A long time ago, before 9/11, analysts working for the NSA used to quip that the letters stood for “No Such Agency.” Their veil of secrecy was the counterpoint to what they did for years which was to lift the veil of secrecy on everybody else. The aborted program that John Poindexter put forward shortly after 9/11 was slapped down, probably for being too honest about its premise, as honest as the NSA ever is. They called the program ‘Total Information Awareness’ and the image that represented it on the PowerPoint that hit the web was the Masonic Pyramid with the single all-seeing eye. Although rejected, the NSA pretty much went ahead with the program under a new name: PRISM. In CNN’s latest “thought” piece, a leading question frames Edward Snowden’s release of information regarding the NSA’s PRISM program. It asks whether Snowden is a Traitor or a Hero?
But it’s the wrong question. And Snowden, I feel relatively confident, would be the first to tell you that it’s the wrong question.
Less than a year ago at a Senate hearing, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, nominal director of the hydra-headed National Intelligence Service, another question. “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper replied: “No, sir.” After a head scratching pause (one helluva tell, I must say) he also added, “Not wittingly.”
At another hearing, General Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., denied fourteen times that the agency had the technical capability to intercept e-mails and other online communications in the United States.
Of course, they were both lying.
Here’s another question. At what point do constraints of secrecy become lies in spy bureaucracies like the NSA or in our government in general?
Let me explain. At least one way the PATRIOT Act can subvert your average American is by forcing them to lie. The Act allows the FBI to not only request your records without a warrant but to forbid the provider of the records from ever revealing that the request was even made. This is 1984 territory: you must tell the truth to us, but you must never tell the truth to anyone else about us. Put less abstractly, it turns librarians and internet company officials into liars and stool pigeons under a legal seal of silence; a kind of legal blackmail. The threat to democracy lies not only in the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process, the rights against self-incrimination and coerced confessions, and other rights that form the backbone of the criminal justice system, but also in eroding freedom of the press, seeing journalists and reporters as “aiding and abetting” the criminal telling of government secrets. Secrets, by the way, that shouldn’t even be secret. Steven King’s assertion that Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian should be jailed for his article on Snowden is but a crude manifestation of the ultimate logic of such ‘rules’.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has known about PRISM for some time and been appalled, but could not speak openly about it because it is classified, and his pleas to fellow senators to do something about it were shamefully deep-sixed by his colleagues.
Here’s yet another question. Who actually benefits from all this ‘intelligence’? The Boston Bomber plot appears to have come off without a hitch, despite multiple emails, Facebook posts, tracking of Jihadi websites and the like. They left a trail your average Cheetos huffing hacker could have tracked with his eyes closed. Yet we have amputees and at least three dead. Hello, NSA? Seems we have a problem. You might make the argument that Osama bin Laden was successfully assassinated thanks to our super surveillance state, only that’s a lie too. His compound was a digital black hole, no internet access from there at all. Why? Because they knew all about electronic intercepts and wisely didn’t believe a word of James Clapper’s testimony. In some ways, the PRISM program is an exercise in intellectual masturbation. One ex-intelligence official, Coleen Rowley, put it succinctly, “it does not make it easier to find a needle in a haystack if you continue to add hay.”
Programs like PRISM and the tautologically named Novel Intelligence from Massive Data (NIMD) don’t work because the hard work of analysis to figure what information is relevant and what is dross becomes continuously more difficult and longer with each new scoop of excess data. According to Rowley, “Researchers long ago concluded that the NIMD-type promise of detecting and accurately stopping terrorists through massive data collection was simply not possible.”
So why continue? Because there’s another answer to the question of who benefits from this intelligence.
Consider the following: Roughly 9-10 billion dollars a year are spent on the NSA’s electronic surveillance capabilities. That money doesn’t go to Federal employees however, or at least not the lion’s share. No, the vast majority, about 70% of that kingly sum goes to private firms, like, for example, Booz Allen Hamilton for whom Snowden worked. James Clapper, that magnificently lousy poker player, just happens to be the pioneer who helped Michael Hayden oversee this amazing privatization campaign.
Here’s a little history. According to the Nation, in the late 1990s, faced with a telecommunications and technological revolution that threatened to make the NSA’s telephone and radar-based surveillance skills obsolete, the agency decided to turn to private corporations for many of its technical needs.
The outsourcing plan was finalized in 2000 by a special NSA Advisory Board set up to determine the agency’s future and was codified in a secret report written by a then-obscure intelligence officer named James Clapper.
“Clapper did a one-man study for the NSA Advisory Board,” recalls Ed Loomis, a 40-year NSA veteran who, along with William Binney, Thomas Drake, and J. Kirk Wiebe, blew the whistle on corporate corruption at the NSA.
(By the way, they too are being prosecuted by Eric Holder and the Attorney General’s office.)
