politicians might be capable of maintaining effective ‘oversight’ of technologically-adept agencies is implausible.
  13. Allied to politicians’ technological ignorance is the fact that “hacker culture” is an entirely alien world to them. This is important in considering the possibility of “mission creep” by surveillance agencies which are staffed by large numbers of talented software engineers. The Snowdon revelations include a few examples of what programmers call “cool hacks” which are indicative of technological exuberance and associated mission creep.
  14. Even if we except that the NSA has strictly adhered to the rules laid down by Congress, there is the problem that some of the activities revealed by Snowdon are nowhere mentioned in the rules. Congress, for example, did not mandate that the RSA encryption which supposedly secures the bulk of the commerce transactions on the open Internet should be covertly compromised by the agency. Nor did Congress mandate that the NSA should approach Microsoft after it acquired Skype with the demand/request that the technology should be modified in order to facilitate surveillance of VoIP communications.
  15. One of the most perplexing aspects of the whole surveillance question is why citizens of some of the most-surveilled societies seem relatively relaxed about it. There are, of course, cultural differences at work here – Germans, for example, seem to much more concerned about the Snowdon revelations than are Britons.
  16. The Snowdon revelations demonstrate the extent to which what one might call the National Surveillance State is a public-private enterprise. In a sense the state has covertly outsourced some of the surveillance to major Internet companies and telecommunications organisations. This is hardly surprising given that the core business of both the NSA/GCHQ and the Internet giants (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft) is intensive, detailed, comprehensive surveillance. The only real difference is that the companies claim it is being done with the consent of their users – as registered by their acceptance of the terms and conditions imposed by corporate EULAs (End User Licence Agreements).
  17. One strange aspect of the whole business is the way the US government appeared unaware to the threat that exposure of NSA activities would pose to the country’s big technology companies. It’s inconceivable that policy makers would not have considered the damage that exposure would do. Or is it? Was it just that (see earlier comment about the cluelessness of politicians in this area) that the risk never crossed what might loosely be called their minds?
  18. The biggest question of all — and the one least discussed – is whether the kind of comprehensive surveillance revealed by Snowden and other whistleblowers is compatible with any meaningful conception of democracy.

The unknown known

[link] Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

This I want to see.

More NSA fallout?

[link] Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Nearly half the nation’s adults changed their behavior online because of the National Security Agency’s NSA snooping programs, according to a new poll.The Harris Interactive survey found that 47 percent of adults were thinking more carefully about what they do, what they say or where they go on the Internet in light of the spying revelations that began emerging last summer.ADVERTISEMENTMore than a quarter of the 2,000 people surveyed said they were doing less banking online, and 24 percent said they were less inclined to use email.


Balance as Bias — redux

[link] Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Apropos the discussion of the latest IPCC climate change report, there was a discussion on Radio 4′s Today programme this morning about the media’s role in public (mis)understanding of the problem. I’m glad to see that the travesty of having Nigel Lawson on the programme recently to ‘balance’ a leading climate scientist was discussed. It was an example of the old “balance as bias” problem.

The guy who really nailed this in words of one syllable is Paul Krugman. When the topic of media bias came up in a session he did with Harvard students years ago, he said something like this (I’m paraphrasing):

Here’s the problem. Dick Cheney [then US Vice President] says that the earth is flat. Here’s how the New York Times reports it: “VP says Earth Flat; Others Disagree”.

This is where American journalism’s concern with not having a point of view becomes pathological. The earth isn’t flat. Never was. And there’s a high probability that human intervention is warming the planet.

Lessig on Equality

[link] Monday, March 31st, 2014

Larry Lessig is the most compelling lecturer I know. Here he is talking about equality and the dysfunctionality of the US political system.

No more NSA spying? Dream on…

[link] Sunday, March 30th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Last week in the Hague, Barack Obama seemed to have suddenly remembered the oath he swore on his inauguration as president – that stuff about preserving, protecting and defending the constitution of the United States. At any rate, he announced that the NSA would end the “bulk collection” of telephone records and instead would be required to seek a new kind of court order to search data held by telecommunications companies.

This policy change is a tacit admission of what Edward Snowden (and 2001 whistleblower William Binney before him) had been claiming, namely that the warrantless surveillance of US citizens by the NSA and other government agencies does, in fact, violate the constitution of the United States. Obama’s announcement looked to some observers as the first crack to appear in the implacable facade of the national surveillance state. This looked promising because, as we know from second world war movies, the first crack is inevitably the harbinger of the eventual total collapse of the dam.

Dream on…

Inequality is a feature of the capitalist system, not a bug

[link] Saturday, March 29th, 2014


You don’t have to be an economist to worry about rising inequality (in fact it’s probably better if you’re not an economist, because most of them don’t seem to be much bothered by it). But on the list of existential problems that we apparently cannot solve, inequality ranks even above global warming. And what is really infuriating is the persistent cant of governments everywhere about it. Inequality and social deprivation are, we are told, regrettable and inescapable difficulties that mar an otherwise excellent system, like the exhaust fumes from a 3-litre smooth-running, straight-six BMW engine. They are, in other words, bugs.

No they’re not: they’re features. They are what the capitalist system produces in the course of its normal operation. And inequality is getting worse. In fact, in some countries it’s reached alarming levels — alarming because it frays the social fabric that makes civilised life possible.

