A lot of people were shocked by revelations of the so-called PRISM program wherein the US government is spying on phone calls, Internet communications, and other online and on-phone activity of people around the world. I too was shocked. That people were shocked or even surprised.
I think it’s been pretty clear that this kind of stuff has been happening since 2001 and probably well before. It’s probably had different names, protocols, cooperation rates, and investment levels, but the fact that the government wants to know everything you’re doing online and be able to leverage that to its advantage (or “your safety,” I guess) is not a revelation. It’s not news. It’s something that has been an obvious reality for a long time.
I’ve visited my own thoughts on privacy fairly frequently in this space, but I’ve always advocated as much public living as possible and am very much against the illusion that people can hang on to key aspects of their privacy, especially against the twinned forces of corporations and government that are most driven to eliminate privacy in all its aspects. The big issue, though, is symmetry of information/privacy. When the government has a monopoly on both information access and its own privacy, then the world becomes incredibly scary and difficult quite quickly. This is the scenario outlined in “1984” – no one knows who actually props up Big Brother, or about the underground movements to suppress dissent, or even what actually happens in the Ministry of Love. When everyone has equal access to information and no one has privacy, then we get a world of transparency and forced trust and all sorts of actually fun stuff.
What’s great about the Internet is that it keeps giving opportunities for human beings to blow whistles and level the playing field between the corporate desire for a monopoly of information and the impending reality that we’re all going to know everything. People like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and Julian Assange make it possible for the corporo-klepto-government (CKG) to be held in check by the scrutiny of regular people. Certainly the corporate media isn’t going to do this job outright, but still seems sufficiently content with being scandal-driven that it will take its cues from underground reporters and whistleblowers if prompted to do so by their bravery and investigative spirit. Though it’s worth noting that the PRISM story was broken by The Guardian, a UK outlet, not by anything domestic in the US. And of course Wikileaks is based offshore as well. It seems increasingly clear that American media outlets are ready to walk in lock-step with the CKG until doing so would make them transparently derelict in their purported duty.
Perhaps I should back up, because you’re probably (or possibly, depending on your temperament) taking issue with my blithe labeling of the CKG and just assuming that this is the nature of what’s out there listening to our bleary blurry cell-phone calls. The problem is that just calling the government “the government” is sorely misrepresentative of what the government in the United States has become in the past decade and a half. And it’s not really the product of some vast shadowy conspiracy of ill-intentioned people so much as a system that enshrines insane levels of greedy self-interest at the detriment of anything that could possibly be confused for a principle, let alone an idea. And it’s getting to epic proportions that everyone should really be paying attention to.
The government is supposed to work in the interests of the people through representative democracy. By instating representative democracy, we are supposed to find upstanding and intelligent people who we think will make smart decisions, vote for them, and wait to reap the benefits of their wisdom. Fantastic.
Unfortunately, several factors have built to severely limit the quality of these potential representatives. Almost all of them involve money. The increasing scope of advertising as a model for appealing to over-entertained and extremely lazy voters, together with the increased entertainment- and laziness-focus of the media that is supposed to serve as the collective conscience of American people have combined to make money both the only thing that seems to matter in an election and especially a minimum prerequisite to running. So it may not be the case that the person who has the most or spends the most wins every election, but the twin parties who have a stranglehold on the anointment of potential representatives have agreed to decide that fund-raising ability and money-making is the determining factor in who will be considered eligible. As a result, everyone who could possibly be representing popular interests, save for a periodic perfect-storm rogue exception, is bought in (literally) to the system of money making the system go round.
Two classes of people have wealth in our society. The individually rich and the corporations. As a body, corporations are vastly more influential in their ability to leverage funds toward campaigns, and are infinitely smarter about targeting it toward their interests. After all, individual humans generally have a mixed bag of preferences and things they sort of care about as issues, often without perfect clarity on how to achieve these outcomes. Whereas corporations are ruthlessly efficient in profit-seeking and self-interest-maximization, in a way that is not only breathtaking but may actually be inconceivable to any given individual human-being. As Ambrose Bierce identified it in the ultra-modern year of 1906, corporation: n., An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. Corporations take actions all the time in the name of profit-maximization and shareholder interest that any given individual, even those within the corporation, would probably find reprehensible as a single action, be it contributing to the deaths or mistreatment of those in all manner of other nations, undercutting the livelihoods of those in all nations including this one, throwing people out on the street, laying them off, and destroying their families. With the mask of the corporate fault, people are enabled to be evil without feeling like it’s their responsibility.