“His recommendation was that the NSA acquire its Internet capabilities from the private sector. The idea was, the private sector had the capability and we at NSA didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Hayden, who was the NSA director at the time, “put a lot of trust in the private sector, and a lot of trust in Clapper, because Clapper was his mentor,” added Loomis. And once he got approval, “he was hell-bent on privatization and nothing was going to derail that.”
Clapper, of course, has denounced Snowden’s Guardian leaks as “reprehensible.” He called the disclosures, “literally gut-wrenching” and said they had caused “huge, grave damage” to US intelligence capabilities. But this is dubious at best: Al Qaeda was well aware US intelligence service intercepts. Really, even the extent of domestic spying isn’t a surprise to those of us who have been paying attention.
As the inimitable Charles Pierce has noted, “All Snowden did was tell us what we’d been paying for, and (maybe) remind “our adversaries” to use disposable cellphones, which they could have picked up from any episode of Law And Order after 1995. Maybe we should indict Jack McCoy for treason.”
None of this has to do with ‘effectiveness’ of responding to ‘threats’ or gathering information against those threats. It has to do with the appearance of effectiveness, and, naturally, money. Privatization is an ideology which is also a path to riches for pliant officials–one reason they have such a fervent faith in the free market. And, as with Wall Street, the officials feeding at the trough are entirely bipartisan.
According to the New York Times: “As evidence of the company’s close relationship with government, the Obama administration’s chief intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., is a former Booz Allen executive. The official who held that post in the Bush administration, John M. McConnell, now works for Booz Allen.”
That’s the revolving door in its purest form, flipping between private and public troughs, depending on the party in power. And there’s a lot of money to be made. Last February Booz Allen Hamilton announced two new contracts with Homeland Security, worth a total of $11 billion, for “program management, engineering, technology, business and financial management, and audit support services.”
Yet Booz Allen is only eighth on the list of the top 100 government contractors. Think about that.
Dana Priest and William Arkin conducted an intensive two-year investigation of national security for the Washington Post. They identified 1,931 private companies working in “about 10,000 locations” around the country, with 854,000 of their employees holding top-secret clearances.
They also found enormous redundancy and waste, along with an inability for human beings to effectively absorb and use all the information produced. Analysts were then publishing some 50,000 intelligence reports each year. And since this report was completed nearly three years ago, things can only have grown worse.
The huge drain on public coffers is only one of the downsides of this intelligence behemoth. Another is the lack of accountability when private employees do government work. According to the New York Times:
“The national security apparatus has been more and more privatized and turned over to contractors,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that studies federal government contracting. “This is something the public is largely unaware of, how more than a million private contractors are cleared to handle highly sensitive matters.” Even the process of granting security clearances is often handled by contractors, allowing companies to grant government security clearances to private sector employees.
All this is significant and should raise concerns, but it’s not the important question. The important question came from a writer named David Foster Wallace who in 2007 began to see the shape of things to come and asked this:
Is it worth it?
“What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”
Wallace goes on to argue that we willingly accept 40,000+ domestic highway deaths each year as the price of a mobility in our society. In terms of concrete deaths for abstract ‘rights’, we appear to love the Second Amendment to such a degree that we’ll accept 30,000+ deaths by guns and still not demand a simple universal process for background checks, much less a gun registry.
Wallace continues: “Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?
Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”
There was no debate because no one asked permission. Because the relevant agencies kept their program shrouded in secrecy (No Such Agency!), even when their first efforts were soundly rejected. But now we have an opportunity to have this discussion. To answer this last question:
Are we willing to sacrifice our constitution on the altar of a dubious national security state in a pyrrhic effort to feel safe?
The question isn’t whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. The correct question is, what are we?
After SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) was defeated last winter in congress, Aaron Swartz gave a speech. He talked about the history of the legislation, how it started in 2010 as the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act that looked like it would get railroaded through congress with near unanimity until Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) put a hold on the bill, effectively killing it for that session and requiring it to be resubmitted under a new name PIPA (Protect IP Act) and a similar House version of the bill, the now infamous SOPA.
Swartz described his initial reaction to the bill as a rather subdued ‘so what?’; why should copyright infringement be such a big deal? That was, until he had an opportunity to read the bill and think about its long-term consequences. Swartz argued that SOPA’s wording was vague enough that a single complaint about a site could be enough to have that site blocked, with the burden of proof resting on the site; thus sites that share information freely from the cloud – social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, DailyKos etc., could be pulled offline for the potentially aberrant behavior of a few users. Worse, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) claimed the bill would ban linking to sites deemed offending, even in search results and on services such as Twitter. No one in the industry really liked the bill, Swartz noted, but there really wasn’t much they thought they could do about it. “The strategy was essentially, it’s going to happen, let’s just lessen the impact.”
Aaron Swartz — who developed the RSS protocol as a precocious teenager and was one of the founders of Reddit — didn’t like that answer.
Instead, he went about building the world’s largest internet campaign in history. If you’re reading this now, you may very well have been part of that campaign. I know I was.