But somehow the debate about inequality seems to have stalled. Instead people obsess about the ‘growth’ needed to pull us out of ‘austerity’. All of which makes the publication of a new book by a young French economist, Thomas Piketty, so interesting and timely. It’s entitled Capital in the Twenty-First Century and it examines the dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital and how those forces have played out since the 18th century. (See the graph above, which is based on one of Piketty’s diagrams.) In his book, Piketty presents and analyzes data painstakingly assembled from twenty countries and going as far back as the eighteenth century. He shows shows that while modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Marx, nevertheless the deep structures of capital and inequality haven’t changed as much as the decades after World War II led us to believe. Piketty shows that inherited wealth is rapidly re-assuming its traditional role as the primary source of economic power. And the main driver of inequality — which is the fact that returns on capital tend to exceed the rate of economic growth — today threatens to generate the extreme inequalities that stir social and political discontent and undermine democracies.

John Cassidy has a terrific long piece about Piketty’s book in this week’s New Yorker. The Berkeley economist and blogger, Brad de Long, has also compiled a useful compendium of reviews of the book that have appeared so far. For me, the really significant aspect of Piketty’s work is that he shows how economics is inextricably bound up with politics — an idea that is anathema to an economics discipline that until recently was busily trying to emulate physics (without bothering to do what physicists have to do, namely to check their work against physical reality). Economics used to be called “political economy”, which was a good description of what the discipline ought to be, even today. Especially today.

The implication is that if we want to do something about inequality, then we have to take political action to bring the rate of return on capital into sync with wages and earned income. This happened briefly in the 20th century because two world wars and a depression destroyed a lot of capital. But the old dynamic has reasserted itself, with a vengeance, and inequality is set to rise to 19th century levels or worse if we don’t do something about it. The obvious way to do it is via a serious, global taxation regime on wealth. The system won’t fix itself, because it can’t. Inequality is one of its products, remember.

Aw shucks!

[link] Wednesday, March 26th, 2014


Aw, isn’t that nice: a new follower! Wonder if it has anything to do with this?

The law-making behind “lawful intercepts”

[link] Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

There’s a truly astonishing piece by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books about how the ‘legal’ basis for bulk collection and warrantless wiretapping was laid. The program was originally code-named Stellar Wind. Here’s an excerpt that gives the general flavour; the date is March 10, 2004:

John Ashcroft has been in intensive care for nearly a week. Though Ashcroft is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States—and though it is the attorney general’s signature that is required to recertify Stellar Wind—no one seems to have thought it relevant to tell the commander in chief. No matter; Bush telephones intensive care, insists on speaking to the heavily sedated Ashcroft, and tells him he is sending over his chief of staff and White House counsel “to talk to him about an urgent matter.” What follows is the famous Hospital Room Showdown, the great melodramatic set piece of the Bush administration, which features, as Barton Gellman describes it in the superb Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, “men in their forties and fifties, stamping on the brakes, abandoning double-parked vehicles, and running up a hospital stairwell as fast as their legs could pump.”

The White House men were clutching the paper they were determined to persuade the attorney general to sign, and the Justice Department lawyers, led by James Comey, Ashcroft’s deputy, were determined to prevent him from signing it. They converged in a hospital room around the IV-festooned body of the ailing attorney general, who “looked half dead.” Nonetheless, Gellman tells us, in the midst of this coven of lawyers, like some unvanquishable horror movie character, Ashcroft “raised himself up stiffly” off the bed.

He glared at his visitors and said they had no business coming. He gave a lucid account of the reasons that Justice had decided to withhold support. And then he went beyond that. Ashcroft said he never should have certified the program.

…If it were up to him now, he would refuse to approve. But it was not up to him. Gesturing at his deputy, Ashcroft said, “There is the attorney general.” Spent and pale, Ashcroft sank back down.

In the face of this defiance, the White House chief of staff and counsel ignore Comey and stride from the room and then race back to the White House where, Bush informs us rather laconically, “they told me Ashcroft hadn’t signed.” Why not? Apparently they didn’t say and the president doesn’t ask. Instead, he decides to overrule the objections of the Department of Justice and sign “an order keeping the TSP alive based on my authority as head of the executive branch.”

It is, as will soon become clear, a momentous decision, though there is no sign he realizes quite how momentous. Still, the president isn’t happy. “I went to bed irritated,” Bush tells us, “and had a feeling I didn’t know the full story.”

The military-information complex, updated

[link] Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

In my Observer column last Sunday I contrasted the old military-industrial complex that so worried President Eisenhower with the emerging military-information complex (the core of which consists of the four Internet giants: Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft). What I should have guessed is that the two complexes are beginning to merge.

Consider, for example, this interesting Pando Daily piece by Yasha Levine, which says, in part:

Last week, I detailed how Google does much more than simply provide us civvies with email and search apps. It sells its tech to enhance the surveillance operations of the biggest and most powerful intel agencies in the world: NSA, FBI, CIA, DEA and NGA — the whole murky alphabet soup.

In some cases — like the company’s dealings with the NSA and its sister agency, the NGA — Google deals with government agencies directly. But in recent years, Google has increasingly taken the role of subcontractor: selling its wares to military and intelligence agencies by partnering with established military contractors. It’s a very deliberate strategy on Google’s part, allowing it to more effectively sink its hooks into the nepotistic, old boy government networks of America’s military-intelligence-industrial complex.

Over the past decade, Google Federal (as the company’s D.C. operation is called) has partnered up with old school establishment military contractors like Lockheed Martin, as well as smaller boutique outfits — including one closely connected to the CIA and former mercenary firm, Blackwater.

This approach began around 2006.

Around that time, Google Federal began beefing up its lobbying muscle and hiring sales reps with military/intelligence/contractor work experience — including at least one person, enterprise manager Jim Young, who used to work for the CIA. The company then began making the rounds, seeking out partnerships with with established military contractors. The goal was to use their deep connections to the military-industrial complex to hard sell Google technology.

Don’t you just love that corporate moniker: Google Federal! So now we have a tripartite complex: military-industrial-information.