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.

The lost wisdom of co-ops: a conversation about the key to future creative freedom for artists and inventors of every stripe

All artists now want to work on terms they co-determine.
Photograph by MIL22.

Post-Gutenberg will occasionally be letting visitors eavesdrop on discussions between our colleagues – starting with the pseudonymous and gender-free Escargot and Mustrun, who are not quite ready to divulge any personal details, except in warning about their tendency to be over-earnest, humourless, and on occasion, dull. Not the best qualifications for bloggers, we agree, but we make do with what we have – or rather, who.

Mustrun: I see that on Sunday we linked to The Observer — to a sharp John Naughton column about the Facebook hype falling flat on Wall Street. Someone here dropped into a comment there a link to our Valentine’s Day post about snubbing Facebook and re-inventing social networking sites as co-ops.

Escargot: So that’s why our traffic numbers have gone zooming into outer space. We’re not used to thundering herds of visitors shattering the monastic silence in these parts.

Mustrun: Right. Co-op promoters are the slave trade-killers of tomorrow.

Escargot: Trying to be aphoristic again, are we? Don’t. That one’s as clear as mud.

Mustrun: Just saying. All the clever people were sure for over two millennia that slavery would always be with us. Anyone trying to abolish it was written off as a lunatic or idealistic fool.

Escargot: Oh. Quite. Last week that lovely Leveson Inquiry judge, more owly than we are, was asking eminent witnesses to suggest how to make the British press behave in the future, and be less hopeless at holding politicians to account. No one mentioned redesigning media organisations as co-ops, but it’s surely a solution whose day has come. Not to mention dead relevant.

Mustrun: You’re thinking of the Harvard journalism lab experiment? Something to do with an Indian tree that looks like a multi-limbed goddess on steroids?

Escargot: The Banyan Project, yes. It’s been building a prototype for doing online journalism as a cooperative enterprise, focusing on local news. The man behind it, Tom Stites, has exactly the right idea. We’ve quoted him on post-Gutenberg before.

Mustrun: We have? Well, you know me. Any subject not mentioned in a post header, or that I didn’t write about myself, does not register.

Escargot: [sighing inaudibly] So as usual, you want me to urp up what he said, to fill you in?

Mustrun: Leopard, spots; all in the hard-wiring – yes? … If you would, please, Scargo.

Escargot: [reads through imperceptibly gritted teeth] ‘A significant source of co-ops’ strength is the trustworthiness inherent in their democratic and accountable structure. … This is also an era of rampant mistrust of journalism, so co-op news sites’ trustworthiness has the potential to add value to what they publish. Further, the co-op form allows, or rather demands, that news coverage decisions arise from what a community’s people need … The web is inherently collaborative — just as co-ops are — and at the local level this creates the potential for civic synergy — ’.

Mustrun: Translation: co-ops and the internet were made for each other. Spot-on, in that long-winded Murrican way. He might add that it’s strange but true that large parts of the internet sit on top of ‘peer-to-peer computing’. But this Justice Leveson, … how is he supposed to go from applauding a fine example like Banyan – assuming he does any such thing – to persuading the media to try out co-ops? He’s hardly going to order them to alter what we’re supposed to call their ‘business model’.

Escargot: Right. Britain is not a dictatorship. But he might recommend that the government offer old or new media organisations tax breaks for setting up co-ops – in the oldies’ case, by reinventing themselves, or parts of their operations, as co-operative outfits.

Mustrun: You think journos would sign on? Remember that the majority so detest the idea of any change that they can’t even bring themselves to report that Nick Davies — the journo hero of the phone hacking saga — told Leveson that the press cannot be trusted to regulate itself.

Escargot: Mmmm. Some of them will sign on, certainly. More will as the idea loses its strangeness, I suspect. There are editors and journalists who’d leap at the chance co-ops could give them to set rules and policies collaboratively. Mainly, I suspect, the craft-focused ones — hoping, like artists and writers everywhere, that this net revolution really will get rid of hierarchies and gatekeepers.

You saw the Tom Friedman column celebrating some of that on the New York Times site yesterday — yes?… But then of course, many journos live not so much for the craft as for the clubbiness in the profession. And sort of think of themselves as football teams – the women just as much as the men.

