When surveillance and national security supporters look back on the last three years at some remove, one of the lessons they may learn is that the reflexive obsession with secrecy cruelled the capacity of security institutions and governments to obtain any sort of social licence for surveillance, or even of basic trust.
The obsession of the United States government with secrecy has long since reached Kafkaesque proportions — but if you’re the victim of one of its campaigns, it is nightmarish.
Two weeks ago the US Department of Justice sought and obtained a gag order to prevent American journalist and sometime Crikey contributor Barrett Brown and his legal team from discussing his prosecution. Brown, who revealed many connections between the US government and the growing cyber military-industrial complex in the US, faces an array of charges with sentences totaling over 100 years in prison, including for sharing a link online.
At the point where even the US mainstream media had worked out that the prosecution of Brown was another example of the Obama administration’s war on investigative journalism, the administration decided enough was enough and secured a gag order to undermine the growing profile of Brown’s case. The prosecution argued the gag order was necessary because Brown was “manipulating the public”. This is Barack Obama’s America, where telling the world about your Kafkaesque prosecution for sharing a link is “manipulating the public”.
The gag order is symptomatic of the way this administration does business: it imposes secrecy requirements on others, while of course retaining the right to reveal whatever secret information it feels is in its own interests. An Obama administration gag order is routine in cases where it has pursued journalists and whistleblowers, or its agencies have demanded the co-operation of IT and communications companies to spy on Americans, or provide backdoors into their products to allow spying.
One of the genuinely amusing moments in the Obama administration’s hysterical overreaction to Edward Snowden was when Obama claimed in all seriousness that he had been planning to initiate a debate about the extensive powers that enabled the National Security Agency to spy on both Americans and the rest of us, but Edward Snowden came along and ruined his plans by revealing the true extent of surveillance.
Of course, what Snowden revealed in addition to the vast surveillance apparatus now operated by the US government was the remarkable extent of illegality: the NSA has by its own admission breached US law thousands of times. We also learnt that the US hands raw data to Israel, big IT and communications companies are heavily involved in surveillance and paid millions of dollars for their trouble and that contrary to the strongest possible assurances, the NSA engages in economic espionage even against friendly countries like Brazil. That has recently plunged US-Brazilian relations into the deep freeze. US-German relations have also been negatively affected by the revelations of systemic spying by the US in a country much of which has witnessed first-hand the analog surveillance state maintained by Communist governments, which pales in comparison to the rich information yielded by internet surveillance.
In the wash-up, we’ve further learnt NSA agents admitted to using the NSA’s capabilities to stalk women and that the number of breaches of US law by the NSA runs to well over 15,000 occasions (don’t be silly enough to wonder if anyone will be prosecuted for those, by the way).
The reflexive demand for secrecy, of course, continues. Recently intelligence agencies demanded The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica not publish information on the extent to which US and British agencies have undermined internet encryption. Secrecy was the reason The Guardian was forced to go through the absurd theatre of complying with UK government demands to destroy disks containing information that was located and easily available elsewhere.
“Not merely does secrecy mean that surveillance systems will invariably be abused, it means that there is no social licence of any kind for governments engaged in surveillance.”
The default setting of the surveillance state is always toward greater absurdity.
Not merely does secrecy mean that surveillance systems will invariably be abused, it means that there is no social licence of any kind for governments engaged in surveillance. Citizens have provided no consent, not had the opportunity to debate and question politicians and bureaucrats on the issue, indeed are unaware until whistleblowers provide the necessary information, that they are being spied on at all.
And secrecy creates suspicion. US IT companies are now discovering the price of secrecy as customers discover that companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google have facilitated the systemic breach of their privacy but were prohibited from revealing it by US government gag orders. All products or services from US IT or communications companies must now be assumed to enable US government surveillance on users. Caveat emptor. Your smartphone, as Julian Assange likes to note, was already a surveillance device that also makes calls. Now, even better, there’s an iPhone that takes your fingerprint.
And how extensive is the NSA’s disruption of encryption? This isn’t an arcane issue for IT specialists: if you undermine encryption, whether through demanding that IT companies give you a backdoor into a product (backed with a gag order), or undermining encryption standards so badly the standards body has to publicly denounce its own NSA-corrupted standards, or by developing a capacity to actually break encryption hitherto-assumed unbreakable, you are developing the tools of tomorrow for criminals. Once you undermine encryption, you undermine it for everyone — banks, businesses and other governments, as well as for terrorists and paedophiles.
Indeed, secrecy ultimately facilitates conspiracy theories. Before Snowden, asserting that the US government basically monitored the entire internet would have earned you offers of tinfoil for your hat. Who’s going to be so willing from now on to dismiss even the most absurd claims? In such an environment, it’s no wonder every single major incident in the US (which happily surveils its population but blithely allows a firearm homicide rate that kills the equivalent of multiple 9/11s each year) sparks a “truther” movement of people who instinctively distrust government. They may be lunatics or political fringe types but who can say the US government, or those that follow in its footsteps like the UK government, have done anything to earn the trust of their citizens on national security issues?
Secrecy is also corrosive of trust more generally. Who can you trust online now? Even if people aren’t informers for US intelligence agencies, how do you know someone you work with, another member of a political party or activist group, a friend, hasn’t had their IT equipment owned by intelligence agencies, or is being targeted for internet surveillance? What new encryption product can you trust to actually protect you? If you’re a whistleblower or confidential source, how do you know a journalist, even if he or she would rather go to jail than give you up, doesn’t have poor IT hygiene and will be easily monitored by the government?
That, of course, is one of the intentions of governments, to corrode the connectiveness between citizens that the internet facilitates, because they fear it. But it corrodes citizens’ trust in governments as well as their trust in the companies they purchase from and the people they communicate with.
A small but telling reference in the encryption reports that intelligence agencies tried to halt was that the NSA refers to ordinary users of encryption products — that is, all of us — as “adversaries”.
Whether we trust governments or not, how wise would it even be to trust a government that regards its own citizens as enemies?
*Disclosure: Bernard Keane is a supporter and contributor to the Free Barrett Brown campaign