Communications Surveillance, Protest and Control…

Protest against the badger cull in Bristol

What is the real reason that certain of the authorities are so keen on universal surveillance of communications data? Is it the fight against terrorism? It doesn’t seem very likely. It’s a supremely ineffective method of dealing with terrorism at best – even the examples quoted by the security services as ‘proof’ that it works have pretty much all been swiftly debunked (see for example here). In practice, it seems, targeted, intelligence-driven, almost ‘traditional’ methods seem to do the job far better. So why do the authorities all around the globe seem to be so enthusiastic about communications surveillance? One word: control

Control is the key

Despotic regimes have always wanted to have as complete a level of surveillance as possible – they want to know what is going on, who is meeting who, what they’re talking about, what they’re planning. That way, they can get control over their people. They can find subversives and dissidents, they can infiltrate those who resist or plot against them, they can snuff out the plans of their enemies before they gather sufficient momentum to have a real effect. That’s been fundamental to pretty much every oppressive regime throughout history – and the capabilities of the internet, and in particular of internet surveillance, offer possibilities beyond the dreams of the despots of yesteryear. However, it’s not just despots who like surveillance – or rather, it’s not just those that we usually label as ‘despots’ who like it. It’s anyone who wants more control – or who thinks that things are going out of control. It’s those concerned with ‘public order’. It’s those concerned with ‘protest’. That, sadly, means it’s all of our governments today – even that in the UK.

Snooping on the badger-cull protestors

News came out this week that ‘Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests‘. As reported to the BBC,  ‘[t]he Department for Rural Affairs uses “horizon scanning” software to gain an “early warning” of public protests.’ Relatively speaking, this is a primitive form of snooping – and a legal one, since it scans public messages on social media services such as twitter. This isn’t a secret plan like PRISM, but an official and key part of the government’s communication plan – but it reveals a good deal about how the government (and other authorities) see the potential of communications surveillance. If they can find out what people are thinking and planning, they can nip protests in the bud.

Pretty much all of this, of course, is legal, and much of it is justifiable in ‘public order’ terms – but as anyone who saw the recent and deeply shocking revelations that the McLibel leaflet was co-written by an undercover police officer who had infiltrated an environmental campaign group would know, the tactics and techniques used by ‘law enforcement’ to deal with protestors and related groups can often stretch not just the law but our imaginations. Ideas presented and proposed for good or at least defensible reasons can easily morph into something much more sinister. Give the authorities leeway, and they use it…

The real use of communications surveillance…

…which is what, it seems likely, is one of the keys behind the enthusiasm for all kinds of communications surveillance, from the Snoopers’ Charter in the UK to PRISM and so forth in the US, to all the massive new programme in India etc. They know that if they have full surveillance capabilities their ability to control what is happening will be magnified enormously. Not only can they effectively unmask protestors, they can find out who their friends are, what websites they visit, where they’re planning to meet and so on. If they take it a few steps further, they can  block them from communicating with each other, shut down their blogs – or warn them off with anonymous threatening emails, or leak their details to their enemies.

Does this sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but not nearly as far fetched as the McLibel story, let alone the other horrendous details surrounding police infiltration of environmental and anti-racist groups. What’s more, most of the surveillance systems planned are designed for precisely this kind of surveillance – linking into Facebook, Google etc is far better at this that it is at fighting terrorism, paedophilia etc. Terrorists and paedophiles don’t do their planning on Facebook etc – but those organising legal, peaceful protests like that against the badger cull DO. Terrorists and paedophiles do everything they can to keep ‘dark’ – and they learn how to do so, what technology to use to bypass the authorities. Peaceful protesters don’t – they don’t often feel that they need to, and they don’t have the capabilities. They’re the obvious targets of this kind of thing: universal internet surveillance isn’t so much about fighting the big things as it is about keeping ‘public order’.

Whether that is an acceptable thing is another story. Public order IS important – but so is the right to protest, and not just in countries like Turkey. Protest is fundamental to our democracy, to our freedom of expression, to our ability to hold our governments to account. It’s important everywhere, and letting the authorities design and operate systems to stifle and control it is something about which we should be very wary.

16 thoughts on “Communications Surveillance, Protest and Control…

  1. Yes! In spite of what the “authorities” choose to do or to tell us about what they are doing, this needs to be a very public discussion. Clare Daly has the right, for instance, to call Obama a terrorist and a war criminal. The evidence supports the allegation. What we need is a World Court and a United Nations strong enough to hold the United States government accountable. Disruption and destabilization of social, political and economic structures worldwide is too great a price to pay for the protection of the privileged few that take refuge under the American flag.

      • At this point, they are behaving as a rogue state, do not represent the people. Old white men don’t live forever. Assange said “…you are taking on a generation, and you will lose.” Let’s hope he is right.

  2. Not sure I can think of any public order justification to be honest. Police have the right to attend a protest and arrest those committing crimes. Although they should be trained that they are there to represent people and there should be some sort of ‘conscience defence’ for those who refuse to strong arm in certain instances.

    If they want to head off troublemakers, then it really has to be strongly justified with evidence.

  3. Paul,
    I disagree. Surveillance is only partially about control, if that, as its main function is security. The surveillance does not provide control, what government (even the most totalitarian) controls its population? To paraphrase someone else, “law-abiding people are easy to govern; it is the other 10 per cent that are the problem.” which is what government usually has to address. Most of its programmes are to deal with the outliers with very little focused on those who are law abiding and do not need state support. For example, most people know their local government only because it collects their bins.

