We should be very concerned about the surveillance state in the west – but our privacy is not the main reason why.
Wikileaks’ latest dump of CIA documents confirmed what many of us suspected all along, especially after the Edward Snowden revelations: that the NSA (and GCHQ…) use our computers, mobile devices, and even internet-connected TV sets to spy on us. Some people feel they have nothing to hide, so they aren’t bothered about it. Others feel outraged on the grounds that it violates our civil liberties and our right to privacy. But there’s a much more important reason to be concerned about mass surveillance, and it isn’t about the privacy of the vast majority of us.
NSA whistleblower William Binney revealed that the NSA keeps some 4 billion people under watch – around 2/3rds of the world population. This is a massive overkill resulting in an overload of information that’s of little practical use. Even if your private conversation are recorded and stored somewhere, the likelihood that anyone will ever retreive them, listen and flag you up for some kind of repressive action are next to nil. You may be more likely to win a lottery, even if you don’t play. But this is not at all what mass surveillance is about. Another NSA whistleblower, Russell Tice gave us a clue on what it IS about.
In an April 2013 radio podcast he said: “They went after – and I know this because I had my hands literally on the paperwork for these sort of things – they went after high-ranking military officers; they went after members of Congress, both Senate and the House, especially on intelligence committees and on the armed services committees and some of the.. and judicial [this is a transcript of Mr. Tice’s talk so excuse the sentence structure]. But they went after others too. They went after lawyers and law firms. All kinds of – heaps of lawyers and law firms. They went after judges. One of the judges is now sitting on the Supreme Court that I had his wiretap information in my hand. Two are former FISA court judges. They went after State Department officials. They went after people in the executive service that were part of the White House…” Tice goes on to enumerate other types organizations targeted by NSA surveillance: antiwar groups, civil rights groups, multinationals, banking and financial firms, NGOs, the Red Cross (interestingly, mentions no foreign terrorist organizations), and adds the following gem:
“This was in the summer of 2004. One of the papers that I held in my hand was to wiretap a bunch of numbers associated with, with a 40-something year old wannabe senator from Illinois. That’s the President of the United States now.” He was referring of course, to Barack Obama. In a different interview, the same Russell Tice mentioned that one of the targets in the State Department was General C0lin P0well.
Pervasive surveillance enables the ruling oligarchy to subvert the government process by applying pressure on key decision makers. One famous example was when in June 2015 the Supreme Court of the U.S. approved certain key provision of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) after the last minute change of heart by Chief Justice John Roberts. At the time, many observers raised the suspicions that Justice Roberts was under NSA surveillance and that he was probably pressured to change his decision.
A more egregious example was the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling where the Supreme Court made it legal for corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. This decision left most people in disbelief as it legalized a fundamentally undemocratic interference in elections. Today we can perhaps better appreciate what possessed the judges to make such a ruling.
Instances where powerful interests can influence the governing and legislative processes by exerting pressure on decision makers are probably frequent and numerous, explaining how the will of the people can be so easily and regularly subverted when this suits powerful interests. Most people are opposed to genetically modified foods, but their representatives can’t even make producers label such foods so that consumers could make an informed choice. Vast majority of the people are opposed to war but somehow western democracies can’t seem to keep away from military adventures…
The NSA is not there because anyone cares about your private affairs – unless you occupy a sensitive position of power. In that case however, they are very interested in everything you do. About a year ago, Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Drug Industry Launches Ad Campaign Aimed at Lawmakers.” It quotes Bob Hugin, CEO of Celgene, saying, “We’ve identified 7,000 Americans who matter.” In other words, the remaining 330 million Americans do not matter. It is those 7,000 (or however many) individuals that will be kept under watch by the surveillance apparatus. When it’s their turn to make a difference they might find themselves under pressure to act contrary to their sense of honor and decency, from their duty to their fellow citizens and to the will of the people.
The same logic of influence applies in other vested interests in any nation. This is how mass surveillance facilitates an open and systemic subversion of democracy by the ruling oligarchy that operates in the shadows, not in the best interest of the society but in their own best interests. The result is that we are increasingly exploited by various predatory interest groups and our societies are diverging ever further from the quality of life we would wish to leave behind for our children. Instead of building a humane society and peace we are slip-sliding towards a dystopian world we abhor. Far more than infringing on our personal privacy, this is the real harm that can – and will – result from mass surveillance unless there is a strong pushback.
Alex Krainer is an author and hedge fund manager based in Monaco. Recently he has published the book “Mastering Uncertainty in Commodities Trading“.