When applying this to the world of interacting with political figures and the world of “representatives,” the outcome becomes clear quite quickly. An individual may generally have qualms about buying influence (not all do, but many do), but overtly attempting to do so is an obvious corporate model, part of the mainstay practice of donating to both sides of a campaign in order to butter up both sides. And while this kind of soft amateur corruption has been around as long as money and democracy have been in the same place, the globalization and streamlining of corporate power has become and increasingly greased slide that shows no sign of leveling off in the last couple decades.
You see, the government is supposed to regulate corporations. Not just individual corporations through lawsuits and indictments and all manner of direct checks, but corporations writ large, as a concept, to prevent their power from becoming too great and their evil from becoming too pernicious. Part of this is the notion that there are barriers between public and private goods – that some things should be provided by the state and some should be provided by the private sector. But since the Reagan era’s advocacy of basically nothing beyond military force being best done in the public sphere, the move toward privatizing everything has become quite powerful. The mythology has been propagated that corporations do everything better (by which we mean more efficiently, or actually ruthlessly) than the government and thus their models or overt control of things should be how we proceed. The insidious part of the conversation that’s omitted from this step is that corporations are definitionally and tautologically profit-seeking utility-monsters, whereas the government at least theoretically ought be answerable to some notion of the collective public good.
Thus the main step of the privatization movement has been not to exactly actually sell the government in toto to the private sector, but to philosophically convert the notion of the public good to profit-maximization. And thus the rhetoric of both Republicans of the post-Reagan era and certainly the neo-Centrist Democrats Clinton and Obama have been to make government more fiscally responsible, by which we mean profit-driven. Even when exorbitant deficits have been run up, the entire evolution of the last few decades in government has been toward something that is altogether more corporate. Background in the corporate world is a key asset, corporate consultants are brought on to guide all processes and changes, and the bottom line has become the key measurement. And key fund-raisers and successful profiteers have been put in charge of both parties and their kingmaking operations for who is put in front of the people as potential representatives.
All of this has combined to make government a climate that is friend to the corporation and has forgotten, outside of a few young speechwriters, what the public good even looks like. This is how you get the movement of all retirement accounts, pension plans, and Social Security into the corporate casino of Wall Street, conflating the idea of a public good with the bottom-line of the daily close at the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Which itself was the cornerstone in the concept of “Too Big to Fail,” the public unveiling of the CKG for all to see, in 2009. Once the government had ensured that the average American was wholly vested in the outcome of big banks and corporations on Wall Street, with their credit-default swaps, mortgages, student-loan debt, and Internet finance all masquerading as public interest, then the conversion was complete and the corporate tail was free to wag the governmental dog. Those who ought be represented for something that competes with the ruthless bottom-line of corporations were only too happy to welcome our new corporate overlords as the dictators of policy.
All the while, of course, deregulation has eroded the ability of any non-elected group to serve as a check on both the caprice of the flavor-of-the-month elected officials and on the corporations they are actually supposed to be holding accountable. Regulation has been held up as an enemy of profits and efficiency, that nasty old government red-tape tying up red-blooded profit-driven Americans in their pursuit of greenbacks. And thus the last twenty years have been an unprecedented era of rollbacks, not just Republicans declawing the EPA, but both parties erasing all manner of restrictions on banks and corporations of all stripes. The surge in unemployment has combined with the propagated theory that jobs are created by corporations, especially big ones, and their ability to operate tax-free and unregulated on the corporate battleground, and suddenly there isn’t a single person advocating for reigning in the activities of the profit-utility-monsters. Any sort of check on their behavior is seen as a way of destroying jobs and ultimately hurting the middle-class and bringing down the little guy, so no sector of the class structure of the US will advocate for taking the corporations down.
This mentality has spawned two grass-roots movements in response, the last bastion of people clamoring against corporate consolidation of control of the government, made more obvious daily by the revolving door between private and public sector and the corresponding amassing of individual wealth and power for all outgoing government representatives and stakeholders (not to mention the lockdown that, say, Goldman Sachs has on financial [de]regulation). One such movement was the Tea Party, which was actually funded deeply by one of the most massive corporate interests, the Koch Brothers, and advocated for a corporate agenda, probably unwittingly among most of the people actually advocating for said approach. This agenda was anti-regulation, anti-government, and anti-tax, thus encouraging the corporations to proceed unchecked and unheeded in their consolidation of wealth and power.