    What your post questions, but does not answer, is the purpose for which governments are constituted. The foundation is security and then the good life. To the extent that surveillance helps with security, it will be pursued and tolerated. To the extent it helps the good life, it will be tolerated. However, that takes us to a second order question, not addressed by your post directly, concerning the legitimacy of the government. Is it legitimate for a government to maintain order within its territory? This has been the foundation of modern state system since about 1648 and is embedded in the UN charter. The PRC is very much committed to this idea.
    You may believe that the surveillance of protesters is wrong but if they encourage violence and public disorder, they threaten the public good and the public domain, is not the public to be served by the government in protecting the populace?
    The anti-capitalist protests that saw large parts of London damaged as well as the recent riots across the country provide a ready insight into the potential power for disorder within public protest. When protest turns violent, are we to wait or does prudence suggest we pre-empt the possibility? We do this with public health, with vaccines why not with public order? What is the difference between public health and public order?
    Leaving aside these political philosophical questions, I have to take issue with your characterisation of horizon scanning. I have done horizon scanning work and I have attended several of the country’s top horizon scanning workshops. I did not see any attempts to use horizon scanning in this way. Any basic SWOT or PEST analysis or even event planning will suggest that a programme to cull badgers will elicit a response from the public just as fox hunting bans elicited a response. Horizon scanning is not surveillance and looking for trends and signals is not surveillance. To equate the two is to widen surveillance to a point that makes anything a government does is surveillance. If we equate all government with surveillance, then we have no privacy because there is no part of our lives that is not touched by the laws or by government. However, this takes us away from the central point of the post.

    What we need to return to is an understanding of what the government is constituted to do and how its methods for achieving those goals are legitimated. I, for one, want public order. I know that the social contract is based on it. If we do not have public order, then there is not much hope for us to enjoy the other benefits of living in a free and ordered society in which government protects the rights of the citizen and the citizen has a right to keep the government in check through the rule of law.

    Do we really want a government to be unable to maintain public order?

    • Of course we don’t – but there’s a balance. The governments of China and Bahrain would say they do what they do to maintain public order – but the price in terms of freedom and autonomy of that public order is too great for someone like me, and I hope for a society like ours. There are a number of questions that you ask that are important, but I do think you fail to see the wood for the trees at times. Looking at the badger cull protests to start with, of course it’s right to be able to ‘respond’, but what should that response consist of? Choosing appropriate levels of policing? ‘Heading off’ protests completely? We need to decide this at a societal level.

      • Why do we assume that what happens in PRC is reflected in or reflective of our society? I think the issue of surveillance is secondary, if not tertiary, to the question of legitimacy within the regime. Neither regime is legitimate, which shows how much surveillance they need but more importantly, perhaps definitively, the purpose to which they use surveillance. They do not use surveillance for public order as a public good, as in UK and US, but as a defence of the regime. The good of the regime is considered the public good.

        In terms of the operational policing of the public good, that is not a question of surveillance as much as resource levels and tactical decisions. We have a process for arranging protests which shows a regard for due process. Would protest organisers really want to have protests without some policing if only to protect their members from potential counter protesters? The state has to act neutrally, albeit in favour of the public good, when it intervenes between fascists and anti-fascists.
        Surveillance is a political tool and politics is determined by the intent and the concept of the political good that is expressed by the intent. Only to the extent that surveillance represents a technological understanding of politics and of man does it pose a significant problem. To the extent that it does, we are in serious, almost existential trouble, for which the liberal democratic state is, almost, axiomatically unprepared to confront. However, that takes us away from the central issue of control. What needs to be understood is what is control and to what end? Who will act upon, or use such surveillance, and for what purpose?
        Therein we have the questions that need to be answered before we consider whether surveillance is good or bad.

      • Isn’t one of the biggest issues with the NSA-style surveillance that it was happening without the knowledge, understanding or consent of the people? Doesn’t that undermine its political legitimacy? At the very least, it makes it a legitimate subject for debate and discussion…

      • On the contrary, the public do not need to know. Do they know POTUS’ lunch menu? His daily schedule? His security detail?

        In the United States, there is a representative democracy, which means that we elect others to know these details. I can be almost certain that the relevant senior leadership in the House and Senate were aware of the programme and its work. More to the point, I can be certain that the programme was checked for its constitutionality and its legality before it began and while it was in operation.

        We elect politicians because we do not want to busy ourselves with such details nor do we need to know such details for operational reasons. Instead, we busy ourselves with our lives, which are difficult enough, let alone having the time to dabble in operational details of a secret programme.

        The ultimate point is that the programme was not secret from the people who we elected to know. If we cannot trust them, then why do we have a democracy and elections? We trust them to create our taxation system, ensure the safety of our roads, food and water. How is this any different?

        http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1501803

        The web and the false belief in transparency fuel a strange, almost utopian at best and deeply irrational at its worst, belief in direct democracy. Really, the web does not know better and I do not think a bunch of people with no training, experience or education, should be gawking about in such material.

        Do we run surgeries like this? Is this how we fly airplanes? Manage nuclear power plants? No. The web has created the illusion that we are all experts or knowledgeable simply because there is more information to hand. Lots of people clicking a site or reading an article does not make them smarter or the material more important.

        As we discussed at the outbreak of this issue, most of the privacy experts and those with knowledge of such issues were aware of the programmes if only in principle. For all the outrage and fulminations, the public’s appetite has quickly turned to royal babies.

        Do we need any more proof that the public appetite, direct democracy, is a dangerous and fickle creature? The American Founding Fathers knew this in 1776, which is why they set up a representational democracy to guard against the public appetites ruling the regime in a bid to reduce the effect of would be demagogues.

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