PRISM: The dangerous agents of authorised institutions

Prism is worrying because of its degree of interference in civil society.

All your data are belong to us
"The fact that we keep some of our brightest minds hidden in the criminal-corporate gloom of the secret state when they could be sorting out real problems should be a scandal in itself," writes Daniel Hind [Creative Commons]

A month after the first Guardian articles about Prism and the NSA’s domestic spying programmes first started appearing on June 7 the affair is already in danger of slipping away into the realm of the half-remembered. The news agenda moves so fast that facts seem to accumulate in a shapeless pile. The sheer quantity of data, and the absence of anything resembling an adequate political response, can bring on an acceptance of official reassurances and the thrill of patriotic outrage. Most insidiously, we can be tempted to believe that we haven’t learnt anything new and that outrage would be a kind of naïveté. So let’s recap some of what we now know.

Firstly, Britain stands revealed as an extremely useful component of the US state system. It is hasn’t been much remarked on, but the analysts at GCHQ are free to spy on US citizens without the need for court orders. So the NSA can circumvent constitutional protections in America by outsourcing surveillance work to Britain. Not only that, Britain has, in matters intelligence-related, what GCHQ’s lawyers called “a light oversight regime compared with the US”. The parallels with the Wall Street – City of London relationship are striking. In the years before the bubble burst American banks were able to do things in London that would get them indicted back home.

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And of course this, the heart of the special relationship, works both ways. In a BBC interview on June 9 the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague set out to reassure viewers that “intelligence gathering in this country by the UK is governed by a very strong legal framework”. Leave aside for a minute the fact that his version is at odds with GCHQ’s lawyers. Note instead the detail of the phrasing: intelligence gathering in this country by the UK. Our allies are not part of this legal framework. Those with an essentially imperial cast of mind, in Britain and in the United States, are using different national jurisdictions in extremely sophisticated ways. To repeat, the secret state, like finance, comprises both onshore and offshore elements.

The extent to which GCHQ and the NSA cooperate should give British opponents of the EU reason to pause. The European institutions now look less like the imperious overlords of the UK Independence Party’s imagination and more like the helpless objects of UK-US curiosity. If Nigel Farage really wants the UK to be independent he might ask whose interests UK-US intelligence integration serves. Being an intelligence superpower is expensive in its own terms and it deprives British society of a great deal of talent and technical ability. The fact that we keep some of our brightest minds hidden in the criminal-corporate gloom of the secret state when they could be sorting out real problems should be a scandal in itself.

But perhaps the important aspect of the story has been the light that it shines on the capacity of governments and their favoured partners to monitor – and control – the citizen body. Back in the 1950s the American sociologist C. Wright Mills warned of the danger that “agents of authorised institutions” will reduce our ability to “form opinion by discussion” though more or less covert means. The Prism programme allows for exquisitely nuanced interference in the operations of civil society.

As Chris Bertram points out, the state and its partners could all too easily use the records of internet use to embarrass troublesome individuals:

An eloquent community organiser? Which websites did he visit? Or, failing that, which websites did his close associates and family members visit? An environmental activist? How come she was searching for guidance on mental health issues? Did she have an abortion? Do something that can be portrayed as less than green? […]

And once the sliming facts, the family secrets, the personal insecurities are discreetly put out there by a government agency, they can be deployed and recycled via sympathetic journalists and blogs and repeated ad nauseam on Facebook and Twitter.

The state could thereby raise the costs of dissent, and widen its definition, until the “ordinary, decent, hard-working, law-abiding” citizens so beloved of politicians will know to keep their mouth shut about the linked phenomena of steepening inequality, intensifying conflict, environmental crisis and grand corruption. It is this “potential disabling of insubordination” rather than “concerns about “privacy” in and of itself” that should worry us, argues Bertram.

The News of the World was able to run rampant through British civil society using only very primitive technology. Imagine what the corporate media might do in partnership with an all-knowing state. We already know that the UK military worries about the middle class becoming a revolutionary threat to the established order. At what point does political activism become subversion? At the moment the national security state is more or less free to decide for itself. The “law-abiding” majority that Hague insists have nothing to fear always have something to fear.

Canadians concerned over cyber surveillance

And of course, the potential for intervention in civil society need not be limited to character assassination. Real time data from social networks could be used to monitor national conversations and to measure the effectiveness of the state’s responses. Helpful themes could be market tested and refined. Once one pretext for policy vandalism collapses, another can be launched and given an air of spurious authenticity by the orchestrated use of all relevant registers, from academic papers to vicious posts on online articles. Mills’ public that forms its opinions through discussion would be imitated, the better to prevent its emergence. Both print and broadcast media were extremely effective at turning publics into masses. Pervasive surveillance and analysis of social media could play – could already be playing – a similar role in the new digital communications system.

There would be no need to suppress information outright, only to tweak the algorithms to ensure that certain perspectives remain marginal, and that certain coalitions of interest do not form. The spectre that haunts the oligarchic imagination – women and men without property – can be kept endlessly sub-divided and compensated for their powerlessness by the pleasures of mutual antagonism.

As Magnus Nome points at openDemocracy, there’s a great deal of difference between something that is presumed to be true and something that is set out with supporting documentation and that therefore provokes official denials and circumlocutions. It is one thing to be knowing, it is another thing to know. Snowden has given us information about the state’s current capabilities that should worry all but the most abject power-worshippers. More importantly, he has moved the discussion of mass surveillance from obscure websites into the mass media.

I wonder what we will do with what we now know. Will we wait patiently for the next contrivance of the public relations industry? Or will we take stock and take action? After all, the truth is surely obvious. We can have a covertly managed public sphere or we can have a democracy. But we can’t have both.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. 

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