Mustrun: Clipped Friedman for skimming, later. Journos are petrified of more democratic media organisations, especially of any plan that involves making room for outsiders — for more varied contributors and voices. I’m always asked the same nervous-Nellie question about posts on here like ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …’. It’s this: will working in a media co-op mean that trained journalists get paid the same as bloggers and citizen-journalists?

Escargot: Oh, I’m asked that. All the time. No matter how many times we explain that the way a co-op works will depend on the particular set of rules its owner-members agree on, the journos and media managers revert to projecting their most paranoid fears onto any mention of  co-operatives.

Mustrun: Someone ought to re-publish that superb Tom Lester article about co-ops in the disintegrating copy of Management Today you once disinterred from our archive. It’d make a terrific contribution to the new e-publishing collections of long-form journalism – with an introduction setting it in context, of course, and updated facts. Remind me of the year it was published?

Escargot: Imagine you proposing anything in long form, Musto. The owner of the world’s most attenuated attention span. The Lester piece — the cover date for the magazine says February 1979 — deserves every last gram of your praise.

Mustrun: Even text-grazers like me have to stop for a real meal, now and then. What he pulled off in that article is amazing. His subject was the failure of the Kirkby Co-operative in a depressed manufacturing town near Liverpool. Yet by the end of his dissection of how Kirkby was done in by badly-designed rules, you somehow feel hugely optimistic about a well-designed co-op’s chances of succeeding.

Escargot: Yes, yes, and yes. The piece partly answers the question of how journalists might be paid in relation to bloggers – not that we existed, then — by explaining the rules for profit-sharing in one of the world’s biggest and most brilliant co-ops. Mondragon, in the Basque country of northern Spain.

Mustrun: ‘Mondragon’ sounds like something in Lord of the Rings. Lester uses its exotic history — it was started by a Catholic priest in the desperate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War — to create a riveting context for a step-by-explanation of exactly how an individual could join a co-op and help run it.

Escargot: [ swipes over to scanned copy of the article in a tablet computer ] The ratios may have changed, but in 1979, Lester said that at least 30 per cent of a Mondragon co-op’s profits had to be put away in the collective reserve funds. Then, ‘the other 70 per cent is divided up among the members of the co-op according to a points system reflecting job status.’ … And of course, every member could help to decide the status of one job in relation to another.

Mustrun: But in addition to practical, nitty-gritty details like that, he tells about some of the lunacy that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the passionate idealism behind co-ops of the past.

Escargot: Mmmm. ‘No shortage of idealism,’ he says about Mondragon, ‘…but mixed with hard-headed realism.’

Mustrun: Yes, but noisy idealism has been the biggest enemy of co-ops. Makes sensible people mistrustful.

Escargot: Quite. If only people who believe in them and have the right skills – extroverts, unlike us – would just get on with setting them up with no fuss. The way, for instance, Tim Berners-Lee quietly invented this World Wide Web. What could be more idealistic than a way of communicating as powerful as this one, connecting the whole planet –  but given away, free? A scientist silently beavers away in a lab in Geneva and without any self-advertisement, no speechifying whatsoever, changes the world.

Mustrun: Well, I really must, … you know …

Escargot: Right. Off you go, then.

Memo to Walter Bagehot, ex-editor, The Economist: did you really mean to defend a partisan press, the most insidious enemy of democracy?

We cannot let the reign of the 4th Estate end in nothing but frayed and faded ideals. Composition by Tricia Meynell.

6 May 2012

to: ghost of W. Bagehot, Esq., editor, The Economist, 1860-77

from: post-Gutenberg, a 21st-century blog

Sir: this blog is not in the habit of addressing spectres. We are not even sure we believe in ghosts. But if that isn’t a phantom you writing the column titled ‘Bagehot’, and the ‘Bagehot’s Notebook’ blog for your old paper in St. James’s Street, then someone is spouting a stunningly unpersuasive argument in your name.

Let us assume that you do exist. This somehow seems friendlier in the age of social media – and we are thrilled by the possibility of a ghost going to the trouble of broadcasting his opinions.

Are spectral attention spans long or short? We cannot decide, so will make our response easy to scan.

Please refer to your post ten days ago: ‘Are British newspapers a menace to democracy?‘:

• Partisanship in the 4th Estate. Why do you defend a partisan press when impartiality has been the noblest aspiration of the 4th Estate – and its American equivalent? See this list of principles in The Elements of Journalism, quoted here a few weeks ago:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.


