Mass surveillance: can our secret services spy transparently, and not too much or too little?

Oddly familiar in 2013 … But Kim did not suspect that Mahbub Ali, known as one of the best horse-dealers in the Punjab, … was registered in one of the locked books of the Indian Survey Department as C25 IB. … [R]ecently, five confederated Kings, who had no business to confederate, had been informed by a kindly Northern Power that there was a leakage of news from their territories into British India. So those Kings' Prime Ministers were seriously annoyed and took steps … They suspected, among many others, the bullying, red-bearded horsedealer whose caravans ploughed through their fastnesses belly-deep in snow. Kim, Rudyard Kipling, 1901

Oddly familiar in 2013 …
‘But Kim did not suspect that Mahbub Ali, known as one of the best horse-dealers in the Punjab, … was registered in one of the locked books of the Indian Survey Department as C25 IB. … [R]ecently, five confederated Kings, who had no business to confederate, had been informed by a kindly Northern Power that there was a leakage of news from their territories into British India. So those Kings’ Prime Ministers were seriously annoyed and took steps … They suspected, among many others, the bullying, red-bearded horsedealer whose caravans ploughed through their fastnesses belly-deep in snow.’
Kim, Rudyard Kipling, 1901


Can a newspaper editor in societies in which military service largely belongs to the past grasp the importance of protecting military secrets? We mean, understand this viscerally – at gut-level – like any child who ever had to ask, ‘But what if Daddy doesn’t come home?’. We mean, return from a war; any child ever comforted by assurances that ‘Our spies are better than their spies,’ – the mysterious and murky specialists in warning about the likely direction from which gunfire and bombs could come; the places where land mines might be buried and assassins or submarines lurk.

The question marks have only been multiplying as we have wondered why the media-stoked outrage over the thumping-great scale of government surveillance is not matched by shock and anger about vast apparatuses of commercial surveillance. Life without Google would be as frightful a prospect for post-Gutenberg as for anyone else. Still, we ask with furrowed brow, why are people incandescent with rage about spooks, but paying no attention to — for instance — the news on the Extreme Tech site last month that Microsoft and Google are working on ‘super cookies [that] will track you wherever you go, and whatever you do, whether it’s on your smartphone, PC, game console, or even TV.’ Or, this quotation of an expert in The Wall Street Journal in September:

“It’s a persistent identifier, a super cookie,” says Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Google will gain more information about users wherever they are, across platforms and with one number. This will be the new way they identify you 24/7.”

Why are only some of us apparently willing to give the motives of those entrusted exclusively with our protection the benefit of the doubt, the way everyone else does commercial surveillance that is done exclusively for profit?

John le Carré, one of our heroes, told his North London neighbour Philippe Sands that ‘all of us have an aunt in the secret service.’ Of course he was being witty. But some of us in this conversation who grew up as disgusted by the cover-ups in the Vietnam War as our contemporaries, everywhere, are also members of a minority caught up in childhood in small, regional wars, or who had parents who served in peacekeeping forces in war zones. That makes for a different sort of anti-authoritarian perspective. Press contributions to and coverage of the surveillance debate strike us as surreal.

Because information is the common stock-in-trade for spies and journalists,  The Guardian and its partners in publishing the massive, continuing Snowden leaks of military secrets have been engaged in an extraordinary flexing of power. We have been transfixed by the sight of them not merely criticising but punishing their governments in kind for the comprehensive surveillance of civilians that they deem entirely wrong – without judge, jury, or any public consultation about this conclusion. Those rotten spooks  overstepped the limits of decency in stealing our private information, did they? Fine, let’s rip the covers off their private information and broadcast it to the world!

Punishment to fit alleged or actual government misdeeds is not typically an option for newspapers. For a parallel, consider that in 2009, when The Daily Telegraph followed up on a freelance journalist’s discoveries about British members of parliament writing off the costs of second homes and cleaning castle moats as ‘expenses’ passed on to taxpayers, that newspaper could hardly chastise parliamentary paymasters and expenses-checkers by flinging millions of pound notes into the Thames, or publicising passwords to bank accounts for the public purse. A San Francisco paper lambasting California’s state government for inhumane overcrowding in prisons cannot lock the governor and his aides into scorching and stinking penitentiary cells for a week to make its point.

The scale of the leaks is staggering. ‘In early 2013,’ the Wikipedia records, ‘Edward Snowden handed over 15,000 – 20,000 top secret documents to various media outlets.’ We have yet to see as much as a hint in The Guardian — the  standard-bearer for the fight against government spying on citizens – that the whistle-blower might have been a touch excessive, or, as Charles Dickens put it in a different context, shown a lack of ‘that faculty of extracting the essence from a heap of statements which is among the most striking and necessary of the advocate’s accomplishments.’