I read about it through a post on DailyKos, and then did a little research and wrote about it, and changed my avatar to a big ole black stop SOPA icon. Sure, not much individually, but combined, it mattered. On November 16, Tumblr, Mozilla, Techdirt, the Center for Democracy and Technology were among many other Internet companies that protested by displaying black banners over their site logos with the words “STOP CENSORSHIP” Google linked an online petition to its site, and says it collected more than 7 million signatures from the United States. In January 2012, Reddit announced plans to black out its site for twelve hours on January 18, as company co-founder Alexis Ohanian announced he was going to testify to Congress. “He’s of the firm position that SOPA could potentially ‘obliterate’ the entire tech industry”, Paul Tassi wrote in Forbes. Other prominent sites that planned to participate in the January 18 blackout were Wikimedia, Boing Boing, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
By January 21, 2012 the bill was dead.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that over 115 thousand sites altered their webpages in protest.
I’d like to argue that much of this happened because of the singularly loud voice of Aaron Swartz, but I think he’d be annoyed if I did. He was a firm believer in the power of the commons, of individuals taking personal responsibility that combined became powerful. I suspect he would argue that it was no single voice that mattered in this particular battle, but the multitude of voices that stood firm against the arrayed interests of a relatively small group of men (and a few women), who, first, didn’t really understand the technology (Aaron’s term for most congress people regarding internet technology was ‘clueless’), and second were beholden to corporate interest whose last concern was freedom of expression, much less freedom to share information across the web (Congressman Christopher Dodd, who took a sweet gig as President of the Motion Picture Association of America after he left congress, spear-headed the effort.)
In his speech Aaron talked about how shocked congress was by the upstart rebellion. It was part fear and part anger. A congressman told him, “You people are out of control!”
But that was exactly the point, Aaron noted. We’re supposed to be ‘out of control’…and as Aaron might have said, congress works for us, not the other way around.
Aaron picked other battles as well. He didn’t believe that academic journals should be locked up in a paid only vehicle like JSTOR (Journal Storage), and hid a laptop in an MIT closet, downloading about 4.8 million academic articles. In July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR. They carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents. According to the New York Times, “The database charges 10 cents a page for documents. Swartz had argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense.” He sought to free them, and as a consequence, faced up to a lifetime in prison and bankrupting fines.
Yesterday, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I won’t draw any conclusions about his death except to say that we need our Aaron Swartzes. He understood complex systems as well as anyone on Earth, and his bottom line was always making sure everyone had fair access. But he also had a history of depression which he wrote about in painful detail. One can only imagine the impending sense of closure as Federal prosecutors sought the most excessive penalties imaginable for a crime whose only victim was the freeing of information—that should have already been free.
From Scott Lemieux at Alternet:
Six things you should know about the proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), H.R. 3523, which is scheduled to go to the House floor this week for a final vote. The Bill has 112 cosponsors and is expects to pass the House.
1. CISPA would allow companies to share potentially sensitive customer data with each other in ways that would otherwise be inconsistent with current laws that protect consumer privacy, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). As the ACLU notes, “Health records, gun records, tax records, census data, educational records – essentially all information now protected under privacy laws carefully considered and passed by Congress over the past decades –would no longer have that protection as cybersecurity information if these bills are to become law.” CISPA would also allow the government to require companies to share customer data without the warrant or subpoena that would be required under current law. The privacy rights of customers may be violated, in other words, without substantial evidence that they pose any kind of security threat.
2. CISPA would also pre-empt state laws that provide more privacy protection than the federal standard. Citizens in some states would face diminished privacy rights both now and in the future.
3. Companies would be broadly immunized from both criminal and civil liability for sharing personal data under CISPA. This is important, because the threat of lawsuits is crucial to ensuring that companies respect the privacy of their customers. Under CIPSA, conversely, corporations would have little incentive to err on the side of protecting privacy and would not face legal sanctions for even wholly unjustified invasions of privacy.
4. Private companies would not be required to remove identifying information from data they share with the government. Private information could be shared not only with civilian but with military authorities. Given the deference that courts generally show to invocations of national security interests by entities associated with the military, this makes the risks of privacy invasions even more severe. Any information shared under a new legislative framework should go to a civilian rather than a military agency.
5. The only restriction on the sharing of data is that it be related to “cybersecurity.” The bill makes no serious attempt to specifically define what would qualify, and hence this limitation will do very little to limit privacy violations in practice. As the Electronic Freedom Foundation correctly points out, the bill would apply to “far more than what security experts would reasonably consider to be cybersecurity threat indicators — things like port scans, DDoS traffic, and the like.” Without a more careful definition, the potential for abuse is simply too great.
6. Not only does the language of the bill not provide enough protection before the fact, but it also does too little to protect individual privacy after information is first shared with the government. As Sharon Bradford Franklin explains, “CISPA lacks any meaningful limitations on the ways in which the federal government may use personal information.”