4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. …

And, as the judge presiding over the Leveson Inquiry explained as its purpose, at the start of the proceedings,

…[A]ny failure of the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question – who guards the guardians?

• Democracies need unbiased facts. Have you forgotten that a democracy is virtually pointless without disseminators of facts who can give voters the truth – the chance to get as close as possible to factual completeness — to help them make the best decisions in elections and referendums? That is why – as you know — the 4th Estate has long been granted such special privileges as access to lofty authorities, the right to protect sources of information, etc..

You seem to be under the illusion that whether the press is good or bad for democracy turns on how the media direct and manipulate their audiences’ opinions about voting choices — rather than on the reliability of the facts about the world that they serve up.

• If there is any justification for a partisan press, you haven’t supplied it. You said, about journalism that takes sides:

Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. […]  But arguably their greatest day-to-day influence is indirect. […] Britain is an outlier […] In lots of European countries politics encompasses angry extremes, with the hard-right and far-left attracting hefty votes. By contrast, newspapers in such countries are often small-circulation, centrist, and prim. Britain does things the other way round. Partly because of first-past-the-post voting, the big parties cluster at the political centre. The brass-band blare of dissent comes from a fiercely partisan press. 

About that, one commenter (not anyone we know) expressed the essence of our reaction at post-Gutenberg:


April 27th, 06:13

Bagehot repeats the old trope that British newspapers are extreme and therefore its politics is moderate whereas in Europe politics is extreme because the media is moderate. Does anyone seriously buy this argument. That the nature of the press determines the nature of politics. And that politics is opposite to the press. And that you can only have extreme and vicious press or moderate centrist press. What a piece of nonsense.

If Konker is mistaken and that isn’t nonsense, then – to justify such an exotic argument – why not cite a respected political scientist? Or offer your readers a hyper-link to a table with statistics for European voting patterns? Link to a book or study that supports those statements?

When you say, ‘lots of European countries’ — with surpassing vagueness — which ones are you referring to? To the best of our knowledge, the largest, France and Germany, have big political parties clustered at the centre. Just like Britain. So? … Walter! The outlines of your life mention your pride in writing about politics and economics with scientific precision. Science = substantiation. Since you know how to blog, you can surely use these tools that think with strings of 1s and 0s to share evidence with us? You could put a URL or two into your texts — yes?

Sorry, this argument sounds like something you might say at the merry end of an evening at your club. (Spectres don’t haunt those, do you?)

• The preferences and political agenda of even a free press are not the most important forces in a democracy. It is the will of the people that matters most. Even press freedom is about the people, and not the press – as the Lord Chief Justice said in a speech he gave just before the formal proceedings of the Leveson Inquiry began (words to which the press largely played deaf). He quoted a famous statement in 1762 by the reformer and political agitator, John Wilkes:

“The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”.

We embrace that statement. The significance of what John Wilkes said was not, as those connected with the media sometimes suggest, that the statement is upholding the liberty of the press. […] It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent.

We speak of ‘media’ because they represent channels for expressing the opinions and feelings of the people. Newspapers are not goads, nor licensed wielders of carrots and sticks. Read Paul Johnson on the rise of democracy in 19th-century Europe. ‘Towards the end of the 1820s, the world moved a decisive stage nearer the democratic age,’ he has written, listing among the chief factors and trends behind that, the spread of literacy, and ‘huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers.’ In Britain, it was not just newspapers through which public sentiment was expressed:

… [T]he demand for fundamental reform was growing again. One reliable index of political intensity is the number of political prints produced, which can be gauged from the vast stocks held in the British Library. Artists and print sellers mirrored middle-class opinion …

• Your own readers do not want a partisan press. If the results of this poll running on your own site since last July can be trusted, 73 per cent of 2,686 of them have voted ‘Yes’ in reply to: ‘Some commentators welcome the rise of a partisan press […S]hould respectable news organisations strive to be fair and balanced?’

• Partisan reporters on politics cannot do their jobs properly. You end your reflection on whether British newspapers undermine democracy by saying,

Journalists and politicians can never be truly friends. Lowly reporters and MPs always knew this: given a big enough story, each will turn on the other.

Really? If that were true, why did staff journalists on the Whitehall beat fail to get this century’s biggest scoops in politics — and leave the job to outsiders, the freelances Heather Brooke and Nick Davies, as this blog recorded last week.

… There’s a beard-scratcher for you, old bean!


[ More on this subject: 

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate? ]