I Spy

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There’s a spy in the sky, there’s a noise on the wire, there’s a tap on the line for every paranoid desire. Andrew E. Hall puts the spyglass on some current contradictions.

WHAT does the notion of privacy mean these days?

Do you sometimes feel the eyes – those creepy unknown eyes – raising the hairs on the back of your neck?

The other day I had an experience whereby I had an appointment with someone in the town I live in, to which he turned up around 40 minutes early. I received (a rather aggravated) phone call bemoaning the fact that my car (which is one of those ubiquitous smaller silver things that are now myriad, and totally forgettable) had been spotted at the place I happened to be enjoying a martini and having a yarn with some friends.

How, I thought, in a town with numerous, non-descript vehicles such as mine, could he have known my car was parked at the establishment I was enjoying a little libation and a bit of a chat … after dark?

Is he a small-time spymaster?

Call me paranoid, but it set me to thinking …

After a goodly number of years living on this island I have often been reminded that local authorities (particularly the ones wearing civvies and overly shined shoes) know a whole lot more about the “private” lives of expats than we would ever like to think. I’m sure the same goes for the local population – which begs the question why these types have so much difficulty in actually catching those who have committed criminal acts. Not as lucrative as blatant harassment?

This information, for the most part, is collected by covert observation – and information sharing – known by those involved in such activities as human intelligence, or “humint”.

So behave …

There is, however, a much, much wider prevalence of intelligence gathering methodologies and modalities abroad in the world these days, which has raised questions about how much access the snoopers should have to the lives of ordinary, law-abiding citizens.

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Since the dark days of 9/11 and the Bali bombings the need to go beyond old fashioned human intelligence in attempting to militate further acts of cowardly violence and killing has become paramount. Those al Qaeda boys and their affiliates just aren’t a bunch of blabbermouths – humint suffers from the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Extensive networks of electronic surveillance have been developed and deployed – none more so than in America and Britain with the collaborative activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ).

And in recent times we have been made aware of how extensive these intelligence networks are with the revelations of former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, and the reams of documents released to Wikileaks by U.S. Army intelligence officer, Bradley Manning … both of whom are in deep shit with the U.S. government.

Bradley Manning has been sentenced to 35 years gaol after being found guilty of espionage in a U.S. military Courts Martial.

Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, which has got right up the nose of Barack Obama and his government – not to mention Snowden’s former employers, the NSA and CIA.

In January this year Snowden contacted Laura Poitras, a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, with information on the extent of domestic spying operations carried out by the NSA and GCHQ. His revelations about the existence, and functions of, amongst others, the PRISM surveillance program, NSA call database, and (the brilliantly named) Boundless Informant, and GCHQ’s black-ops program, Tempora, were published in London’s The Guardian newspaper in late May and June.

In July 2013, Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, stated that Snowden had additional sensitive information about the NSA that he has chosen not to make public, including “very sensitive, detailed blueprints of how the NSA does what they do”.

The surveillance programs crunch vast amounts of data from all forms of people’s electronic communications and have the capacity to simultaneously trawl vast populations.
Snowden explained his actions thus: “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort (sic) of things … I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded … My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

And in a meeting with human rights organisations in July he said: “The fourth and fifth Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimise an illegal affair …

I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945: Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”

It’s a difficult moral and ethical (and legal) balancing act.

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Governments will argue that such intrusive practices are necessary to keep their populations safe from the kind of harm with which we are all so familiar. The Bali bombers were tracked down largely by technologies developed by the Australian intelligence services that monitor mobile phone traffic.

And I doubt there would be one person – outside terrorist organisations – who would regret that such surveillance resulted in those who committed these horrendous crimes being brought to justice.

Spying on one another has been around since times of yore and has been popularised, and glamorised, in popular culture ever since such a concept existed. Who hasn’t seen a James Bond film, or read a book by John le Carre? Espionage is represented as somehow romantic. We thrill to the thrill of the chase; the savvy cunning of “the good guys” in their never-ending battle against “the bad guys”. The cut-outs, the drops, the impersonation and evasion, the improvisation.

But in light of revelations by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning et al, has the line between the “good” and “bad” guys been blurred?

Has the deployment of domestic spying programmes in democratic countries painted us all as potentially suspect and worthy of scrutiny – and, if so, what are the consequences on our national psyches?

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Does it feed (or exonerate) the causes of the acolytes of Armageddon and conspiracy theorists?

When Barack Obama was elected the first time as president of the U.S., I, for one, rejoiced. After eight years of George W. Bush casting his ugly shadow on the world stage, I believed in Barack’s message of “hope” and “change”. But fast forward to the present, I’m not entirely sure I like him quite as much – although, compared to the Republicans, he’s streets ahead on social justice issues … except, perhaps when it comes to his support of domestic spying.

And his desire to return Edward Snowden to the U.S. for trial.

In a recent Guardian article titled “Obama’s abuse of the Espionage Act is modern-day McCarthyism”, John Kiriakou (who was indicted under the same act, and later exonerated) writes:

“Shame on this president for persecuting whistleblowers with a legal relic, while administration officials leak with impunity …

The conviction of Bradley Manning under the 1917 Espionage Act, and the US Justice Department’s decision to file espionage charges against NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden under the same act, are yet further examples of the Obama administration’s policy of using an iron fist against human rights and civil liberties activists.”