I can’t think of a more despicable or far-reaching example of ideology being forced on Americans than the money-grabbing obsession with dismantling our time-honored public school system. School choice, vouchers, corporate scholarships, educational freedom – call it what you like – the privatization of public schools is a movement on steroids. Every day the states are hit with new bills to aid neoliberals in their goal to educate Americans “their” way. The means to that end vary for different blocs of support, but all roads meet where powerful people control and market information.
A generation or two down this widening road to schools with selective entry and exit for students, religious indoctrination and poorly regulated online learning for the masses, the real people of America, our strength, will rely on the free market crumbs that fall from the learning opportunities available to the elite. Trickledown education is in the making.
Bit by bit, new interpretations change the meanings of our laws. Remember how that happened in Orwell’s Animal Farm?
No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.
No public school shall proselytize except by students.
Remember when public schools were not missionary fields? Just yesterday, the Florida Senate advanced a bill to allow prayer led by students. Proponents of religion in schools call this one “a God-given loophole” – peer evangelism. And of course, as religion gains ground in public schools to appease the religious right (a targeted voting bloc), separation of church and state, a main and valid objection to privatization is being overcome. As the separation objection loses its punch, vouchers allowing taxpayer money to be funneled into private schools become six of one, half-dozen of the other.
In How religion is infiltrating public schools, Katherine Stewart highlights this Animal Farm type “modification” made by the Supreme Court differentiating school-sponsored speech from student speech, allowing students to proselytize on federal property.
In New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, South Carolina:
School-sponsored prayers routinely opened and closed assemblies and performances. Religious messages made their way into lesson plans, and religious iconography decorated the walls. Students were punished for minor infractions by being told to write out sentences proclaiming their faith in God.
A number of these activities … appear to be violations of the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution intended to maintain separation between church and state. And the school board admits as much in its proposed settlement of the ACLU case. Yet an even greater number of religious activities in public schools have recently become legal as a result of novel interpretations of the Constitution handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, had the administration of New Heights been a little smarter, it could have achieved its apparent goal of using the school’s position of authority to spread the word of God among its captive students without running the risk of being sued. Thousands of other schools across the country do just that.
All taxpayers shall contribute to public education unless they don’t.
Diverting funds away from the public schools through vouchers and other means will exacerbate every problem in the system, effectively breaking it. Defunding, attacking teachers and unions, etc., is the means. The golden rule in the neoliberal sweep to privatize the public good is: First, break it. Second, get paid to rebuild it in your own image. Third, funnel the money and benefits up to the top.
Money talks, regulation walks – The Cash Cow for Now
How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools by investigative journalist Lee Fang, points out the astonishing amount of investment capital flowing into online education. The rush to privatize in this way by businesses and “philanthropists” like the Koch brothers, is pretty transparent. Rupert Murdoch called it “a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN) have been the pivotal organizations aiding in the campaign for virtual schools.
Since 2005, ALEC has offered a template law called “The Virtual Public Schools Act” to introduce online education. (…)
SPN has faced accusations before that it is little more than a coin-operated front for corporations. For instance, SPN and its affiliates receive money from polluters, including infamous petrochemical giant Koch Industries, allegedly in exchange for aggressive promotion of climate denial theories.
It’s not a leap to assume that when corporations are in control of education, so will be information.
Typical of neoliberal fancy, virtual schools lack regulation and public debate. And without sufficient oversight or quality control, most online learning companies receive the same amount of taxpayer funding per-pupil as brick and mortar schools. Saving on the teacher-to-student ratio, costs for classrooms, transportation, meals, security, equipment, maintenance and other building support staff – and many other expenses associated with traditional learning, the profit margin for virtual education companies is so seductive that obscene amounts of their money is spent to lobby our lawmakers.
“Moe has worked for almost fifteen years at converting the K-12 education system into a cash cow for Wall Street. A veteran of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, he now leads an investment group that specializes in raising money for businesses looking to tap into more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent annually on primary education.” (…)
“In March, while busting the teachers unions in his state, Walker lifted the cap on virtual schools and removed the program’s income requirements.
State Representative Robin Vos, the Wisconsin state chair for ALEC, sponsored the bill codifying Walker’s radical expansion of online, for-profit schools. Vos’s bill not only lifts the cap but also makes new, for-profit virtual charters easier to establish.
Online learning in K-12 schools is still growing explosively, and public support for this arm of privatization is just baffling. Early on, it was promoted for computer literacy and otherwise unavailable courses, but that’s a distant memory. In 2006, Michigan stepped forward to become the 1st state requiring online learning for high school graduation, regardless of need.
If the public has been reticent in its opposition to online education, it may be because information on its success or failure to actually educate is hard to come by and often skewed. Its promotion has been framed to cover the bases, appealing to the voting blocs of rural communities, urban communities, home schoolers, the parents of children with special learning needs, and a myriad of “bully” and other social issues, including student acne. But the bottom line is profit for the few, poor education for the many.