The other movement was Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which directly sought to take on the private takeover by questioning banks and the financial industry directly, and then ultimately all levels of corporate power. I still don’t have my mind exactly made up on OWS. I don’t go to the point of believing that it was a corporate-planted self-parody, even though I think it functioned as same in the mind of the average American. But it largely illustrated the ineffectuality of standing up to the corporate draining of government power by showing how fringe, “out there,” and ultimately unserious the whole effort wound up seeming. The problem is that there was no groundswell of collective or majority outrage that was sparked by OWS. Rather, it demonstrated what a small minority of people actually question or distrust the CKG in its emergent form. Most people cling to the belief that either their government will spawn better representatives that will be heroic leaders who save them or that corporations still somehow serve our best interests by throwing us a few peanuts while we dance for our dinner.
So the corporo-klepto-government emerges as a belief and value system shift more than an overt shadowy conspiracy. It’s not a few private entities, or even a set of big empowered entities, that have taken over government. It’s the idea of corporate control and unchecked power, manifest lately in Citizens United and all it implies (the decision actually changing very little in terms of actual power, but signalling a sea change in terms of the public notion of the role of companies), that has taken over. So the actual corporation in charge at any given moment is less vital than the idea that it will be a corporation or network of them that has control and calls the ultimate shots. It’s not that Goldman Sachs has become the Cthulhu that eats the guts of government from the inside, but the entire DJIA that has convinced government to willingly sign over its innards to whoever is winning the corporate battlefield on this particular day.
This is why Facebook and Skype and Google and Verizon are only too happy to comply with government desires to spy. They are the spies and they are the government. At a certain point, the interests of the individuals in government mortgaging the farm for the notion of security that the post-9/11 world has proffered (put more succinctly here by David Foster Wallace than I could ever manage) becomes indistinguishable from the corporations whose data they enlist in the effort. All of them are playing the same game, wherein ferreting out would-be terrorists (or dissenters) and learning more about your buying history to maximize profit become synonymous efforts. And they all require leveraging their asymmetry of information and advantages in order to put themselves in control and you underneath.
The antidote is not somehow naively believing that you can protect yourself or your information. That shows a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet, let alone humans. The antidote is blowing the doors off and going public with everything. Not only does this achieve the safety we so wantonly crave and chase after 9/11, by exposing anyone who might be planning anything nefarious, but it equalizes our power and understanding with those who would withhold and manipulate our data for their own ends. Privacy is your enemy, because it enables only those with the ability to protect privacy to lord it over the little guy, who couldn’t hope to.
Not only does this make Snowden and Manning and Assange pioneering heroes of the post-privacy age, but it makes the way you and you and you react to these developments critical. It is not the time to go back to 19th century saws about how the people are protected from their intruding government and keeping your forty acres and mule safe from prying eyes. It is time instead to turn the lens, like a mirror, on the big corporations and the small government it is cultivating. Private government information does not keep you safe. It is the tool of your oppression.
Let’s just examine the notion of private government information for one second. What could possibly make you safer about the government knowing something that everyone can’t? If they’ve found a terror cell or a would-be plot developing, how does exposing that not immediately make everyone safe? You think someone’s going to go through with a plan once it’s been publicly exposed? The only possible argument would be that they have inside moles who are funneling information and thus exposing the information exposes how you got it, putting those people at risk (the only argument, by the way, that anyone cogently made against Wikileaks). But this is actually the opposite of public safety. Because the CKG can easily fall so in love with that source of information that it chooses to prioritize this link over safety. This is the old Coventry problem, often enshrined in fascinating debate rounds in my era on APDA. The story (it’s still mired in controversy and uncertainty, as are most allegations that Churchill knew about things and chose to stay silent to manipulate his desired outcome) goes that the Brits had cracked the code of the German military, learned of a massive air-raid on Coventry that was about to commence, and chose not to alert the air defenses there so as to not reveal that the code had been broken. The calculus was that a future piece of information more important than that which would save Coventry would be coming down the pike later and it would be better to save the knowledge of the broken code (and that the Germans didn’t know the code had been broken) for said future time.
