Last week, Edward Snowden became the latest in a long line of whistleblowers. It has been revealed that the US National Security Agency has been given backdoor access to telephone exchanges and a long range of online accounts from major service providers, underlining how the state breaches users’ privacy on a massive scale in order to get intelligence.
“Big data” and intelligence
The latest buzzword among internet companies is “big data”. The industry has awoken to the fact that if you integrate lots of services, like Google’s Gmail, Drive, Calendar and Youtube, and then use these to track users’ behaviour, you end up with a huge amount of information on individuals. From the user’s point of view, merging data in this way certainly has advantages, allowing easy access to lots of different functions, but for a company it means an unprecedented ability to target advertising. Facebook is a business that is built on this, allowing businesses to target users with particular interests, “likes”, age, schools, etc.
From the intelligence community’s point of view, it gives access to a huge amount of information on the social and professional networks of their targets. It gives them the ability to know pretty much constantly where you are and have a good guess at what you’re doing and who you are meeting there. They know what websites you’re visiting, what videos you watch online and so on. All on the basis of having access to your Google, ITunes and Facebook account.
What recording metadata means
Obama and other politicians claim that they are merely registering what they term “metadata”, i.e. the parties involved in a phone call, the sender and recipient of an email, etc. This is supposed to calm people’s fears that the government are listening in on their phone calls or reading their correspondence.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a pretty apt comment on this under the title Why Metadata matters:
“They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don't know what you talked about.
“They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
“They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don't know what was discussed.
“They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
“They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood's number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.”
The courts in the US have proclaimed that an IP address really is like a postal address and that we therefore have no right to keep it private. Using that analogy, what the US government is doing is the equivalent of ordering the post service to register every single letter being sent in a big database. If you are then found to have somehow communicated with someone on a security service list, all your letters would be opened, read, and then resealed. Now, most people would probably find that very intrusive and it is the sort of thing you’d expect from a totalitarian regime and not what we have been used to in the supposedly “democratic” West.
Spying on foreigners
The administration insists that they’re only spying on foreign citizens, that any spying on US citizens needs to go through the courts. Well, that’s a relief for all of us who are not US citizens. So, the US intelligence services are free to register all our information without any kind of court orders? Given that some of the largest internet companies in the world are US-based, it basically gives US intelligence unfettered access to all internet traffic.
The PRISM programme is a huge embarrassment to US internet companies. There have long been suspicions that they have opened back-doors to US intelligence, and this now confirms it. Google, AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, etc. obviously all deny any knowledge of this, but no one believes them.
Many US companies and politicians have criticised the Chinese for precisely these types of activities. Both the British and US government is accusing Huawei of giving the Chinese this type of access through their telephone exchanges.
Not just that, but non-US companies must be concerned that their data is being harvested by US intelligence agencies for industrial espionage. This is probably one of the reasons for the European Commission demanding privacy guarantees from the US.
One element of this spy scandal is the increased competition between imperial powers for markets. Industrial espionage plays a key role in this.
Media and the intelligence community
The whole scandal, however, begs the question: Is it really news? The media presents it as though this is a new scandal, completely out of the blue. In reality, however, the press has a very short memory and undoubtedly the prolific use of gagging orders helps them forget.
It is worth reminding ourselves of a few of these examples. In a quite comical video from November last year, promoting his book on encryption, Julian Assange points out how the FBI was granted access to David Petraeus’ Gmail account. He was at that time the head of the CIA. If they can use those kinds of measures against the most powerful person in the intelligence community, what can they not do to other US citizens?
Then of course we have Echelon, which was a system to spy on radio transmissions and phone calls during the cold war, which of course was not dismantled after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The European Parliament reported it to have had voice recognition and being able to process thousands of phone calls, listening for key words. Although that system is outdated now, the method is pretty much the same here.
The US government is furthermore reported to listen in on most internet traffic that goes through key hubs in the US and probably the UK as well. One such called Room 641A was unearthed in 2006 inside an AT&T building. There are certainly more of these sites around the US and elsewhere. In fact, the PRISM network appears to be a complement to the pre-existing infrastructure.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been campaigning against government surveillance of the Internet since the early 1990s. They provide a self-help guide, which gives a useful insight into the extent of the government’s powers, which are pretty much unlimited when it comes to foreign “threats”.
The recent revelations about PRISM and internet surveillance are therefore not really news but it does a great service to general awareness that it has now been brought into the open.
A battle being prepared
So what if the government spies on me? What practical implications does it have? I’ve got nothing to hide. That’s what the governments across the world would like us to think. In reality, however, increased state surveillance is a preparation for coming class battles. The idea, of course, is to target labour movement activists. Although a lot of noise has been made about the threat of “terrorism” in the press, in reality the intelligence services still devote a lot of attention to left-wing groups. Undoubtedly, they have agents in trade unions and political organisations.
With intelligence they will try to chop the head off the movement. They will use blackmail, harassment, imprisonment and in extreme cases possibly even assassinations. The data they get provided by the internet companies will be most helpful in this regard and much cheaper than planting lots of agents everywhere.
Bourgeois analysts would also like to predict the future, apparently. In the typical brazen attitude of the business press, Businessweek reported in February on how intelligence agencies using tweets and Facebook data (collected from where?) want to find a way of predicting popular revolts. How successful they will be in this endeavour is another matter, but it shows quite clearly what types of “threats” they concern themselves with.
These latest revelations only show that the ruling class is preparing for serious class battles in the future. The labour movement must do the same. However, it is not through conspiratorial methods that labour and youth activists can win this battle. We cannot seriously expect all working class activists to encrypt their communication and their IP addresses. We cannot seriously expect them to stop using Google, Facebook, Yahoo or Hotmail. The bourgeois state has in fact always used spying and infiltration of labour movement organisations and it is perfectly logical that this has now been extended to the field of the internet.
The internet is like a two sided blade; it can be used by the state to spy on activities, but it is also a very useful instrument in spreading the ideas of genuine socialism and building up opposition to the capitalist system as a whole. We need to use the opportunities opened up by modern technology, not just websites, but also Facebook and cheap internet phone calls through services like Skype. It provides a tremendous opportunity for sharing of Marxist ideas across the world.
Once such ideas grip the minds of the millions of downtrodden workers and poor, no amount of internet spying is going to be able to hold them back. During the Egyptian revolution the state tried blocking the use of the internet, as if this were the cause of the revolution. In the end, thousands of brutal secret police, backed by the CIA, did not stop Ben Ali or Mubarak from being overthrown.
The labour movement should make demands on national governments, for an end to secret courts, gagging orders, etc. If all the covert measures they are adopting have a rational motivation, let them prove it in public. In the end, however, we must maintain a sense of proportion and understand that as long as the bourgeois state remains, so will the spying and intriguing that goes with it. A real end to such spying will only come when society itself has been transformed and when the bourgeois state has been removed.