Problematic policy proscriptions for mass surveillance and data security

mass surveillance
mass surveillance

One of the problems with politics is that it always seems to be the wrong people determining the answers to problems. Consider issues such as market regulation, starvation in Africa, or mass surveillance/privacy issues. In each of those cases the issues have been defined by precisely the people who shouldn’t be.

  1. Regulation is one such concern. Unfortunately the only parties to the conversation seem to be the vested interests who are inclined to write the legislation for the government’s “oversight”.
  2. Poverty in Africa is of course the purview of politicians, who largely shrug at the issue; only adopting programs for which there is some ‘national interest’. That might suffice, but the only counter argument or political imperative comes from celebrities doing concerts to raise money. Maybe this is enough, but the depth of engagement and breadth of participation in the dialogue is a concern. A Bob Geldof party is not an argument.
  3. Mass surveillance has been dictated by the ‘all-powerful’ arbitrary government, and fugitives Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. I still have no inkling what executives aside from Google’s and a few other parties, think about the issue. I’d have thought it pertinent to engage or data analysts, philosophers and intellectuals.

More concerning still is the particular quality of this ‘engagement’, but that is another issue. Now, on the last issue of surveillance, we have had a ‘very polarised’ and narrow dialogue between a few high profile protagonists. Not only has the issue been largely confined to the government, ‘law breakers’ (Julian Assange and Edward Snowden) and ‘enablers’ (like Google, Yahoo, Facebook et al), but the discussion on the issue has been entirely misguided. The problem is that we have been entertained by a false dichotomy between:

  1. Good surveillance – The idea that there are things that government should be able to monitor.
  2. Bad surveillance – The idea that there are things the government should not be able to see, mainly because they have no good reason for seeing it.

The problem with this type of debate is that it is defined on poor terms that is destined to see the exponents of ‘government restraint’ pass the baton on personal freedom to the government by default. The mistake is that the protagonists have not identified a standard of what constitutes the ‘good’. They are falling prey to the same ambivalent standard of ‘the common good’ without offering any clarity. The argument then simply becomes one of questioning each other’s credibility. In such a case its a game of ‘bluff’ because neither side has any substantive position. One side is painting Assange as a sexual predator and Snowden as a traitor, whilst these two men are depicting the US and aligned governments have oligarchs presiding over a power-play.

The reason this is a problem is because there are real threats, and the so-called ‘defenders of freedom’ are actually ‘by default’ delivering us into the hands of ‘evil’. Now, the problem with ‘evil’ is that most of the time its protagonists are just unwitting leaders who don’t know the implications of what they are doing, or supporters/voters who sanction ‘alternatives’ despite some ambivalence about their values. What choice do they have?  They are often misguided people. We are not yet looking at politicians behaving as ‘scary creeps’ like Hitler, but we are not far off. The way ‘defenders of freedom’ behave on issues like this actually will determine whether we slip into the shadows of another war, or political persecution, on a raft of issues. It is not a ‘single issue’ upon which the ‘defenders of freedom’ are destined to undermine us, it is a litany of issues which are ‘wrong-footed’ because of the system of political discourse to which they will be subjected. We are losing the battle because our defenders are not well-prepared for these debates, and they will never be so prepared to win under this system.

So what is the nature of the error that places freedom in jeopardy? The problem is two-fold:

  1. Defenders of freedom have allowed fugitives like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange to drive this issue. These two individuals are not great intellectuals; they are misguided people who are very good at what they do, when they are not inadvertently shaping foreign policy or security policy. I will argue that because of their intervention, we are looking at worse security outcomes rather than better. Of course it won’t be apparent to anyone because we are not able to see the alternative course. These two men, and their popular exposure, have actually given the government reason to extend their powers, on the premise that two lone individuals were able to cripple their systems, and hold the US government to ransom. Fortunately for us these two men were well-meaning. There was no adverse security threat; just a great deal of embarrassment for the US and other Western governments. We might wonder why however the government would prefer to see them dead. The reason is these Western governments want to discourage similar ‘copycat’ defiance, and because they want to manage the embarrassing leak so that perceptions of custodianship are preserved on the critical national security issue. For that these two men deserve a prize and a reprieve. For their subsequent ‘security solutions’, they deserve a ‘failing grade’.
  2. The fugitives (Snowden and Assange) have not offered a real solution to the political imperative confronting the USA and Western allies. There is no question that the world faces a crisis. These two men are not offering a solution. These two men, far from setting themselves up as critics of conservative government, have inadvertently become ‘their worst nightmare’. They have become conservatives. They are simply condemning Western security measures with scare-mongering without offering any alternative approach. This is simply not good enough.

