Surveillance, huh? What is it good for?


Evidence seems to be mounting that mass surveillance isn’t actually very good at dealing with terrorism. Hot on the heels of the admission by the NSA that their mass surveillance of telephone call data had only been helpful in a single terrorism-related case, a detailed new report by the New America Foundation seems to suggest that their other surveillance programmes, including the PRISM programme, are also conspicuously ineffective. It is not, of course, possible to draw hard and fast conclusions from these analyses. It is still very early days, and the very nature of the field means that information is hard to get, and that the authorities are (often entirely appropriately) unwilling to divulge many details. Nonetheless, the trend of the information appears to strongly suggest that mass surveillance does not really deal with terrorism very successfully.

This isn’t a great surprise to many of us working in the field of privacy and surveillance – it confirms what most of us have long suspected. It does, however, raise a great many questions, questions which the authorities responsible for the surveillance have seemed unwilling to acknowledge, let alone answer.

A waste of resources?

The first of these is if mass surveillance is ineffective at dealing with terrorism – as the evidence seems to be suggesting that it is – how many more terrorism plots could have been foiled if the enormous amount of money, time, effort and expertise that has been devoted to these programmes over the years had been put into other methods of counter-terrorism? There are other ways to work, and the authorities not only know this but they use these other methods. More ‘conventional’ intelligence work, for example, seems to have been more successful – indeed, it could scarcely have been less successful than the mass surveillance programmes. At a time of austerity, when everyone’s budgets are being squeezed, why are we spending so much on something that seems supremely inefficient and ineffective?

If not counter-terrorism, then what?

The intelligence services must know that these programmes don’t actually do much to counter terrorism. Whatever we think about them, they’re certainly no fools. If they don’t do what the authorities have been claiming, then why are the intelligence services so keen on mass surveillance? Is it, as has been suggested, that though they’ve done little to deal with terrorism so far that they’re some kind of ‘insurance policy’ against future terror issues? It’s not an entirely convincing suggestion – particularly when the way that resources could be reallocated something more efficient, and without such damaging side effects, is considered. The argument made that such a programme has to be successful only once to be worthwhile falls apart when you consider that wasting time and money on these programmes could have stopped you putting that time and money into something that would have stopped another attack.

Surveillance as control?

So, if it’s not about counter-terrorism, then what is it about, and why are the authorities unwilling to admit their reasoning? As I have argued before (for example here) though mass surveillance is unlikely to be very effective at dealing with terrorism it is much more effective at dealing with mass movements, with protest, with dissent. It can provide a degree of control over populations – partly through the way that it can be used to aggregate information, to monitor trends, to see what the masses are talking about, what online sites they’re visiting  and so forth, and partly because it enables that information to be used to actually manipulate people’s activities. Things like automated blocking of popular sites (perhaps using the kinds of mechanisms built into the ‘porn-filters’ currently being pushed by the UK governments) work well with surveillance to produce this kind of control.

Is this something that the intelligence agencies – or their political masters – would like to be able to do? It seems entirely likely, both from a theoretical perspective and when the history of the way that movements like anti-nuclear and environmental campaigns have been watched, infiltrated and undermined by both police and intelligence services. In some ways this is valid work – the border between peaceful protest and violent riots is at times blurred – but at times it certainly is not, and the idea of mass surveillance designed for this kind of thing is a far cry from mass surveillance to counter terrorism.

This may indeed be the clue to why, despite the increasing evidence that the effectiveness of mass surveillance as a counter-terrorism tool is limited at best, the authorities keep on putting it forward as justification. People are afraid of terrorism – and willing, it seems, to sacrifice a lot of deal with that fear. The message that we need to allow surveillance to deal with it is something that can be made to seem acceptable – particularly in the UK.

More evidence needed…

All the evidence discussed at the start of this post comes from the US – because in the UK we seem to be far, far too accepting of what we’re told by the authorities. The ‘public’ hearing of the Intelligence and Security Committee is all we’ve had, and it was an embarrassingly stage-managed exercise that told us nothing at all except that the Intelligence and Security Committee is neither willing nor capable of holding the intelligence services to account. That should not be acceptable. It is to our shame, in the UK, that we are not willing to ask the difficult questions of our intelligence services.  At present we have to rely on vague assurances and a general message that we should ‘trust’ them. That’s not enough – and as the evidence from the other side of the Atlantic builds that mass surveillance does not do what they have been telling us, we should be asking for more, and asking loudly and often.

