Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Learnable lessons from Manning, Snowden and inevitable others 12 – thoughts on the limits to the achievable created by attempted absolute control

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on October 17, 2013

This is my thirteenth posting on what is becoming a series of leaks and unauthorized disclosures of classified US government documents that relate to its War on Terror (see John Peter Zenger, Henry L. Stimson, Edward J. Snowden and the challenge of free speech and the first eleven postings to this series, available at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 as postings 225 and loosely following.)

I wrote at the end of Part 11 to this series that I was intending on ending it with that posting. But continuing events have prompted me to reconsider and add at least one more installment. And I have to add that I have kept thinking back to a dystopian novel that should be seen as offering a warning for any government that might seek to pursue surveillance as its guiding path to safety, and where absolute safety is believed possible but only through absolute surveillance.

The book is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the leadership of the society depicted there seeks absolute security and the control that it brings through complete and total surveillance and control of everyone, all the time. I am not suggesting that the government of the United States seeks dictatorial powers or absolute control over its citizens. But I am concerned that more and more people who read of and hear of and feel concern in the face of recently revealed surveillance programs will begin to feel like that book’s main protagonist, Winston Smith as he tried to write in his diary out of the line of sight of the camera in his living space.

• The al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001 that marked the beginning of our current and ongoing War on Terror came seemingly out of nowhere. In retrospect the evidence of what was to come was there and in place, if only it had been possible to find the pieces of that puzzle in time and assemble them into a form that could have led to an organized proactive response.
• I have already written about the unrealistic assumptions inherit in that wish (see for example, Part 5 of this series .) But at the same time I have to note that others still pursue that dream as if it were a readily realizable goal. All they seek in achieving that is wide-spread and in-depth information and insight as to whom any possible source of threat might be, and through assembly of as complete a knowledge-base as possible as to who everyone knows and communicates or otherwise interacts with and who their contacts are and what they do and who they know … and so on. Basically, this means developing as comprehensive a surveillance program as possible on everyone, as it is impossible to know in advance precisely who might seek to hands-on attack us when agents can be recruited and trained and sent out from unexpected directions – exactly as happened on that September 11th.
• So it is assumed that absolute security is possible but that it requires absolute surveillance. And the supporting argument in favor of this, when word of programs such as PRISM and XKeyscore come out is “trust us, we have good intentions.”
• I will simply note in passing that even if a current administration that implements programs such as these is that trustworthy, that cannot be seen as guarantor for the trustworthiness of government administrations to follow. And even for this perfectly trustworthy administration as led from the top, their personal vision and approach cannot serve as guarantor that these tools cannot be or will not be misused by government functionaries below them with their work objectives, and even just during their watch in office.
• And I keep coming back in my thoughts to the way that whistle blowers who let word out of these omnibus surveillance programs are hunted and prosecuted as if the most dangerous and damaging threats that the United States faces – and in the case of Edward Snowden specifically and entirely because he did make PRISM and XKeyscore public knowledge as to their existence.

Is this the legacy that Barack Obama seeks to leave from his presidential administration, that his leadership ordered and managed a fundamental redefining and limitation of what personal privacy and public rights to it can even mean?

But I did not set out to write this posting simply to share my concerns in abstract terms as I have been doing up to here. To bring this posting at least somewhat out of the abstract, I would cite some recent events as they add to this still unfolding news story, noting that I write this on September 12, 2013, the day after the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And I begin by citing another US federal government surveillance program code named Bullrun (and for the British and their Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) I could cite their direct counterpart to that program, names Edgehill.) I now know of more than a dozen such programs coming out of the US National Security Agency (NSA) alone and I am certain that there are more. For a partial listing of what is being conducted that I expect will be expanded upon through updates, see the Wikipedia entry: Terrorist Surveillance Program and the still larger President’s Surveillance Program that includes it, as a key set of elements of the overall War on Terror.

• Given the sweep and range of clandestine information gathering and surveillance programs in place, and the range of big data programs that have been set up for managing and data mining this flood of information, everything informational that is out there about any and all of us is viewed as a legitimate target for governmental surveillance and without explicit warrants for any individual surveillance efforts against individuals required.

I find this amazing, and note here that given my expectations as to what should and should not be done by governments towards their citizenry and the general public, I find it disconcerting to not be able to call that hyperbole. And this story still continues to roll out and even expand.

US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel have now actively started carrying through on a program in which without warrant they can and do take custody of laptop and tablet computers, flash drives, smart phone and other electronic information devices from travelers in order to copy their content for later data mining and use. This program is being carried out in airports and other transportation hubs, but in principle it could be expanded to include any site or venue in which DHS personnel are tasked to manage on-site security.

The DHS significantly manages and runs all of these surveillance programs with the majority of this activity developed and run out of their NSA, but essentially all cabinet level departments engage in or tap into the products of the array of surveillance programs that have been developed and that are currently in play and when they cannot gain access to NSA program data they simply gather their own. And this brings me back to that literary reference that I cited at the top of this posting. And it brings me back to that book’s chief protagonist, Winston Smith and with what I at least see as two troubling questions:

• Where is the out of the way corner where a real life Winston Smith of today could find secure, reliable personal privacy?
• And is this the image of the United States and its institutions that Americans would want to see represent their country and what it stands for, in practice and as a matter of both global perception and underlying reality?

I primarily write about business and technology in this blog, so this posting might seem at first glance to be off-topic for its focus on individuals and their personal liberty and freedom. But even on that level I am writing about the use and misuse of the same information technologies that influence and shape our individual personal lives and that also determine what can and does work for our modern governments and modern businesses and economies, as well as. The issues that I write of here on a more personal level do also directly and just as significantly impact upon businesses, as well as on individuals and on their personal liberty.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next installment in which I will explicitly discuss the impact that these surveillance programs and knowledge of them have on American businesses, and on the businesses of any country that pursues an absolute surveillance path or that deals with businesses in such nations. As a foretaste, I note here that I will be discussing concerns that arise regarding personally identifying information and its open governmental capture and use. And I will be discussing the impact that knowledge of these programs can be expected to have in business to business dealings and where free trade agreements come into play. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and in my first Ubiquitous Computing and Communications directory page. I am also listing this under my In the News posting category.

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