Listen to Edward Snowden in his Christmas Message to the world from Russia. He implores us to stop Western governments introducing their planned security measures. He warns us about their mass surveillance programs, comparing them with George Orwell’s depiction in ‘1984’. He argues that:

  1. We effectively have sensors in our pockets.
  2. Children today will grow up with no notion of privacy
  3. We are obliged to trust in technology, and the government that regulates us.

Perhaps more startling he argues that we will grow up “not knowing who we are and who we want to be”. He implores us to ‘end mass surveillance’.

There are several problems with his message, and his entire thesis:

  1. Conservatism: He does not offer a counter-solution
  2. Rationalism: His depiction is unsubstantiated ‘scaremongering’

One of the most worrisome issues in the decline of any society is when you find that the enemies of freedom lie on both sides of the debate. This can occur by design in some political systems, as is say the case with price collusion in an economy, where corporate ‘competitors’ pretend to compete. It can also occur ‘by default’ when defenders simply don’t have the arguments to defend freedom. So let’s deal with these two issues.

Rationalism

On any issue it is important to acknowledge that there is always some truth to an issue. Everyone offers ‘some truth’. It is rare that people are ‘complete liars’, otherwise they’d not be believable or credible. More concerning in this case is not the prospect that these fugitives are ‘liars’, but that they are:

  1. Misguided by their desire to seize influence on any terms. i.e. They saw an opportunity to acquire influence that they never had, and they felt compelled to find a rationalisation to make it work for them. This perspective seems to more closely reflect Edward Snowden’s thinking.
  2. Dishonest in the sense that they are driven to hide their own personal intellectual flaws by projecting and accentuating the flaws of others. This is perhaps true more of Julian Assange, however I don’t have enough personal information to say. Certainly I would put Kim Dotcom in this basket. There is a misconception that a dishonest person is simply a ‘person who lies to others’, but in fact more fundamentally a dishonest person is a person who lies to themselves. Lying to others is defensible in certain contexts. Evasive behaviour is lying to oneself, and its always wrong because we are ultimately always responsible for ourselves. In contrast, a person who lies to others may not wish to benefit, but simply to protect themselves from other’s illegitimate ‘encroachment’ on their ‘defensible’ interests.

Conservatism

You might well wonder how these people could stand on their pulpits and tell the US government what not to do, and fail to convey ‘how they should in fact behave’. They fail to offer an alternative solution. This is ‘conservatism’ in spades. There is no political integrity is such repudiations.

Anarcho-capitalist solution

Being an anarcho-capitalist, it is foremost in my mind the propensity for people to look for the ‘easy solution’ to problems that are beyond their capacity to resolve. When people think of organisational structure, they think of ‘public-spirited’ governments and ‘private-spirited’ corporations. In this contrast, they might well be persuaded to defer to government because governments don’t make profits and they have ‘legal power’ to achieve their objectives. They are destined to believe that governments are in fact ‘public spirited’ because they say they are. Of course when your intent is to achieve a legal sanction you will say anything, and thereafter you don’t have to be so concerned since any leader is ‘acting through party’ affiliation. The amalgamation of interests as political parties ought to have been reason for concern. We are concerned about the scope of  corporate ‘market power’ to form monopolies or cartels, but voters readily sanction two mainstream parties to share universal power of attorney for an inordinate period. We thereafter are suspicious of corporations but clammer for ‘public restitution’, having only degraded the expectation in the process.  We certainly need outcomes, but when we sanction ‘monopoly governments’ to dictate from the ‘top-down’ what the people, as disempowered subordinates can do, by the standards of the appointed custodians, and allowed an oligarchic ‘public system’ to preside over the power to impart prison sentences upon the non-compliant, then we have lost sight of the already dangerous precedent accepted.