Until they do provide that evidence, it is hard not to conclude that the surveillance systems have been built for something quite different from what they’re telling us. If that’s true, we should be asking even more questions – even harder ones.

10 thoughts on “Surveillance, huh? What is it good for?

  1. “Is this [monitoring dissent and influencing opinion] something that the intelligence agencies – or their political masters – would like to be able to do?”

    Well, is there a systematic bias in the reports reaching the press about undercover police forming intimate relationships with protesters and dissidents? That is, are there legions of unsung operatives canoodling with human traffickers, drug smugglers, dodgy bankers, unethical lobbyists, and other real criminals? And if that seems unlikely, perhaps it’s just that political malcontents are more trusting and less dangerous – but perhaps they were the real targets all along.

  2. Unfortunately this article fails to explore the fairly obvious alternative hypothesis that the intelligence services deliberately underplay the success of their methods precisely because they are successful and they do not want their targets to change their methods of communication. The author appears to accept at face value the NSA’s ‘admission’, perhaps naively assuming that because they are a government body they won’t lie, or at least be economical with the truth.
    As the veteran CIA man James Angleton once said, the battleground between intelligence and counter-intelligence is a wilderness of mirrors wherein you often need your enemy to believe the opposite of the truth.
    Once you introduce that proposition, you have the answer to the question “why are we spending so much on something that seems supremely inefficient and ineffective?”

    1. Not really – this ‘alternative’ hypothesis is the classical argument for almost all counter-terror related activities. ‘We can’t tell you because it will compromise our work’ taken to the next stage – but if you believe in freedom, in human rights, and in accountability it just doesn’t hack it any more. That’s part of the point, really. You need to produce some kind of justification – because the downsides of this kind of surveillance are so significant. It’s not enough to say ‘trust us’ anymore – and that, ultimately, is the consequence of that particular argument. If the truth can’t be let out,either because letting it out would ‘help’ terrorists or because in some sense we can’t ‘handle’ the truth, then we have to rely on a level of trust that the intelligence services have not in any way earned.

      What this means, ultimately, is that they need to provide that evidence….

      1. @Paul. I wasn’t being an apologist for the current level of surveillance, merely a realist/ cynic. The intelligence services are very recent arrivals at the human rights party and despite a certain amount of window dressing, I suspect their real culture hasn’t changed significantly since the cold war days. In that sense they don’t care if we don’t trust them, if they can continue to get their product. It’s for the politicians to care about the public relations side, and as you have mentioned, politicians are exceptionally reluctant to rein in the spooks. They haven’t managed to do it with the banks or the press, so what chance do they have of doing so with the very powerful SIGINT agencies, which stand right at the top of the intelligence pile.

  3. It beggars my belief that the ISC still has to ask about the difference between metadata and content. (6(a) of the Call for Evidence)
    “How does the intrusion differ between data (the fact a call took place between two numbers) as opposed to content (what was said in the call)?”
    An understanding of the difference and misconceived relevance of a metadata and content distinction can be derived from a data processing technique known as Social Network Analysis that can use metadata (e.g. telephone numbers) alone far more powerfully than communication content.
    Social Network Analysis (SNA) vastly surpasses the power of qualitative analyses of communication content to understand a group and its processes:
    • SNA rapidly provides inferences about group structures that human research on communication content would demand massive or unobtainable resource to achieve.
    • SNA can quickly pinpoint leaders, sub-groups with key associations, external relationships to other groups, decision-making and powerful processing nodes, moments of group fragility and turbulence.
    • SNA can rapidly derive member attributes and behaviour profiles not only of individual ‘telephone numbers’ but ‘dark’ holons and interconnected sub-groups.
    • Concerted projects integrating SNA on large datasets has the potential with minimum effort to map large groups of any kind, and develop intelligence that would be of unprecedented use in penetrating and affecting the agency of those groups.

    The current and future scope and power of Social Network Analysis is vast. It can be used in order to map intricate detail of social and information processes and groups of people from interactions between simple metadata alone. The power of such metadata methods shows a metadata and content data distinction to be irrelevant if not entirely misleading. I guess that is why the ISC are still asking the question, to mislead on the true capacity of the intelligence agencies and the risks to a free society. If an executive has such powers then an appropriate mechanism must be in place to prevent its use should a malign influence attempt to use it against society.

    1. They still either don’t understand or don’t want to admit the reality of the metadata issue. It’s as though they’re scared that once the public understands, the public will oppose….

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