Zounds! At last print, led by The New York Review of Books, picks up the real surveillance story: the NSA and GCHQ spooks are followers, not leaders

24/7 surveillance: eyes, cameras, mirrors … cameras in and behind mirrors? - postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

24/7 surveillance: eyes, cameras, mirrors, clear and fuzzy views … cameras in and behind mirrors?
– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Not for ages has there been a pudding quite as over-egged as the one presented as the news story of 2013 – the Orwellian mass surveillance exposé which, as it unravels, shows the UK and US governments hardly initiating nonstop monitoring but, rather, striving to keep up with companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google in gathering intimate information about us and watching what we do.

Why are you learning about this on a blog, not on the front page of any well-known newspaper? Because any dissenting voices in the new ‘participatory media’ – the blogosphere, online-only journals, social networking sites and other evolving sources of facts – are still drowned out by the megaphones of the brand names at the top of the old media pyramid, names we were brought up to revere. Until those amplifiers are shared through a formal restructuring of media ownership and operation – which could be a long wait — correcting misguided and misleading information will tend to be maddeningly slow, no matter how big the story.

Two of the finest of the old guard, The Guardian and The New York Times, have yet to give any sign of noticing the shifting narrative about surveillance. This is unsurprising. They love the attention they have won from pinning Big-Brother-run-amok behaviour exclusively on the UK and US governments, and the hailstorms of congratulations from commenters and colleagues in other parts of the media that they unwittingly led astray. Both newspapers chose – apparently without much critical thinking – to gratify Edward Snowden’s wish to be fêted as a hero for torrential leaking of extremely sensitive information related to national security. 

The clearest de-bunking of the myth constructed from the Snowden leaks has come from The New York Review of Books – it so happens, after someone at post-Gutenberg wrote late last November to two editors on that publication, the editor-in-chief, Robert Silvers, and the one in charge of covering technology. The email was not about mass surveillance. But it did include a link to this blog when our home page displayed more than one post deconstructing the souped-up hullabaloo with our usual careful citations, and pointing to corporate technology giants as the round-the-clock watchers we should really be worrying about – even if the NSA appears to have outdone them in spying techniques (see yesterday’s ‘N.S.A. Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers’ in the NY Times).

In the week in which we communicated with that rightly esteemed publication, the NYRB’s contribution to the discussion was ‘The NSA’s Threat to Global Free Speech,’  to be followed shortly by ‘The Snowden Leaks and the Public,’ and ‘The NSA on Trial’. In fact, searching on ‘NSA and NYRB’ brings up a first page of Google links to articles in that publication last year all singing the same tune as The Guardian and The New York Times.

Then came an abrupt switch in direction. … Was it a mere coincidence that last week, about six weeks after the NYRB received a web address for post-Gutenberg — and roughly as long as it takes a publication as methodical as that Review to put together a report — its site featured a piece titled, ‘How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined’, beginning,

The recent revelations regarding the NSA’s collection of the personal information and the digital activities of millions of people across the world have attracted immense attention and public concern. But there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.

Compare that with part of our own offering on the subject, in the week we wrote to the NYRB,  titled, ‘In the shift “from God to Google” do we want our spooks stuck in the age of typewriters …?’:

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.

[…]

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 NYRB added, in the same report on data mining:

[W]e may be more concerned with government surveillance than with marketers or data brokers collecting personal information, but this ignores the fact that the government regularly purchases data from these companies. ChoicePoint, now owned by Elsevier, was an enormous data aggregator that combined personal data extracted from public and private databases, including Social Security numbers, credit reports, and criminal records. It maintained 17 billion records on businesses and individuals, which it sold to approximately 100,000 clients, including thirty-five government agencies and seven thousand federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

Again, compare that with a point made here earlier. Last September, this blog warned that the blinkers needed to come off too many commentators on the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ – to let them appreciate that we should be protesting not just about spooks but anyone amassing personal data about us. In an entry about reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance, we said:

Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners. 

By the end of 2013, when the Guardian and New York Times were running editorials campaigning for the virtual canonisation of Snowden, the Guardian’s commendably independent-minded sister publication, The Observer, was changing tack in the same direction as the NYRB. The standfirst for an editorial there read: ‘Digital behemoths have perfected surveillance as a business model.’

Did the ‘digital behemoths’ scream in protest about that attack on nonstop surveillance as their ‘business model’? On 30 December, The Guardian, perhaps in sympathy with their plea – and conceivably worried about losing its own right to spy on readers, justified as market research — actually ran a blog post by an American academic, titled ‘The primary NSA issue isn’t privacy, it’s authority’:

[O]nce we say some amount of data is too much to have, then we will end up debating the line around too much knowledge and that is a line I never want to see drawn. If we start to say that bad things can happen merely if knowledge exists, then too soon we fall into the trap of controlling the extent of knowledge – who may know what and how much they may know and thus who may say what to whom.

Imagine how the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ must have smiled about reading that.

N.B.: As we post, The Guardian site has a lamentation by Senator John McCain about ‘overreach’ by the NSA. In a menu of other offerings in the right-hand column on the same page, there is this bit of clickbait: ‘US will not enter bilateral no-spy agreement with Germany … Despite assurance from Barack Obama, United States has not ruled out bugging political leaders’ calls, claims German paper.’

We somehow doubt that much of what the NSA or GCHQ do will change, after a crowd-calming interlude of more or less cosmetic modifications of their practices. Spies can no more stop spying with every available advance on James Bond’s arsenal of gadgetry than journalists can stop wheedling secrets out of sources with charm, or casinos discourage impulsive and compulsive gambling, or prostitutes start dressing like nuns …

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