While different issues continue to plague the most basic requirements for virtual schools to actually educate, they are not without some easily understood merit in the cases of some students. But one-third of our high school students drop out, and truancy issues usually precede throwing in the towel. Obama would like for the states to enforce education requirements to age 18. I think that would force many students into online study (a boon for business) where truancy is already a problem for students who have left traditional schools in favor of virtual classes, and where there’s no viable way to track online attendance.
To me, this doesn’t sound like an honest effort to educate; it sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme at the expense of education and the taxpayer:
“By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.
By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.
The state audit of the Colorado Virtual Academy, which found that the state paid for students who were not attending the school, ordered the reimbursement of more than $800,000.
With retention a problem, some teachers said they were under pressure to pass students with marginal performance and attendance.
Students need simply to log in to be marked present for the day, according to Agora teachers and administrators.” (emphasis mine)
Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools
So, yes. Online learning would reduce class sizes in traditional schools. But as the public school system is being privatized, who is that intended to benefit? Corporations! And another neoliberal offering we hear a lot about these days would have the same effect: repealing child labor laws. I think it’s clear that the motive behind these efforts aligns less with the people of America caring for and educating our children, and more with washing our hands of the responsibility. Every relationship of ‘hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship. ~A. Gramsci
Last Sunday my family and I made a visit to the newly opened ‘Spy Museum’ in Washington D.C. It was what you might imagine, over priced glamorization of some choice episodes from the OSS and the CIA’s long and checkered history. We saw the lipstick pistol, very small electronic bugs buried in dung, a hidden communication device disguised as a tree stump on the outskirts of a Russian air base and so forth. Fascinating stuff that decorated a carefully sculptured history (no mention of the MK Ultra program, for example, nor Contra Aid for that matter). At the very end was the tour de force, an elaborate room whose ceiling and walls flashed ominous images of devastation wrought by the next big threat upon which the CIA has set its laser like focus: cyber terrorism. Ill defined and thus even more frightening, the Spy Museum included everything from simple hacks into government websites along with devastating attacks on the electrical grid under the rubric of ‘cyber terrorism’. As if in confirmation of such dire threats, just last Thursday, January 19th, a group of hacktivists known collectively as Anonymous made headlines by taking down the FBI’s website, the Justice Department’s website and they attempted to take down the White House’s website. They also dropped Universal Music Group, RIAA, Motion Picture Association of America and the Warner Music Group.
Barrett Brown who has made something of a name for himself translating Anonymous’ various communications noted to RT online that “It was in retaliation for Megaupload,” a massive file sharing site with about 50 million daily users, a playground for cyber geeks and the hacker community. When the federal agents raided Megaupload’s site and arrested four people linked to Megaupload in New Zealand they did the equivalent of putting their hands into a beehive. Mere hours after the arrest were made, the Department of Justice site went down and next the Universal sites.
In addition, they also ‘doxed’ or released personal information about former senator Christopher Dodd and his family on public sites, presumably for chairing the MPAA, a major supporter of both PIPA (Protect IP Act) and SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) legislation. Finally, Brown promised that Anonymous-aligned hacktivists were pursuing a joint effort with others to “damage campaign raising abilities of remaining Democrats who support SOPA.”
Startling information to be sure, and the kind of digital muscle flexing that makes every Network Administrator East (or West) of the Mississippi sit up and take notice. But is Anonymous a true danger to our culture in the egregious manner that the Spy Museum would have us believe? Or is Anonymous doing mostly positive work (after all, stopping SOPA is a net good thing in most progressive’s view) but using less than stellar methods?
Like the CIA, Anonymous has its own checkered history. Their first true widespread notoriety probably began with their outing of a Tom Cruise Scientology Video on YouTube in 2008.
According to Wikipedia, “On January 14, 2008, a video produced by the Church featuring an interview with Tom Cruise was leaked to the Internet and uploaded to YouTube. The Church of Scientology issued a copyright violation claim against YouTube requesting the removal of the video. In response to this, Anonymous formulated Project Chanology. Calling the action by the Church of Scientology a form of Internet censorship, members of Project Chanology organized a series of denial-of-service attacks against Scientology websites, prank calls, and black faxes to Scientology centers.”
Project Chanology offers in a nutshell the basic ‘working ethos’ of Anonymous. Freeing information and punishing those who would ‘restrict’ the flow of information through cyber attacks of one stripe or another.
From 2008 to the present this basic pattern is repeated over and over again. But to suggest that Anonymous is without a conscience or are simply kids playing grown up games would also be a mistake. In 2010 and 2011, Anonymous carried out Operation Paypack which successfully punished PayPal and major credit card vendors for refusing payment to the Wikileaks site after the famous Cablegate release. They also came out in support of Bradley Manning and threatened “to disrupt activities at Quantico by cyber-attacking communications, exposing private information about personnel, and other harassment methods .”
Most famously, Anonymous is reputed to have had a hand in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. The websites of the government of Tunisia were targeted by Anonymous due to censorship of the WikiLeaks documents and the Tunisian Revolution. “Anonymous also released the names and passwords of the email addresses of Middle Eastern governmental officials, in support of the Arab Spring. Countries targeted included officials from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.”
