Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Learnable lessons from Manning, Snowden and inevitable others 17 – the fallacy of absolute security and its allure 3

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on December 20, 2013

This is my eighteenth 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 sixteen postings to this series, available at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 as postings 225 and loosely following.)

I began a discussion of how the War on Terror was initially launched, in the early days following the September 11, 2001 al Qaida led terrorist attacks, in Part 15 of this series. And I continued that narrative in Part 16 where I brought its discussion up to the point where a newly inaugurated President Obama first entered office and with a primarily domestic policy agenda – and with President Bush’s War on Terror, with its overt military and covert intelligence gathering arms as an adapted legacy. I also at least began a discussion of how President Obama entered office from a political campaign promising change, and how much if not most of his intended agenda for this had a largely domestic focus, with his plans for:

• Enacting healthcare reform to bring affordable healthcare coverage to more people – to everyone eventually, and
• For enacting financial regulatory reform to prevent a recurrence of the types of business practices that had so recently led us all into the Great Recession.

He entered office with two major shooting wars and a significant number of smaller military involvements in place and with a responsibility for developing and conducting United States policy in fighting and concluding them. He entered office with a great deal of policy-backed infrastructure in place for conducting this war, and both in these overt arenas and in the covert arenas of the US national intelligence communities and their surveillance and information gathering systems and programs. And in order to focus on his domestic agenda goals, and in the face of rancorous divisiveness from his Republican Party opponents, and particularly from their Tea Party ranks, he strategically chose to focus his energies and expend political capital on reaching his domestic policy goals.

He did promise to bring the United States out of Afghanistan and Iraq, at least as combat forces and to end our involvement in the wars being fought there. And while it took longer than he probably initially expected, and certainly longer then he would have wanted, he did that. He promised to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp and for a variety of reasons, some perhaps avoidable and some outside of his control, he has been unable to do that. The prison at Guantanamo is likely to remain in place, even if scaled down for prisoner headcount, well past the end of Obama’s second term and for years to come. But perhaps more significantly:

• President Obama decided to continue the surveillance and intelligence gathering programs that were initiated under the Bush administration with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and largely run under the operational authority of the United States National Security Agency (NSA).
• And he chose to expand those programs and to add new programs and capabilities to this intelligence gathering and processing system.

And all of this was done in secrecy and even the existence of these programs was kept out of public awareness – until that secrecy collapsed, and most notably and most publically with the disclosures of Edward Joseph Snowden.

The fallout from that has been immense, and certainly as of this writing it has not muted all that much. Surveillance programs such as PRISM and XKeyscore were initially developed with an avowed goal of identifying, and tracking the online and telephone systems use of foreign nationals and more particularly of foreign terrorists. But in practice, these programs were developed to capture online and telephone systems usage by everyone. And this included American citizens who would not fit any conceivable threat profile as meriting this type of attention, and for whom no court of law would ever issue a wiretap or other information gathering warrant. And this included a great many foreign nationals including the national leadership of closely allied countries. The disclosure of active surveillance efforts against German Chancellor Angela Merkel can only be seen as one instance of this, even if just one example of where this type of surveillance has led to strain between the United States and allied governments that it relies upon if it is to effectively promote its foreign policy or maintain its security.

And this brings me specifically to the issues of national policy and its priorities. And I begin this by noting what at least should be an obvious truism, but one that has been overlooked and at great peril:

• You cannot build or enact good national policy, or good policy in general from a foundation of fear.

And I add in concert with that, there is not and cannot be absolute security. Absolute security is a mirage and an illusion. And when you seek to create absolute security, the first step that you are likely to take in that is to lose all sense of relative risk, and to treat any and every potential source of threat as being equally imminent and equally catastrophic.

• The intelligence gathering and surveillance programs that I have been discussing here and throughout this series were all built entirely from a foundation of fear.
• And they were designed and have been conducted with a chimeric, shape-shifting goal of reaching that elusive ideal: absolute security.
• So everyone has been targeted for surveillance and for comprehensive surveillance, and seemingly all the time and with no real discrimination based on actual threat level or risk posed by virtually anyone of all of this as individuals.

President Obama did not invent or cause to be invented, surveillance of individuals or groups. President Bush did not do that either. Neither invented surveillance programs based on fear either. State run and supported surveillance goes back to ancient history, and probably as far back as there have been organized socioeconomic and political states at all. And it is likely that fear has always been at least an element in the impetus behind surveillance through all of this. But the underlying policy that any surveillance programs would be enacted under, needs to be grounded in reason. It needs to be nuanced and discriminating as to potential threat levels faced and potential threat sources that might be examined.

This becomes particularly pressing as technological advances expend the doable, making fear-based responses that much more far-reaching and impactful. Current information gathering and processing technical capabilities make it possible to push surveillance and fear-based surveillance to extremes, that render it more damaging in its own right than virtually any outcome that it would be aimed at preventing. Current US-led and owned surveillance programs have literally weakened our national credibility, and both within this country and among American citizens and with our allies, in this increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.

I am going to conclude this posting with a brief report on a new and still developing surveillance capability that is in fact a part of the NSA and US government national intelligence framework, here citing its small more publically visible face.

• I have been writing on and off about Web 3.0 capabilities for online searching and identifying content across a progressively wider and wider range of file types and formats. And as part of that, I have noted how this can be used to scan and identify image data, and for facial recognition and individual identification of people as much as for identifying objects.
• I do not generally write about digital photography, but note in this context the emergence of the gigapixel camera and its capacity to capture a complete image of an entire crowd when well positioned, and with an image file that can be zoomed in on to capture clear images of the faces of essentially everyone there. Here is a link to a photo taken with a 70,000 X 30,000 pixel camera (2.1 gigapixels) of a crowd of tens of thousands of people. You can select any part of the image of this crowd and zoom in on it until you readily and clearly see virtually any individual face there, no matter how far back in this vast assembly. The only exceptions are the relatively few people who were either standing behind taller individuals or who were turned away, plus a few who’s images were lost during the image scanning process. But if you take several such photos in a row of a crowd like this, you will likely get a clear photo in that set of each of them too.
• This photograph was taken by the Boston Police Department, and I offer it as a publically available example of what this technology can do, and as a low-end technology example for this capability. The National Security Agency has been able to do more and for a lot longer. And when an accurate, computer-automated image identification capability is added to this image capturing capability, it becomes possible to quickly identify and I add track every individual in essentially any crowd.
• And this leaves me with a fundamental question: should a government do something simply because it can? I finish this posting leaving that as an open question.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider the relationship between the National Security Agency as a US federal agency and private sector businesses. 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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