Whilst I might reject the actions of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, the reason they felt compelled to take the actions they did was because:

  1. We have an oligarchic system of government where the framers of our rights have arbitrary power to do as they please.
  2. These oligarchs are not constrained by those arbitrary provisions made in constitutions to minimise their power. On the contrary, they praise the existence of those provisions, as if to say they are respected and effective provisions that constrain their power. The reality is that they are only a nuisance or obstacle which are readily circumvented. Often illegitimate laws are repudiated simply by ignoring them because ‘poor laws’ are only such if they are struck down by the highest court. Whilst high courts can do that, constitutions are sufficiently vague and judges sufficiently ‘deferential’ to ‘people power’ that they don’t engage in judicial activism.
  3. This oligarchy effectively acts in complicity with mainstream and even minor parties, foreign governments, and appointed agencies, and together with the sanction of the media, they are able to create the illusion of legitimacy in the absence of controversy.

It is because people have cynically accepted low standards for political discourse, and because long-standing provisions for preserving democracy retain their credibility, that our freedoms are in fact being undermined, without any controversy being raised. There are few alarm bells. So why do I consider Julian Assange and Edward Snowden alarmists? The reason is that we want government chasing down terrorists. We want them reading our telephone records. What we don’t want is them having the arbitrary power to misuse that information. We want them to have good reasons for sequestering that information, and for there to be protections to ensure such processes are secure. i.e. We don’t want in the name of national security to be unilaterally made vulnerable. These men have therefore done us a disservice by focusing on the wrong issue. It is scare-mongers like them that prompt governments to hide their actions. They have scandalised ‘mass surveillance’ when in fact the problem is not (and never was privacy), it was the spectre of the arbitrary intervention in our lives that made privacy a risk. We want the same type of disclosure that applies to politicians and for the same reasons. Just to cite some examples:

  1. I don’t need to worry about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, or even myself being arrested, I need to be worried that the processes underpinning my defence are in-tact and serve the spirit of justice. I have no assurance of that because logical common law has given way to arbitrary ‘context dropping’ statutory law.
  2. I don’t need to worry about surveillance ‘eavesdropping’ on my conversations if (i) I have nothing to hide as long as the added imperative holds that (ii) the authorities will not take arbitrary action with the information they hold and that (iii) those that have access that information will not be placed in a position where they can misuse it in the ‘name of justice or security.

I therefore have no problem with surveillance because I benefit when the properly empowered authorities have the tools to apprehend our shared enemies. The problem is that my government, given its powers and ‘my resources’ as a taxpayer, is more dangerous than ISIS. This fact is not dependent on surveillance laws; since the threat is underpinned by their arbitrary power. The problem is that:

  1. They and others will dispute the arbitrariness of their power
  2. I will not get the opportunity to outline my objection in this political system
  3. I will not get to hear the government’s repudiation of Snowden/Assange. It satisfies them that Western governments are able to find some arbitrary law that they have broken to ‘silence them’, and to keep others silence.
internet surveillance
internet surveillance

The problem is not the ‘mass surveillance’ but what the authorities are able to do with any information they already have. The government is already doing some pretty serious ‘persecuting’ and these ‘evangelists’ are worried about ‘mass information access’? How pernicious does government have to get before people act. The problem is that they are reacting to the wrong problems. No one is responding to the theft of taxpayers money that allows most problems. No one cares a tinker about the majoritive sanction that allows government to enact laws to ‘legally’ extort any number of powers and privileges for vested interests alligned with them. This is not a problem if its ‘their money’, but its the taxpayers’.

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