Finally, Anonymous, along with Ad Busters of Canada have been associated with the original Occupy Wall Street Movement that has grown to include every major city in the United States.
In an effort to ferret out the good from the bad and to try to work through what we are to make of Anonymous (if anything), I’ve included an extended discussion below that I had this week with a series of APV members and friends online. The kickoff for the discussion is the article on Anonymous’s latest round of attacks against the government and Universal sites on Thursday.
Mike: [In the RT article] Brown, adds that “more is coming” and Anonymous-aligned hacktivists are pursuing a joint effort with others to “damage campaign raising abilities of remaining Democrats who support SOPA.” So we trade one kind of paternalism for another in a process of absolutes? Maybe Anonymous knows what’s best for you and me, but I’m not ready to condone the sabotaging of elections. This is repressive by any other name, just like the bill it seeks to defeat.
M. L.: Since it’s a collective group of individuals who do not always agree on things, crowd-sourced hacktivist actions only work if there is majority support among enough participants to have impact. I find it interesting that Barrett Brown has been tapped to be their spokesman, not by the group but by media forces who cannot cope with a leaderless assemblage. It would be far more accurate to call him a translator – his statements are reported as if he’s speaking for the group, but what he’s doing is just reporting, in English sentences, what he’s understanding out of what’s being discussed in extremely geeky language by clusters of randomly affiliated interested parties. They’ve doxed Dodd – wish they’d leave the kids out when they do that.
Jack: I think Mike is right, but with a few caveats. Hackers and hacktivists are really two separate terms and two separate entities. Hacktivists at least nominally engage in socially relevant activities. Hackers are just hackers, mostly lone geeks who get off on controlling their e-environment. Hacktivist ostensibly take it to the next level and direct their fun and games at socially relevant targets.
I remain largely ambivalent about their activities, but I would suggest without them, Wikileaks would have long ago been shut down (they forced Paypal et al, to give up their payments to Wikileaks in a very Robin Hoodesque swarm). This merits consideration. And I think there’s a kind of false equivalence involved in suggesting they are as ‘repressive’ as legislation that would shut down ISPs that link to ‘pirated’ material. Thus far, their actions are largely symbolic. No one has been ‘permanently’ taken down and words like ‘repressive’ are over blown, what might be more accurate is inconvenient.
And THAT, alone, is fine by me. A day or two of inconvenience in the lopsided war that is being waged between profit driven industries (music, movie) who have countless millions for lobbying efforts and who mean to permanently take down anyone who has links to pirated material against all the rest of us who depend on the internet for the only decent information flow available strikes me as a somewhat minor inconvenience. My main concern is their activity will engender an over reaction and escalation of ‘security’ type activity which slows down things for everyone. Thus I think Mike’s right, but it’s not that they’re equally ‘repressive’ , it’s that their hacktivist activities in this case could result in some serious blowback and escalation that everyone is going to regret. It could even strengthen the proponents of SOPA’s hand, which would be really tragic.
Mike: I consider shutting down web sites and limiting access to information more than inconvenient. It’s repressive. And paternalistic. At this point it may not match the threat of SOPA, but the potential for “hacktivism” to bring a kind of anarchy is, I believe, a real concern. I’m not willing to accept repression in the name of fighting repression, particularly in this instance when we have a small group of people, answerable to no one, making unilateral decisions that affect us all. The fight should be joined WITH information, not its suppression.
M. L.: Without Anonymous intervention, we wouldn’t still have Wikileaks, so we’d have less information.
Jack: It’s a good point, M. L. I’m still a little curious about this sweeping use of the term ‘repression’. If I were to saw down a bulletin board advertising child porn, would that be repressive? (Anonymous has done the equivalent, digitally) If I were to throw a blanket over a billboard promising ‘no interest loans’–which we know inevitably result in ballooning rates after a set period, would that be repressive? Or better, if I were to simply mark up that billboard with a paint brush and write something like ‘this is a lie!’…would that be repressive? I think a bit more nuance is needed.
M. L.: I’m conflicted, Jack, as a free-speech advocate, I’m in favor of all of those things, in theory. Actions always have unintended consequences, though, so I’d be less than thrilled with property destruction; please don’t saw it down. The temporary, non-destructive methods that Anonymous uses are pretty effective. I don’t like doxing because of the potential for violent repercussions against homes and families.
Jack: M.L. – I’m still muddling through the questions myself, but I agree that the whole doxing thing is a bridge too far. It’s mean-spirited and dangerous besides.
Donna: I don’t know enough about Anonymous – because of its secrecy – to be able to say much about it. But it’s represented globally, so their objectives are more broadly considered than what would necessarily be considered from a national prospective. Maybe that’s good, but I’m not comfortable with a powerful, secret, global organization making decisions, such as to shut down government sites for the American people, or as Mike said, sabotaging elections. That’s my only point. Everything they do falls under that premise whether it’s considered helpful, repressive, or whatever. Unbridled power never ends well. I’m not denying that they have chosen some seemingly helpful things to do. I’m just mindful of the danger they could at some point present.