Snowden’s objective seems clearly to have been not merely to reveal but wound – and The Guardian and its co-publishers apparently went along with that, as it largely did with Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, because of a cultural shift analysed in the one deeply informative and scrupulously balanced evaluation of the mass surveillance crisis we have read so far. Writing in the journal National Affairs, Gabriel Schoenfeld suggests:

The new willingness, even eagerness, of journalists to publish such sensitive information stems first and foremost from two cultural developments … The first is the increasing prevalence of the libertarian notion — with adherents on both the left and right, and in both journalism and the federal bureaucracy — that “information should be free.” This ideology leaves room for almost no rationale for secrecy in government and is deeply skeptical of and angered by post-9/11 government surveillance practices.

The second development is the changing nature of the news business, with its fierce competition and intense pressure to be first to break a story. In deciding whether to publish leaked secrets in the face of government warnings to desist, news organizations seem to operate according to a logic reminiscent of Cold War nuclear strategy: If we don’t strike, one of our competitors will …

The Guardian, widely known to be fighting for its economic survival, has been frantic to triumph in this evolution of competition. Make no mistake, post-Gutenberg is as disturbed as anyone else by the implications of governments tracking everything we do, say and even think. But both The Guardian’s framing of the problem — through its barrage of reports about and opinion pieces on it – and its chief conclusion about it have serious flaws:

 The newspaper’s coverage is unbalanced in the extreme degree – and proudly. Its editor, Alan Rusbridger proclaims his preference for partisan journalism in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books

The Guardian itself inhabits an editorial space that is quite distinct from most American newspapers. British papers have grown up with less reverence for the notions of objectivity and detachment that can, rightly or wrongly, preoccupy some of our American colleagues.

How can anyone trust the information in a newspaper draping itself in a banner like that?

• Proud partisanship explains why Guardian readers have not – as far as we know – been given  much, if anything, in the way of objective context and historical background for government spying. Without that, how can the paper claim to be fostering the intelligent public debate about mass surveillance supposedly its chief motive for the Snowden leaks?

Espionage policy-makers and administrators have been permitted only a series of robotic and too-predictable sound bytes to explain their reasoning and actions in the technically dazzling transmedia production on this theme offered on the Guardian website. In The Black Swan (2007), a clever polemic widely read among the intelligentsia, Nassim Taleb mentions his surprise at meeting US top brass, ‘military people’ who ‘thought, behaved and acted like philosophers,’ only more so and far more imaginatively than professional philosophers, and ‘without fear of introspection’. Why are people of this calibre not invited to defend government surveillance in Guardian reportage or op-ed contributions?

• Like virtually every other print media publication, The Guardian is hardly realistic in proposing that the solution to excessive surveillance is greater transparency in the running of intelligence-gathering, and stringent oversight. There must be something wrong with us at post-Gutenberg, because we see see-through spying and spy-runners as a prospect as likely as scholarly, library-haunting footballers.

How strange that closer oversight has also been recommended for the media in the wake of the phone hacking scandals and the Leveson Inquiry into press practices and ethics. Better supervision for both spies and journalists would mean, as a first step, requiring them to be guided less by judgment and instinct, as they often are at present, than by a set of precisely defined rules.

Would it be any easier to agree on such rules for spies than for journalists? In his testimony at the Leveson hearings, The Guardian’s freelance contributor Nick Davies – the star reporter who exposed tabloid phone hacking and was also a driving force behind the publication of the Julian Assange leaks – described the difficulty of deciding precisely what reporting is and isn’t in the public interest:

We had a huge problem with the Wikileaks stuff. […] I went off and persuaded Julian Assange to give all this material to The Guardian and The New York Times and Der Spiegel, and it rapidly became apparent that that material contained information which could get people on the ground in Afghanistan seriously hurt. They were implicit[ly] identified as sources of information for the coalition forces.

I raised this with Julian very early on and he said, “If an Afghan civilian gives information to Coalition forces, they deserve to die. They are informers. They are collaborators.” And there were huge tussles between the journalists and him — actually, maybe this isn’t a terrible good example because I would say emphatically it’s absolutely clear that we couldn’t publish that information and didn’t, but he did.

Any government trying to direct newspapers in such decisions – or demand that they debate their ins and outs ‘transparently,’ in public — would be accused of interfering with the traditional freedom of the press, if not behaving like a police state. In the continuing battle in Britain over press regulation, as Chris Huhne noted in The Guardian, this week, …

According to the newspapers, self-regulation failed in securities trading, banking, construction and many other fields. But it works brilliantly in just one area: newspapers. This inconsistency is ludicrously implausible.

In the US, Joshua Foust recently recorded on his blog the appearance of new journalistic techniques in reporting national-security stories. The evidence for this is limited because, as one Washington Post reporter recently explained, there is “a widespread practice in the media industry of declining comment on reportorial methods.”

Yet the media are howling that spies should be required to reveal their methods and tricks. … Should The Guardian and other media campaigners calling for tight constraints on and supervision of government spying on the populace make a less ambitious demand — to perhaps simply hold the spooks to account more rigorously for their mistakes and infractions?

It will be a happy day when some widely-read British or American newspaper stops merely shouting about the horrors of mass surveillance by the government – as opposed to Google and Microsoft – for extended, intelligent explorations of the  ‘other side’ of the argument.