PRISM and the making of our idiocracy. – 10 June 2013

This is not the time for cliché or sound bite, but to paraphrase Tony Blair, I feel the hand of history (or the all-seeing electronic eye) just to the right of this keyboard. And your keyboard actually. And your webcam. Oh, and your telephone. Indeed, if your toaster has acquired the ability to engage in two-way communications, the all-seeing electronic eye probably knows how you like your toast. And your crumpets.  It has probably told its all-seeing master (or mistress). And they have made a micro-judgment about the fact that your toast is underdone (an unsound choice unless matched with slightly underdone bacon) and that your crumpets are ever so slightly rubbery.

If outed by a former contractor with an overdeveloped sense of global citizenry and a keenness to stop enjoying the liberties of a free man, the all-seeing electronic eye’s master (or mistress) would tell you that you had nothing to worry about if you are merely going about your business in a law abiding way. Afterall, a small detail about your toast (and crumpets) going to the all-seeing electronic eye is a small price to pay for all this security you are enjoying. And you are enjoying it, right? And you might hopefully respond to the representative of the all-seeing electronic eye that they were talking total rot. Because this is only in small part about being law-abiding, it’s mostly about creating and enforcing obedience and compliance.

It is the beigest political paint that dries the quickest, and Prism is set for maximum beige.

Its effect on politics is so beiging it might have been painted on the panels of a British made car of the 70s

Being a useful idiot…

Of all the things to be miffed about with Prism one of the most random (and least important) is that nearly all of the IR scholars who write through the ‘inspiration’ and, er, prism of Foucault are probably right. And this is not good. Because I’ve only ever met several ‘Foucauldians’ who haven’t been eminently irritating, and painfully certain that they have seen the one-true light of a bald French bloke who was good at re-historicisation. In their world the rest of us are pre-Foucault. If only we had seen that one true light too. (I exaggerate slightly for effect: I know a few Foucauldians who I strongly admire, and who live far enough away now to make it a really large effort to beat me about the head). Anyhow, necessary caveats in place… these buggers are right. The dead-hand of the state is not dead at all. It’s alive and desperate to create passive political bodies. The frightening tone of Richard Aldrich’s brilliant book on GCHG has been transformed in my mind from a frightening dystopia into underplay of the agenda at hand. But people like me are useful idiots because we tend to see the strengths in bureaucratic, political and judicial oversight mechanisms (and lecture about these strengths in glowing tones), and in assuming that just as the ordinary soldier sees themself as a reflection in their enemy, then security officials see themselves in those they serve. And if they do, it’s a poor reflection of the Biblical maxim do unto others what you’d have done to yourself. (I can feel the tautology of ‘if you’re law abiding’ coming on again… tell that to the select many who ran into certain British police forces during the 70s and 80s.. but by the by).   There’s also an endless amount to be said about the quantity of data we voluntarily contribute to that mystical place ‘the internet’, which has evidently contributed to our own surveillance…. But that’s also by the by.

 The myth of absolute security:

So, how did we get here?

External stimulus (but not one more dramatic than the Cold War, cue post-colonial thinkers to explain this missing gap) + defence of budgetary territory + technical capacity + functional creep – politicians without the wit to say no = the myth of absolute security and all that goes with it.

So, 9/11 and 7/7 in the UK were seen as ‘wake-up’ calls, and were immediately labelled as intelligence failures. But this was unfair. Intelligence agencies had never said that they offered blanket protection, and why should they: they can’t. But it was quite clear that the press (and however you read the reflect><lead function of the media) and a large part of the public assumed that they indirectly paid into this national security slot machine, the security wheels whizz round, and as regular as clock-work security comes flying out in a clattering din of happy contentedness. But in the real world of real people, intelligence and security is a clever system of processes and people that gets lucky more often than it gets unlucky: ‘we only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time’ as one of the Brighton bombers was quoted as saying.

So, the myth of security began with a massive public misunderstanding of what intelligence is and does. It was then compounded by weak politicians who either misunderstood it themselves or decided it would be mighty funny and/or convenient to confirm this myth and avoid some issues that are firmly parked in the ‘too difficult’ box. Political science point: how, narratively, do we now row back from this misunderstanding? No-one who wants to get elected again is going to point out that the security-slot-machine is a game of chance, and you might lose your money. Time and time again.

The agency response appears to have been many-fold, but we can tell a two-fold story: 1) a desire to avoid being tarred as having failed to meet up to (unreasonable) expectations, 2) a desire to expand budgets and political turf at a permissive moment. These have dovetailed with the ease and speed with which ELINT/SIGINT/SOCMINT can be collected and stored.

So, whilst we can all see why such a response is rational, or at least explicable, it maintains a critical bind, which can be illustrated via part of the response to the disgraceful attack on the soldier Lee Rigby. Investigative journalism then suggested that the accused had been known to intelligence, some even suggested that one of them had been recently approached to spy on Jihadists.  The security slot machine appeared to have stopped spitting out security coins, instead it looked like in some circumstances like it didn’t know when it had three of a kind showing. Again, this is unfair, but the narrative exists, and does so because it is useful and helpful in some respects.

The European rescue of the all-seeing-electronic eye

No, I don’t actually think there’s a European rescue, but there will almost certainly be a lot of European resistance and friction to what we have learned about Prism. When I wrote a paper and gave evidence to the European Parliament in 2010 about the Passenger Name Record issue, there was a great deal of anxiety about how this information would treated, stored and used. And more widely and philosophically about the merits of a foreign power having such a wide array of EU citizen’s data. But let’s be clear: PNR is the smallest sprat in the sea compared to the revelations about Prism. In the light of Prism, the debate we had about PNR was so pointless it almost wasn’t worth the trip to Madrid to discuss it (cough). And it will have no doubt amused the Russian government to see that the response to their request for PNR data (which mirrors the arrangement the EU has with the US) was laughed out of the room (and I am sure the Russian government were not disappointed nor surprised by this) whilst the news of Prism loomed large on the horizon. Whilst such views are not popular in these parts, the EU underplays the strength it has in big-data, and the ability it would have to act as its own security bloc, if only it could line up in something of the same direction.

Where do we go from here?

Well, nothing will change. So forget any notion that this seismic event will generate change. It will generate a lot of political hot air, and a lot of protests. But no-one will dare challenge the myth of absolute security, and it is on that premise that the whole system sits.

Security is created by economic growth, and the access to the benefits of and means by which economies grow. There will always be those who want a fight. No matter how good life is. We should pay these people negative attention. But we won’t need to worry about the mass of population if we know that there is an absence of grievance. And economic growth cures most grievances. Just as in COIN, the aim should be to reduce the fighting core to the smallest number, not to label the largest number of people as combatants. The best thing the politicians of the US, UK and the rest of Europe could do in response to this crisis is get their economies motoring again.

Leave the toasters to do their business in peace….


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