It doesn’t really matter whether the Coventry problem is/was true of Coventry itself (I happen to believe it was, but again, irrelevant). The point is that every private mole and spy and plant is a re-enactment of the utilitarian calculus weighed above. So every time that the CKG chooses not to reveal a spy or mole or plant, they are betting that there is some better piece of information coming later that is worth not blowing cover. Even though the short-term result may be people dying, an attack being carried out, or some other compromise of safety. This theme is played out countless times in modern dramas, movies, TV shows, and government decisions. The problem is that this is bean-counting, the same device corporations use in weighing their profits against your safety. And that’s the only thing that’s being protected by having covert government actions, rather than having them act completely out in the open.
Five-hundred and sixty-eight people were killed in the first severe raid on Coventry. The number slaughtered by corporate bean-counting or covert US action is probably much higher each year.
But hey, domestic terrorism has killed three people since 9/11. Or roughly half the number killed by, uh, going to baseball games each year. (No, seriously.) So, you know, this is all keeping you super-safe. Just like the War on Baseball.
I recently saw a new movie, one that I kind of wish I had written and reminds me of some things I did write, about a slightly less safe society. It was called “The Purge” and I have to recommend it, though I’ll note that it’s darker by about three times than anything I’ve ever written, so that should tell you something. In any event, this depicts a very-near-future America in which crime is legalized for 12 hours a year so that people can confine their violent tendencies to one orgiastic and cathartic night rather than hit unsuspecting people during the rest of the year. The eponymous Purge seems to fulfill two functions, both reducing population in a society clearly overgrown and redefining crime so that it seems that safety has been achieved all of the time. This last one is especially well depicted and insidious, since no one within the society shown process the 12 hours of mayhem as a threat to safety. They’ve also been propagandized heavily to see the whole process as patriotic and what keeps the society so great.
The allegory is powerful, jarring, and profound, if the execution (pun intended) is rather lacking in the movie as it evolves on-screen. But the tense mood and the ninety minutes of ruminating on the premise and its insane results are worth the what-ifs of the production being short of its potential. But rather than focusing you on what I’d normal focus on, things like the way the military serves the role of the Purge in the film, and so forth, I think it also fits as a metaphor for the privacy question discussed herein.
The main plot of the film centers on a man and his family whose new-found wealth is driven by his peerless talent for selling home security systems for use on the night of the Purge (it seems you don’t need them the other 364 in this cleansed society). And this illustrates another key facet of the allegory of the movie, that it’s the poor, homeless, and have-nots that are the prime targets of purging (arguably the shadowy purpose for implementing the whole system), since they can neither afford the weaponry needed to compete nor the security needed to defend. This makes them literally expendable, easy pickings for the top echelons of society who seem to all but raise them for sport hunting.
But now let’s shift the metaphor to privacy. The security systems are cloaking your information and the rest of the people are exposed, all their information floating around. It’s not the lack of protection that’s the real threat, it’s the asymmetry of it.
And the plot of the movie highlights this, as the vulnerabilities of the security systems are exposed and the movie devolves temporarily into a typical home-invasion thriller with lots of scares and blood. But the point that’s being shown is that we’re all ultimately equal. And the same is true not only of information, but of the new methods the Internet enables of obtaining and proliferating it.
I’m not here to say that as long as we have a handful of Mannings and Snowdens running around that everything’s going to be okay. There are a lot more reasons than privacy issues to fear the CKG and its consolidation of power. And I am here to laud their actions and encourage others to follow suit, regardless of the incredible crackdown hammer that’s coming for people like Manning (or, indeed, the not dissimilar Aaron Swartz). But more than anything, I’m here to try to channel your dissent and ensure that what we’re calling for and preparing for is coherent in the wake of this reality.
A world where you have the kind of privacy your civics textbook talked about is gone. It may never have truly been real, but it’s long past relevant in a land with the Internet and globalization. If something knocks all the power systems and ways of generating it offline forever, then we can again discuss that world. Stop calling for it, stop asking for it.
Your hope is in the world post-privacy. Or it has to be, because your future is guaranteed to be there. Making sure we know as much about the CKG as it knows about us is at least feasible and physically possible, and that’s something worth advocating. It’ll be a lot harder to be surprised by actions that we see coming from the planning stage, to be stunned by revelations that we learn of before they manifest.