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.

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.’


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.

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.