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Whatever your take on the rights or wrongs of domestic surveillance programmes in democratic countries (and I think we can safely assume they all have them to a greater or lesser degree), we can, perhaps, agree that insidious agencies like the KGB and Stasi in the former Soviet Union were central to the movement that eventually brought about the Union’s demise.

A salutary lesson for western democracies (and governments) that might have been forgotten in the furor surrounding further acts of terrorism.

But while human rights and press freedom activists rail against domestic spying by democratically elected governments, are they, indeed we, forgetting something?

Back at the bar mentioned earlier in this piece I am under constant CCTV surveillance while I sip my martini and shoot the shit. I must admit I resent it.

Some faceless person is (potentially) watching my every move.

In cities and towns throughout the world CCTV has become ubiquitous … for the same reasons that are touted about more sophisticated surveillance operations.

“If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear …”

By and large law-abiding citizens throughout the world have come to accept that public snooping has been useful in catching people who have committed crimes … but, for some, the existence of such networks paints us all as potential criminals. And, again, I ask what the effect of this has on the social psyche – are we all being roped in to acting as de facto intelligence agents? Should we turn to George Orwell for tips about how such social engineering pans out in the end?

Anyone who has surfed the Net is also being spied upon by her or his ISP. How else do those infernal pop-up ads pop up to remind you about the availability of goods and services related to whatever you’re looking at?

The Googles and Yahoos of this world have deployed a clever enculturation to make us trust that they will not misuse the information they are constantly cadging from our computers. Sure, this information capture is regulated to an extent, but these companies have been found to be complicit in some fairly nefarious invasions of privacy … and helping to deny access at the behest of some of the more repressive regimes.

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But, like a bunch of lemmings, we go along with it because in the social cost-benefit analysis, we have convinced ourselves that the benefits of Internet access outweigh the costs. I am one such lemming.

In our participation we willingly give up a level of privacy to corporations that are, in the main, accountable only to themselves and their shareholders.

Here’s an interesting “I Spy” caper that I just discovered … English advertising company, Renew, installed some high-tech rubbish bins equipped with technology that can track people’s smartphones in strategic locations in London.

Why? You ask.

Based on the concept of “cookies” that track one’s traversing of internet sites, Renew CEO Kaveh Memari said, “ … we will cookie the street”. That is, turn people into cookies by capturing their smartphone serial numbers and analysing the phones’ signal strength.

The rationale for the exercise is if the snooper program at Renew sees that a person spends his or her lunchtime at a certain food outlet, for instance, the rubbish bin – which is equipped with an electronic advertising screen – will detect that person as s/he approaches and will flash up an advertisement for the eatery to remind the person where to go for lunch. Presumably for a fee paid to Renew by the restaurant owner.

In a city where there are more CCTV cameras than rats in the drains, even the City of London Corporation thought that Renew’s smart-bin programme was a bit beyond the pale, and told Renew to pull the plug on the enterprise.

Go figure …

Many of us store loads of personal information in The Cloud, and at the same time resent in the strongest possible terms that our communication behaviours are stored on the super computers of the NSA, GCHQ, ASIS and ASIO and the host of national intelligence acronyms that exist in the world’s countries.

Some think nothing of using their personal technologies to snoop on their compatriots – see those who think it’s cool to snap up-skirt shots of the women they’re sharing a table with; or the male Australian Defence Force Academy cadets who set up a covert CCTV to capture sex acts with their female counterparts.

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What would they think about the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden? Not much I suspect given that they were caught out by a whistleblower.

In some ironic way many people in the modern age are, in effect, spying on themselves (and allowing themselves to be spied upon) with things like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. And in relation to social psychology I would say that narcissism is definitely on the rise … in direct proportion to a willingly diminishing sense of privacy and propriety.

A close friend of mine found himself in court not so long ago – being accused of all sorts of unpleasant things. An important piece of evidence that unraveled his accuser’s case was the presentation to the court of the accuser’s Facebook activities …

Another salutary lesson.

In short, it might be suggested that old-fashioned notions of “privacy” have been willingly and unwillingly given up in this day and age – despite the existence of legal and constitutional protections that, mostly, were constructed in times, not so long ago, before the explosion of intrusive technologies.

In democratic countries governments should come clean with the people and tell them exactly what they’re up to (but not necessarily how) and let the enfranchised population return a verdict about whether they like it or not at the polls. In making this normative statement I realise that such a thing will never happen because the spying industry is just that – operating in concert with the government of the day, regardless of which political brand the government might represent, and regardless of the rhetoric that governments and presidents spout about individual rights.

Totalitarian regimes will always gather intelligence on their people to keep them in their perceived place.

At the end of the day, information is power.

In that sense the Edward Snowdens, Bradley Mannings, and Julian Assanges of this world should be thanked.

Afterword: President Barack Obama has announced that a review of the legality, transparency, and oversight of domestic spying programmes will take place. The president said in a White House press conference on August 9th that he ordered the review before Edward Snowden (whom he referred to as “not a patriot”) passed his information to The Guardian newspaper (which began in February) … So why didn’t he tell anyone at the time?

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