Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Robert Scheer's They Know Everything about You (Book Review)

Edward Snowden started the transparency but Robert Scheer provides it in context. The inefficacy and profligacy of America's national security apparatus are worse than you imagine. Obama's presidency expanded the security state far more than anyone knew until whistleblowers emerged. A few quick points: 

1. American taxpayers have spent 500 billion USD for intelligence since 9/11. Scheer explains how almost all the programs didn't work or had to be scrapped. The main problem wasn't data gathering but connecting the dots to gain useful information. 
2. America's expenditures were useless because the government attacked the wrong problem (and the wrong country, but that's another book). When you realize most law enforcement employees are men, it's not surprising communication is the issue. Imagine analyzing a relationship between a husband and wife. Whom would you trust more to predict substantive behavior if the couple knew they were being watched? A person with all online data on both persons or a close friend who communicates well with one of them? 

3. Much of the gov's post-9/11 approach to combating terrorism is being used for psychological ops, i.e., how to engineer consent, potentially even against America's own citizens. Also, if legal "rebellions" or dissent can be predicted through software and algorithms, why wouldn't such algorithms be used one day to block the spread of "dangerous" or dissenting ideas? Why not use it to predict and catch whistleblowers, preventing another Snowden? (By the way, do see the connection between Facebook and facial recognition technology; Alexa/Siri and voice recognition technology; and genealogical profiles and criminal investigations?) 

4. One example: let's say you're critical of a defense contractor or the president online. Software exists that will scoop up your comment and save it in a database--forever. The question is whether the software can differentiate between peaceful libertarians and potentially dangerous anti-government persons (McVeigh, etc.). What is the assurance, with black-box funding and military contracting/outsourcing, of avoiding actions that will chill speech? 
5. We jail journalists in America. See Barrett Brown
6. The worst part about all the money we've spent is that these trillion-dollar systems can be gamed with millions of dollars. For instance, overwhelming spying software with useless or false info/code is a common intelligence tactic. Note, however, such tactics can be used by ordinary citizens against these same programs. If all of us began discussing bombs--as part of our goal to write interesting screenplays, of course--we could render useless much of the surveillance software in existence. (Foreign governments and hacker outfits have already discovered this flaw, leading us into a new era of diplomacy where no one knows the rules for a proportionate response to ever-escalating online attacks.) There's even a simpler approach: if everyone just shut off their phones for one week, so-called anti-terrorism surveillance programs (but not advertising programs) would be ineffective. 
Snowden tells an anecdote about this issue: one terrorist stool pigeon receives a phone call directing him to a location. On the way there, he's killed by a drone. Another terrorist receives a text with instructions on how to make a bomb. Upon ordering fertilizer, he's killed by a drone. A third terrorist delivers a handwritten note by bicycle with instructions on where to find explosives. He succeeds. 

 7. Every mid-sized American city in 2001 could have looked like Tokyo today if taxpayer dollars had been spent on infrastructure. Instead, we decided to spend our money on propaganda and surveillance software that can be made useless through simple cooperation, an analog approach, or foreign hackers. If that sounds fine, try a different thought experiment: imagine a country with police officers on every street corner who can peer into your home if a judge the police union helped elect gives them permission. Incorporate factors such as anonymous or well-meaning but incorrect crime tips. What are the substantive differences between such a scenario and our current reality? 

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