It's a tribute to the legacy of 20th century spy films and novels that we still think of "surveillance" in a somewhat old-fashioned way. The word conjures up images of men in dark rooms, hunched over switchboards with headphones on.
This Cold War era, lo-fi sort of surveillance was captured in one of the best films of the past decade, "Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)." The film documented the lives of political dissidents in Communist East Germany, and how their lives intertwined with that of a Stasi officer tasked with listening in on them.
Of course the world of PRISM and XKeyscore is very different from East Germany back then. But the "listening" paradigm lives on. And the U.S. government seems happy to perpetuate this way of thinking about surveillance — as the President did when he reassured the country that "no one is listening to your phone calls."
The reality, however, is that the new digital surveillance is much more about algorhythms and automation than listening, and understanding this difference is key to understanding just how dangerous it is.
Two years ago, Wikileaks released a cache of documents they called the Spy Files, a collection of corporate contracts, brochures and videos that painted a picture of automated surveillance gone global.
Mass interception of entire populations is not only a reality, it is a secret new industry spanning 25 countriesThis new wave of surveillance is truly a global industry (Thomas Friedman would be proud), where U.S. and U.K. firms serve authoritarian governments such as Iran and China on the other side of the world.
It sounds like something out of Hollywood, but as of today, mass interception systems, built by Western intelligence contractors, including for ’political opponents’ are a reality.
When citizens overthrew the dictatorships in Egypt and Libya this year, they uncovered listening rooms where devices from Gamma corporation of the UK, Amesys of France, VASTech of South Africa and ZTE Corp of China monitored their every move online and on the phone.Over the past couple months, we've learned quite a bit about NSA surveillance here in the U.S., from the "215 program" to PRISM to XKeyscore. What we haven't heard a lot about is what the NSA does with all the data it collects.
Surveillance companies like SS8 in the U.S., Hacking Team in Italy and Vupen in France manufacture viruses (Trojans) that hijack individual computers and phones (including iPhones, Blackberries and Androids), take over the device, record its every use, movement, and even the sights and sounds of the room it is in.
Other companies like Phoenexia in the Czech Republic collaborate with the military to create speech analysis tools. They identify individuals by gender, age and stress levels and track them based on ‘voiceprints’.
According to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, this is where the new, algorhythmic approach to surveillance comes into play.
The issue is - and most people may not understand this - that algorithms, automated systems, have been generated to pull all that data together, to instantly discover all the communities within the United States.This is very similar to what William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the NSA and one of the original architects of the surveillance system, has been saying for years:
You have a group of people who tend to call each other. Another group of people who tend to call each other. Groups are connected to groups. Different activist groups, different political groups, different companies, etc, etc.
And automatically, once you have that information, you can lay out the entire community and political structure of the United States.
"Here’s the grand design," he told filmmaker Laura Poitras last year. "You build social networks for everybody. That then turns into the graph, and then you index all that data to that graph, which means you can pull out a community."The term used within the industry for this approach of collecting and mapping everything, according to Assange, is "strategic surveillance":
"That gives you an outline of everybody in that community. And if you carry that out from 2001 up, you have 10 years of their life that you can then lay out in a timeline that involves anybody in the country. Even Senators and Representatives — all of them."
The invasive spying program Binney described — one that could build a "social graph" of nearly any user of the American Internet, like some massive, secret Facebook — was in the works, he says, when he left the agency.
It's not just about Martin Luther King anymore, or somebody spying on the top activists and their close associates. It's everyone...As can be seen in this brochure from the South African surveillance company VASTECH, corporations openly brag about their capability to "go back in time" and incriminate suspects:
Tactical surveillance is what we think about when we think about surveillance: a few activists who are targeted, a few drug dealers who are targeted.
Strategic surveillance is just everyone. Take it all. Keep it all. Index it all. Make it all searchable. Automatically transcribe it. Lay it out automatically into clusters of communities. And then, whenever you are interested in someone, you can go back in time. Go back in time to look at all their connections and correspondence. And if you have ten years worth of intercepts of the other person, you can find something.
Filters, Not TriggersThere's a flip side, of course, to this ability to revisit the past. The capability under strategic surveillance to collect all of a society's communications opens the door to all kinds of analysis and number-crunching — the so-called "big data" that is all the rage in the business world right now.
Blanket interception enables law enforcement agencies to backtrack and retrieve all the communications of suspects prior to an incident. Agencies can reconstruct events to determine the modus operandi of targets.
And this could go beyond investigating individuals, and into observing patterns of behavior, flagging certain patterns, and using the accumulated knowledge to try to predict future events.
If that sounds far-fetched, remember that there was a time when the NSA was much more open about what they wanted to achieve with the surveillance program. They spelled out their goals over a decade ago when the program was called "Total Information Awareness." Although TIA was officially "cancelled" (in name only, of course), the "Information Awareness Office" website lives on, thanks to Archive.org.
And here we have the original stated goals of the program:
—Collaboration and sharing over TCP/IP networks across agency boundariesThis idea of predicting future threats is eerily reminiscent of the "pre crime" envisioned by Phillip K. Dick in his 1956 short story "The Minority Report." In "The Minority Report," later adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg, a future society figures out a way to prevent crime. Murders and other criminal acts are foreseen by "precogs" with the ability to see into the future, leading to the investigation of what are assumed to be criminals before they commit any criminal act.
—Large, distributed repositories with dynamic schemas that can be changed interactively by users
—Foreign language machine translation and speech recognition
—Biometric signatures of humans
—Real time learning, pattern matching and anomalous pattern detection
—Entity extraction from natural language text
—Human network analysis and behavior model building engines
—Event prediction and capability development model building engines
—Structured argumentation and evidential reasoning
—Story telling, change detection, and truth maintenance
—Business rules sub-systems for access control and process management
—Biologically inspired algorithms for agent control
—Other aids for human cognition and human reasoning
However, what is sold to society as a flawless means of eliminating crime is in fact a system that is itself ripe for abuse. The story, according to Wikipedia, "touches upon the dangers of a powerful post-war military during peacetime."
Of course, no one's suggesting that telepathic mutants are going to be showing up any time soon (the U.S. military's efforts to develop telepathic mind helmets notwithstanding). But a less fantastical form of "pre crime" seems to be already taking place. The filmmaker Laura Poitras is one of many journalists and activists who have been repeatedly stopped and harassed by U.S. authorities. In the case of Poitras, this has happened more than 40 times, with no explanation of what she is being investigated for. When asked why this was happening, a government official reportedly replied:
"You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400."In this new world of automated, strategic surveillance, individuals can be flagged and repeatedly harassed, whether or not they have committed a crime. People can be targeted simply because of their relationship to others on the "graph."
And of course, any system is only as good as the people running it. The person most responsible for the NSA surveillance program, former Reagan National Security Advisor and convicted Iran Contra felon John Poindexter, was especially radical in his views. Among Poindexter's ideas not listed above: developing a "futures market" where private investors could bet on the likelihood of terrorist attacks.
As the Christian Science Monitor said back in 2002:
Outside Poindexter's Pentagon office is a logo showing an all-seeing eye on top of a pyramid and the slogan, "Scientia est potentia" ("Knowledge is power"). The question is: How much power over knowledge about us should be entrusted to an admitted destroyer of federal documents?To which one of Poindexter's closest allies, Donald Rumsfeld, offered a prediction of his own:
The Bush administration has shown no inclination to alter Poindexter's sensitive assignment. Mr. Rumsfeld says: "I would recommend people take a deep breath. Nothing terrible is going to happen."