Mike: A billboard advertising child porn would be illegal, as determined by the laws of our society, therefore taking it down wouldn’t, in my view, be repressive. However, I think covering a sign that advertised low-interest loans would be, even if those loans hold some hidden dangers. To continue with Jack’s example, better to erect a sign next to the original pointing out the dangers. Another analogy might consider a book in a library whose philosophy you disagree with. Would it be o.k. to simply remove the book? I don’t believe so. I’d prefer to be the one who decides what’s good and bad for me, what’s perilous or not. Not some faceless collection of hackers who answer to no one.
Jack: Mike – Thanks for the response–good discussion.
This is unfair, I know, but I just couldn’t resist the observation: ” a small group of people, answerable to no one, making unilateral decisions that affect us all”…you mean like… corporate CEOs and higher finance moguls that control 90% of our media output (digitally and otherwise)? That small group of people? 🙂
Actually, in a more serious vein, your point is taken. Arbitrary actions by a small group of self designated vigilantes or CEOs can lead to bad results. And as Donna has pointed out, concentrated power like this tends toward corruption. So there’s certainly a cause for concern. But perhaps the difference lies in terms of the practical effects of the hacktivists. We know with almost 100% certainty that SOPA will have a negative, repressive effect on the free flow of information on the web. The discussion would be around how catastrophic. I don’t think we can say that with any certainty about hacktivists’ activities–they are free agents–there will be times when their activities have lousy consequences, but other times, they can actually have positive outcomes (Wikileaks, stopping child porn, etc). They are wild cards, to be sure, and inherently anarchic. I’m just not convinced that a certain level of anarchy is not necessary at this juncture in time of the Empire’s growth. And by Empire I mean the consolidated power inherent in that small group of corporate, political and financial elites that drive much of our media and financial world (the ultimate small group of people, answerable to no one). Empire, in other words, as [Antonio] Negri might have used it.
By one view, marginalized actors like Anonymous are yeast in a heavy bread, their tyranny or ability to ‘repress’ will necessarily be temporary, and fleeting. They are outlaws, after all. But so was Robin Hood, so was Che Guevara. No one is saying lineup behind Anonymous, no one really can say that, anyhow. So your response to their activities is absolutely reasonable, but it misses the larger point that Anonymous by and large are playful jokers. I think we’re talking about a very youthful (in spirit, if not in age) collective of free agents who are expressing their ‘power’ within a legally conquered geography. In this context, the book analogy is not really accurate. They are not stealing the book, they are temporarily hiding it and tweaking the noses of those who wrote the book in the first place. The reason people tend to like Anonymous at some level is because they are transgressive, they do break rules and they don’t want the calm desperation of what the people who wrote the book say should be the limits of our discourse. Is this out of legal bounds? Sure. That’s the point. You would not be reading the disturbing and sometimes sadly hilarious exchanges of diplomats around the world if Anonymous hadn’t ‘repressed’ PayPal for a short, but deeply instructive period. Could this get out of hand? Certainly. Again, that’s the point. In the old TV show Get Smart there were two agencies pitted against each other: Chaos and Control. In high falutin’ literary terms we would say it’s the tension between Apollo and Dionysus. Civilization has always had these two rails. You really can’t eliminate either rail, and, in some ways, digitally, Anonymous may be a ‘necessary’ aberration, that bit of a digital crack that let’s the light in.
What I fear, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t Anonymous’ activities. I fear the blowback that might be caused by what amounts to their larks. The security types around government agencies are incredibly paranoid and would think nothing of locking down much of the web in order to maintain their sense of ‘control’. They tend to overplay most threats, and their efforts to ‘remove’ the threats or ‘control’ them usually lead to truly bad outcomes. Our so-called global war on terror is an example of a hideously overblown response by ‘security’ minded individuals. Also, if you take a look at Anonymous’ actual activities they have ‘freed’ much more information than they have ever removed from the public domain, and have been mostly Robin Hoodesque in their activities.
If I were to identify an archetype to associate with Anonymous, it would be the Joker or Trickster (in Indian lore, it would be the Coyote). The Trickster breaks the rules of the gods or nature, sometimes maliciously–true– but usually with positive effects. It’s not a matter of saying Anonymous shouldn’t do this or that, or they should follow such and such rules. Rules are their playgrounds, after all. Breaking the rules is their raison d’être. As good progressives, they present a quandary, to be sure, but one important example of a trickster I would mention in their defense is Prometheus, in Greek mythology, who stole fire from the gods to give it to man.
