In the shift ‘from God to Google’ our security spooks – and the ‘business models’ of newspapers – can hardly risk becoming technology dinosaurs

Cartoon displayed with the kind permission of Peter Schrank, whose gorgeous, incisively impish web site banishes all woe

— screen shot, with the kind permission of Peter Schrank, whose gorgeous, incisive, impish web site banishes all woes

‘[P]eople who attack the security services for gathering information will be the first to ask “why didn’t they know?” when someone gets through the cracks and blows up a bus. What Greenwald, the Guardian, the NYT and others have been close to saying is that journalists are as, if not more, able to decide on public interest and safety [as] the state and its security. That is a vast claim which cannot be made with confidence.’

– Alastair Campbell, former journalist and director of communications for the British prime minister: from a lecture to be delivered by him at Cambridge University on 20 November 2013

If newspapers like The Guardian were working on the evolutionary successor of the ‘business model’ they run on today – we mean, showing the way to becoming net-based media jointly owned with reader-subscribers – they would have no need to fan public hysteria with one-sided reporting on the Edward Snowden leaks about spooks and surveillance. This entry on post-Gutenberg points to some of the information they might be giving their readers if, unlike The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, they were dedicated to journalism uncorrupted by partisan politics.

But hysteria-fanning and hyping create ‘clickbait’, today. Technically, that means writing sensationalist tabloid-like headlines to lure internet surfers into spending time on newspaper web sites. Sadly, clickbaiting is also shaping the coverage beneath headlines – skewing decisions about the stories chosen and the way they are tackled so extremely that, last week, a reader-commenter referring to The Guardian as ‘the left-wing Daily Mail’ actually seemed on to something.

‘Intelligence agencies exist to steal secrets,’ as The Economist noted in September. ‘Much of the brouhaha around the disclosures by Edward Snowden… misses that fact.’

256px-Manneken_Pis_(crop)

History will either judge Snowden and his helpers in the media as incontinent, supercharged versions of the Mannekin Pis or as heroes saving the world. The question no one seems to be asking is this: would we want our spooks to be stuck in the age of typewriters and land lines tied to walls – or keep up with every sort of capability that digital tools are putting in our hands? For instance, the various kinds of software that let blessed, indispensable – if not exactly saintly — Google, as well as the social media giants like Facebook and countless other corporations, monitor what we do round the clock, if they so choose.

Other subjects badly in need of attention:

@ Hypocrisy about the right to keep secrets – anti-transparency — in the extraordinarily influential culture of Silicon Valley. Its technology crusaders are rightly credited – or blamed – for popularising the ‘information wants to be free’ movement wrecking every form of artistic copyright and demanding transparency of governments and other authorities.

It would make no sense for the British government to prosecute Alan Rusbridger and his Guardian for publishing the Snowden leaks – as The New York Times is worriedly imagining — because Silicon Valley ‘libertarianism’ is so close to becoming conventional wisdom. Yet how many of us outside the technologists’ mecca know about ‘the Silicon Valley handshake’? This is the routine requirement that their visitors, suppliers, collaborators and other outsiders sign contracts protecting secrets – so-called ‘non-disclosure agreements’. Often, according to Eric Goldman — a professor of cyberspace law — companies demand signatures for ‘one-way NDAs that protect only information they disclose (not information they receive).’

@ Deciding whether we want companies – including newspapers – to spy on us, and how we can make it easy to deny them permission to gather information, at no risk. As recorded last week, The Guardian – railing ad nauseam about spooks — is oddly tongue-tied about corporate surveillance. The explanation for this is surely the potential embarrassment of having to admit the true extent of the newspaper’s own monitoring of its readers’ behaviour. Some readers are collecting clues. As one of them, @ElDanielfire, reported in a comment last week,

When I sign into the Guardian I get the following message:
This application will be able to:
•Read Tweets from your timeline.
•See who you follow.
[…] It’s not much different to the NSA …

Onora O’Neill, a down-to-earth philosopher — specialising in justice, public trust and accountability – who is also a member of the House of Lords (Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve) commendably unaffiliated to any political party, is one of the few sounding this particular alarm. ‘Insofar as [government spies at the NSA and GCHQ] collect content, I might be … worried,’ she said recently, ‘but by the same token I would worry equally about Facebook, who collect content, and in particular a lot of personal content.’

@ The staggering drop in crime in many parts of the world, ‘from Japan to Estonia,’ in which there could be a hopeful parallel for anti-terrorist surveillance. In a riveting collection of articles on the subject in July, The Economist speculated about the reasons why ‘the crime wave that began in the 1950s is in broad retreat’. Among its statistical revelations is the 64 per cent drop in the number of violent crimes in the largest American cities since 1990. The car-theft count in New York fell from 147,000 in 1990 to 10,00 last year.  One article suggested that ‘the biggest factor may be simply that security measures have improved,’ and mentioned that

The advent of DNA testing, mobile-phone location and surveillance cameras—which have spread rapidly, especially in Britain—have all increased the risk of getting caught.

Secret services do not and probably could not publish — verifiable — statistics about the effectiveness of their work. But if monitoring stops terrorists and other baddies the way ‘neighbourhood watch’ programmes do suburban crime, and nosy gossips have done for centuries in small towns and villages, you might imagine that both the good and evil in government surveillance could be discussed without distortion by clickbait-driven headlines and text.

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2 thoughts on “In the shift ‘from God to Google’ our security spooks – and the ‘business models’ of newspapers – can hardly risk becoming technology dinosaurs

  1. Media conundrum: generating click-bait & stimulating intelligent debate. The conundrum would more easily be resolved by replacing the ampersand with vs., & then making the right choice. But that would be as simplistic as touting generalizations/truisms like ‘freedom of information’ and ‘libertarianism’ as if any decent idea could be reduced to a single construct which would adequately describe all contingencies. I laud your attempt to move the debate into a meaningful discussion about the truisms. How to apply appropriate restrictions on sensitive information (both military and personal) and how to do this under the aforesaid banners? Your thoughts on the movie, The 5th Estate? Perhaps you’ve already commented elsewhere on your blog. Apologies if this is so.

  2. Yes, @Soul Sister, it is indeed about ‘vs.‘ not ‘&’ … and will be until another means of making money is found; changing the scheme for earning money — the sort of scheme clunkily known as the ‘business model’.

    And yes again to your suggestion that there is little or no thinking behind the terminally cool ideas of ‘libertarianism’ and ‘information wants to be free’.

    I wanted to see that film, but it didn’t stay for long enough in local cinemas and I haven’t yet looked into other viewing choices. What did you think of it?

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