Don’t be Evil … at least for some definitions of “Evil”
Decisions, decisions. Grow the infrastructure of a police state – which history and experience tell us will eventually get used to its fullest extent at the expense of our fundamental freedoms – or, let the terrorists “win” – by which most people understand to mean that a self-renewing body of fanatics will have free rein to commit atrocities upon us. In comparison to these, the third alternative of a powerful oligopoly of global corporations using technology to harvest money at ever greatest rates seems almost puckishly amusing.
Past week or so has seen the exposure of two programs run by the US National Security Agency, or NSA – often euphemistically called “No Such Agency” due to its penchant for utter secrecy. The first program, reported by the Guardian, involves the retrieval of cell call records for millions of Americans. Initiated on April 25, and due to continue till July 19, the program presumably was initiated to aid investigation into the recent Boston Marathon Bombing. These actions were taken under provisions of the Patriot Act put in place in the last Bush Administration, but this is the first time the Obama administration has used these powers.
The second revelation, also broken by the Guardian, is about an NSA program called PRISM, which gives government access to user data from major tech companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook. PRISM is probably not an acronym, but it does have a creepy logo:
It is unclear how PRISM works. Despite the statement on a top-secret Powerpoint slide that says PRISM collects “… directly from the servers of … U.S. service providers …”, what seems more likely is that there is, as the New York Times reports, a system of “locked mailboxes” where tech companies deposit requested data-sets in a way the government can see only that data. All the usual billionaire suspects, from Cook to Page to Zuckerberg, deny there is any “back door” in their servers that is open to the government.
To add to this unsettling stew are many other ingredients. One is that these revelations come close after stories on apparent abuses of government power: how the IRS targeted certain political groups for extra screening prior to being approved for tax-free status, and how the US Justice Department used phone records of Associated Press reporters to look for leakers of sensitive information. Then, there’s the trial of Bradley Manning, who faces a possible penalty of life in prison for releasing 1,000s of classified documents to WikiLeaks including a notorious video of an Apache helicopter crew killing civilians and journalists in Baghdad. Finally, we have the uncertainty of whether PRISM has ever actually stopped a terrorist attack, the expected alignment of the ACLU and the EFF against this surveillance, and an unexpected alliance of Bill Maher, Jack Welch and Lindsey Graham in support.
Whew. What to do, what to do? Almost makes one long for the 60s, doesn’t it?
What seems most likely is the political part of this will, as it always does, run its course – committees will be convened, reporting will be done, and a new baseline of public belief and expectation will be established. How grounded in truth that will be is hard to predict, but I have my hopes. Maybe the best face I can put on it is to say this is an opportunity for Mr. Obama to “show his quality”, as Samwise Gamgee would say.
More troubling to me is the thesis put forth by Julian Assange – controversial founder of Wikileaks – in a recent NYT op-ed. In it, he takes to task Google and two of its leaders, CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen. His article, entitled The Banality of Evil, blasts Schmidt and Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age, as a “startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism”. Assange writes:
The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.
In Assange’s view, Google and the other big techs are not outraged by government expectations of surveillance – to them it’s the price of doing business, and business means knowing everything about you not so you can be put in jail, but so you can be sold stuff … lots and lots of stuff. His warning is about how we will come to consider loss of privacy, and of freedoms, as benefits rather than losses.
Assange is not exactly a well-considered, all-sides-of-the-issue kind of guy. Also interesting is that Schmidt and Cohen interviewed Assange in 2011, as research for their book; apparently Assange was not too happy with the result.
I have the book in my Kindle, queued up to be read. But it seems hard to conclude Assange is totally wrong. The American people elected Obama, and they can elect his successor out, if that’s what they want. No one elected Eric Schmidt.
If you read Assange’s piece on NYT, you may encounter the same ironic ad-juxtaposition that I did:
Google really is everywhere.