Mike: ”Legally conquered?” That’s quite a euphemism. Will we be willing to settle for calling the hackers “legal conquerors” if the bank accounts raided or the web sites vandalized are our own? Or “tricksters?” I am concerned about the consequences of Anonymous’ actions–in the example of the SOPA & PIPA controversy their attempts to suppress the speech and political activity of those who supported the bill, which after all has at its core a legitimate concern about copyright violation. And particularly their way of operating without consensus in administering a kind of vigilante justice. That cabal you speak of that “games” the economy in this country, and inordinately influences elections, is a real threat, one that has recently been spotlighted by the Occupy Movement. But one of the most important, and I would say successful, aspects of the Occupy Movement has been the understanding that a consensus is critical to decision-making. The idea, which accompanies the actions of Anonymous–that it’s o.k. for a small group of people, or even one disgruntled individual, not accountable in any way, to decide what’s appropriate regarding National security, or to sabotage the campaign (maybe rig an election?) of someone they don’t consider to be on the right side of an issue–is, the way I see it, a dangerous lean towards chaos. My advocacy is for more direct and open action in the fight for transparency and financial justice in this country. The Occupy movement has shown that can be effective. Anyway, Jack, as always, a good discussion. I appreciate your take on the subject(s.)
Mike: …and you too, M. L. I enjoyed the exchange.
Jack: Mike -good discussion back atcha! I just wanted to quickly clarify a point that I don’t think I communicated clearly. When I talk about a ‘collective of free agents who are expressing their power within a legally conquered geography’, I mean that the ‘legally conquered geography’ is the digital universe in which they operate–not that they are ‘legally operating’ but the exact opposite. The digital universe is legally defined by entities (copyright holders, governments, corporations) with far more power and ‘repressive capability’ than anything Anonymous could hope for. Hence the term ‘legally conquered’; I think this is close to the way Anonymous sees themselves as well –as digital ‘liberators’ of information that is ‘repressed’ by larger quasi legal entities–whether those entities are governments, corporations, law firms, etc….So they would never call themselves ‘legal conquerors’ –that wouldn’t even makes sense to them, but more like ‘legal liberators’…Again, this is by way of clarification, not that I necessarily agree or even advocate this kind of activity.
M. L.: I think the Trickster is an apt archetype. One truth is that Anonymous is not an organization. The way any “op” goes down is that someone or ones is persuasive enough in their argument, has enough information to take action and a plan. They ask for assistance and if their plan has “merit” with others then it is acted on. If the plan doesn’t convince others to participate, then there aren’t enough players to cause impact and it doesn’t proceed. At any point along the way, folks can and do get up and walk away from the keyboard. Others might hear of it and join in. Still others might disagree and act to thwart that plan. It would be extremely difficult to corrupt that process, since the participants can change at any moment…. These are certainly interesting times.
Donna: That’s true. And I would guess more “hacktivism” is probably coming our way. You can call them tricksters, but their power is just as corruptible as all power, and their potential just as ominous. Like actions of solidarity in other forms, it depends on whether you agree with what they’re doing at the time. Because it’s a diverse group of individual, global thinkers, we can’t depend on or trust that they will always act in our interest, or the country’s. They don’t create solutions – their talent is to disrupt, and what “they” decide to disrupt is not of or by the people – it’s only for the people as Anonymous perceives our needs. Do we need Anonymous at this time in our country? World? Again, that depends on what you think. If the answer is yes, we have them. If the answer is no, we have them anyway.
Trying to figure out what our leaders are attempting to accomplish from one week to the next is a daunting task that should, it seems to me, be much easier. Truthful accounts for the people to consider are not too much to ask. It is, after all, our country. But finding out the truth (even for our lawmakers) – about the Internet, Wikileaks, drone use and cluster bombs, or plans for regime changes, has become a harried dash through a maze of conflicting reports, where the “best guess” approach is all we have.
The current presidential debates have been no comforting indication that our leaders will have a grip on reality any time soon. I find myself watching them anyway, and sometimes they’re the only good comedy on.
The thing is, as long as our government is permitted to have secret laws, secret distribution of our money, and secret plans for global expansion that are so covert our Generals are shocked to learn about them, the “best guess” approach will probably include reports that seem incredible.
I know that one year ago I didn’t believe some of what is today’s common knowledge, including 26 TRILLION dollars in bank bailouts!
And by the way, with everything else that’s going on, just the thought of equipping our police forces with domestic drones gives me the creeps.
Anyway, these DemocracyNow! War and Peace Reports from yesterday cover several concerning issues of domestic and foreign policy, and the guest is Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon Magazine. Deciding who is “in the know” and who isn’t, is getting ridiculous, but I like these two sources because they report on pretty much everything and have a good track record. So, see what you think.
WikiLeaks Wins Major Australian Journalism Prize
One more thing … and this is really important. Congress is set to change the internet from what we have now to something very different. SOPA and PIPA are acts that threaten the structure of the web with the use of DNS filtering. Please do what you can to stop them from going through. Here’s a video about it and an urgent message from DailyKos with a link to where you can help.
And for the daunted, a little pep talk from Howard Zinn. We can do this!
Thanks from APV. We hope you get involved, and have a great week!
Wait! Here’s an update from APV member, Katherine Walker. I love this one. It’s short and it’s a great share!