by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 4, Sha'ban, 1436)
Can the US military-industrial-banking complex’s appetite for total control of citizenry be limited now that the Patriot Act is up for review? It would be wrong to hold much hope.
The US media is currently whipping up a public relations storm on the approaching end of the USA PATRIOT Act, key provisions of which are set to expire on June 1st. After Edward Snowden exposed massive government surveillance programs tracking citizen data, resistance to the PATRIOT Act has been building in the populace. At the same time, however, representatives from Apple and Google have been meeting representatives of the spy industry in order to examine the different areas of the surveillance statutes.
There is an ongoing tussle between tech companies and the US government to install spyware on consumer technology products that would allow the government a backdoor through the software into citizen privacy. The struggle to maintain citizen privacy has been a combative one, especially given government interest in collecting citizen data at all costs. On May 14, representatives from Apple and Google met representatives of US spy agencies in an 18th-century English mansion in order to debate the embattled line between privacy and data collection.
The meeting was inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations of government spying on citizens, and was designed as a forum for tech giants and government surveillance apparatus to reach middle ground. As described by Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist who was at the event, it was attended by a “collection of current and former CIA, GCHQ, and SIS officials, counterterrorism commanders, security managers, and former permanent secretaries present.” Campbell reported on the plenary session as per the program, “Where should the line be drawn between safeguarding individual privacy and ensuring collective security? How great are the so-called risks in mass surveillance in computers? Who should authorize intercept operations and on what basis?”
The outcome has not been encouraging, despite glowing media reports. David Drummond, Google’s Chief Legal Officer, wrote in a blog post, “we have a responsibility to protect the privacy and security of our users’ data. At the same time, we want to do our part to help governments keep people safe. We have little doubt that Congress can protect both national security and privacy while taking a significant, concrete step toward restoring trust in the internet.” In other words, the top tech companies do not oppose government surveillance in principle, and will actively collaborate with the government to turn their tech platforms into data collection posts. What they do oppose are the limits that address the extent of the collection and surveillance programs.
In a recent article for The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald explained the scale of the problem of draconian government oversight for anyone who might question, “why does it matter?” “The NSA has all of these other authorizations,” he writes. “They can cite executive orders and other things, on top of which they’ve done a really good job of co-opting laws in the past. We had this FISA law that said you can’t eavesdrop on Americans’ communications without a warrant, and they did it anyway. They invented this incredibly radical interpretation of the PATRIOT Act… that says ‘This lets us collect everything we want,’ and that was the interpretation the Second Circuit, ten years later, rejected, finally, just a couple of weeks ago.”
This refers to the May 7 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records exceeds what is allowed under the PATRIOT Act. In giving the ruling, the judges cited contradictory statements made by the PATRIOT Act and also by officials of the Bush administration with respect to the aims of the data collection program.
Most of the post-Edward Snowden criticism directed toward NSA surveillance strategies are directed toward “cognitive overflow,” the idea that the current laws allow too much information gathering. Snowden’s protests have been supported by research, including that of Nobel prize winning researcher Herbert Simon. In his essay, “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World,” he writes, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
While Snowden was initially sharply criticized for his leaks, the mood in Capitol Hill is now more reflective, with agents and analysis within the system admitting that he indeed had a point. Peter Maass writing for The Intercept reports on the plethora of NSA reports on the problems of information overload, and cites James Cole, the former deputy attorney general who told a congressional committee in 2013, “If you’re looking for the needle in the haystack, you have to have the entire haystack to look through.” Greenwald also describes a 2011 document written by an NSA analyst, which stated, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”
It must also be noted that even as there is some push back for citizen privacy, the media is first and foremost concentrating on arguments of efficiency — the fact that the NSA is hampering its own effectiveness by massive pools of information that no institution can realistically sort through. The arguments of resistance on principle to gross violations of the US Constitution and to massive overreach of power are not being discussed.
When the PATRIOT Act was first unleashed on the public sphere, criticism stressed its exceptional nature, its foreignness to the US political culture. Now it has been normalized, as representatives of tech companies, who receive massive government support, publish the fiction that a marriage between invasive government surveillance and citizen privacy can actually work. In other words, even critics are focusing on the well-oiled functioning of the global machinery of surveillance rather than on defending the rights of the individual, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The citizen, the individual endowed with liberty, is at the center of the American political experiment inaugurated by the founding fathers, and it is that same individual who is being erased out of existence by a machine that has forgotten its human shape and limits.