Kudos to The Register for dusting off its 2004 prediction that the spooks would soon take to watching us with Google’s panoptic lens

It should be general knowledge that newspapers spy on readers: Guardians that live in King’s Cross glass houses should not throw … - photograph by MIL22

It should be general knowledge that newspapers spy on readers: Guardians that live in glass houses should not throw … (ahem)
– photograph by MIL22

Guardian HQ, King's Cross -- photograph: vice.com

The Guardian, King’s Cross, London
photograph: vice.com

Why does this blog, post-Gutenberg, care about the mass surveillance kerfuffle? Mainly for the fun of noting the post-print 5th Estate — bloggers, reader-commenters, chatters on geeky online forums and other small voices — exposing the misinformation delivered in confident, booming tones from sections of the old media establishment, the 4th Estate.

A usually intelligent American friend uncharacteristically obtuse about government surveillance – we’ll call him Playah, in this post – believes the misinformation, distortions and mis-cueing. He takes as virtual gospel all the pompous finger-pointing at US and UK spooks for supposedly inventing Orwellian-grade spying on us. He really does believe that the secrets leaked by Edward Snowden matter because they are news – not, as we do, because of their vast destructive scale and specificity, apparently designed to maximise their usefulness to enemies of the Anglosphere and its allies.

In his misplaced trust, Playah has millions of others for company – people, some of them rather important, who ordinarily pay so little attention to conversation in the techie world as to be willingly taken in by Al Gore’s claim to have invented the internet, or the canard that gives Steve Jobs credit for the computer revolution (discussed in an earlier entry here).

We include obscure techie publications like The Register in the 5th Estate. No one – certainly at The Guardian – has given any sign of having seen a piece dated 7 November, titled, ‘How Google paved the way for NSA’s intercepts – just as The Register predicted 9 YEARS AGO’.

We only stumbled on it serendipitously, in checking search engines for our own remarkably similar (non-prescient) post on the subject last week.

Much hilarity has greeted [Google chairman] Eric Schmidt’s deeply sincere “outrage” at his “discovery” that the NSA was spying on Google. For example, Vanity Fair pointed Mr Schmidt to some helpful Google searches.

But the NSA is merely treading in some well-worn footsteps – some of which were made by Google itself. Let us refresh your memory of one of the most prescient and chilling pieces of prediction in the last decade. For all this was forecast here at The Register in early 2004 – nine years ago.

In early 2004, Google launched Gmail. Gmail performed an automated interception of your email, and – having scanned the contents and guessed at its meaning – ran contextual advertising alongside it.

Former security advisor Mark Rasch, an attorney who had worked in the Department of Justice’s cyberfraud department during the Clinton administration, and was writing for Security Focus, raised a very interesting problem. If Google could search through and read your email without explicit legal authorisation, then surely the security agencies could do the same.

Rasch argued that Google had redefined the words “read” (“learn the meaning”) and “search”, which protect citizens, when it unveiled its new contextual ads service. It had removed explicit human agency from the picture. An automated search wasn’t really a search, and its computers weren’t really “reading”.

“This is a dangerous legal precedent which both law enforcement and intelligence agencies will undoubtedly seize upon and extend, to the detriment of our privacy,” forecast Rasch, here, in June 2004.

“Google will likely argue that its computers are not ‘people’ and therefore the company does not ‘learn the meaning’ of the communication. That’s where we need to be careful. We should nip this nonsensical argument in the bud before it’s taken too far, and the federal government follows.”

Remarkably, Rasch even suggested where the security services might most effectively put this into practice.

“Imagine if the government were to put an Echelon-style content filter on routers and ISPs, where it examines billions of communications and ‘flags’ only a small fraction (based upon, say, indicia of terrorist activity). Even if the filters are perfect and point the finger only completely guilty people, this activity still invades the privacy rights of the billions of innocent individuals whose communications pass the filter,” he wrote. “Simply put, if a computer programmed by people learns the contents of a communication, and takes action based on what it learns, it invades privacy.”

Well, fancy that.

… What else isn’t news in the great surveillance exposé of 2013? Well, surely it’s about time The Guardian told us all about its surveillance of its own readers, mentioned here (again), one entry ago? And isn’t the bigger story that everyone is going to be spying on everyone else, very soon? Here is another overlooked techie, Jamais Cascio – trying to draw attention to our perfectly horrible privacy-free future in a lecture on 4 May 2005 titled ‘The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon’:

Soon — probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two — we’ll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

And we will be doing it to ourselves.

This won’t simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.

I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.

The Panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century model for a prison in which all inmates could be watched at all times. The term has in more recent years come to have a broader meaning, that of a world in which all of us are under constant surveillance.

continues … ]

… Perhaps the blogosphere is beginning to make progress with essential de-bunking. Headlines demanding ‘transparent’ spying by spies, and close monitoring, by us, of decision-making by the loftiest administrators of espionage, have been getting less common, lately. The headline-writers have presumably begun to realise that even less attentive members of the public – such as our friend Playah — have begun to see these for what they are: quite simply, daft.

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