The global future of the surveillance states

Knowledge is power.  If I know everything there is to know about you, and you know nothing about me, I have power over you.

That power takes two forms.  One is the power of blackmail.  You would be highly unusual if you not only had never done anything bad, but had never done anything that could be made to look bad.

The other is the power of manipulation.  If I know everything about you, I have an idea of what psychological buttons to push to get you to do what I want.

Edward Snowden, in PERMANENT RECORD, told of how U.S. intelligence agencies are collecting information about the whole American population based on their electronic records and Internet activities.

We know that intelligence agencies use blackmail.  And we know from Shoshana Zuboff’s THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM that corporations such as Google, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica use data about individuals to help advertisers and win election campaigns.

But surveillance is not just American.  if U.S. intelligence agencies are gathering data about foreigners, foreign intelligence agencies must surely be gathering information about Americans.  And if they don’t yet have the technical capability to equal the American effort, it is only a matter of time until they do.

The government of China, for example, has financial and technological power equal to the USA, and the Chinese have an attitude that anything Americans or other Westerners can do, they can out-do.

They already carry surveillance of their own citizens to terrifying lengths, and there is no reason to think they would limit surveillance to their own citizens.

Snowden’s solution is strong encryption of electronic communication.  Individuals may or may not be able to bring their governments under control, he wrote, but they can take action to protect themselves.

There are problems with this.  One is persuading companies such as Google and Facebook to go along with it or persuading individuals to go without the convenience of using Google and Facebook.  After all, the Google and Facebook business model is based on collecting data from their users.

Another is whether they can be any encryption that is truly unbreakable.  Snowdon in his book gives examples of the Tor system of encryption and explains why it is not mathematically and technologically feasible to break it.

I don’t know enough about cryptography to contradict him.  But I do know the history of code-making and code-breaking has been a back-and-forth struggle.

During World War Two, Alan Turing’s code-breaking team at Bletchley Park had to crack the German Enigma code not once, but several times, as the Germans added levels of complexity to their system.  My guess is that the continuing duel between code-makers and code-breakers will go on.

The world’s intelligence agencies presumably use strong encryption themselves.  If their code is truly unbreakable, this means that all governments, including the U.S. government, have the means to protect their systems against cyber warfare.

But, as David Sanger showed in THE ULTIMATE WEAPON, the electronic systems of all nations have been penetrated by foreign hackers, and only fear of retaliation prevents a mutually destructive cyber war.

What can be done?  Here are some things that could help.

  • Make cryptography cheap and widely available.  Require the big Internet companies to offer it as an option to their customers.
  • Make governments transparent.  Let governments make public what other governments are doing.  Protect whistleblowers by allowing them to defend themselves in court by showing that their disclosures served a public purpose.  Give amnesty to Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
  • Repurpose the National Security Agency to protect the American public from surveillance by foreign nations.

Of course all these things are much more easily said and done.  One grim possibility is that the intelligence agencies of the great powers—with or without the knowledge and consent of their supposed heads of state—will decide to work together.

Members of the global intelligence community would avoid dangerous conflicts among themselves, which would be a good thing, but they would also work together to keep us civilians in the dark and under control.  An Edward Snowden would have no place to go.

Added Later.  I don’t mean to imply by all this that Edward Snowden wasted his time.  Our privacy is better protected than it was before his disclosures, and we are all more aware of the threat.


The Tor Project.

Images via Privacy International, Irish Times.


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One Response to “The global future of the surveillance states”

  1. Hank Werling Says:

    In the 1960s some countries did not allow you to seal overseas letter or gave you a discount for mailing them with the envelope unsealed. The soviets tracked our microwave long distance calls from New York’s Kenilworth. Most employers read their employee’s emails, especially in securities firms where compliance is an issue. And yes, we track most of the world’s communications. The fact is privacy and free speech are mutually exclusive. Even Swiss bank privacy laws hail from the Nazi era. The Greek work for Privacy is cognate with Idiot. And don’t forget the Exhorters of Colonial Times. Privacy is antithetical to democracy and in fact sanity. We all liv ein glass houses.


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