On PRISM: Orwell’s or Huxley’s America

It’s been a whirlwind news cycle over the past 48 hours.  Welcome to the 21st century surveillance state.  We’ve been living here for some time, but no one bothered to say so until now.  In grappling with it all, I keep returning to a few literary classics.

Neil Postman begins his magnum opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by ruminating on two distinct visions of our dystopic future, portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophecy the same thing.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.  But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo the capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…  In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

(emphasis added)

On a Thursday afternoon panel at Personal Democracy Forum, Zeynep Tufecki argued that big data in campaigns is paving the way for a future that is equal parts Orwell and Huxley.  The threat comes less from electoral campaigns themselves than from well-financed economic players who will replicate and enhance the new market techniques in other arenas.  Our powers of monitoring and distraction are growing at an outlandish pace.

Through cosmic coincidence, the first news about PRISM broke just after her panel.  Along with monitoring all of our phone calls through Verizon, it seems the NSA is also capable of accessing all communications via Google/Gmail/YouTube, Microsoft/Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Aol, and Paltalk. According to the career intelligence officer who leaked the information, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

PRISM is Orwell’s America. Really, what else can you call it? If, two weeks ago, Someone told me that the government was soaking up all our online data, capable of reading things while we type them, I would have backed away slowly, wondering where they left their tin foil hat. Then the Washington Post told me instead.  The depth and breadth of this domestic spying program is just astonishing.

But Huxley’s vision is the reason this Orwellian architecture can be constructed.  Consider:

RT @AdamKilgoreWP Friday on A1 of WaPo: The govt is reading yr email. Saturday: The Nats’ season has been a real drag http://wapo.st/15JSxGU 

And it’s not just the front page of the Washington Post.  Tune in to your Twitter stream tomorrow, around 9:30PM EST.  I guarantee you that no one will be discussing PRISM.  They’ll be talking about Daenerys Stormborn and Arya Stark.  They’ll be talking about Lebron James and Tony Parker.  They’ll be trading jokes about Don Draper and Joan Holloway.  It’s like Kurt Cobain said, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us.”

I see room for just a bit of anti-Huxley hope.  Also at Personal Democracy Forum, Sara Critchfield talked about Upworthy.com.  Upworthy has only been around for a year and a half, and it already reaches 2/3rds of all Americans.  Their business model is surprisingly simple: find “socially positive” stories, repackage them with more engaging headlines, and help them go viral.  Eli Pariser founded Upworthy after he wrote The Filter Bubble (see my review here).  It was founded on the premise that people actually want more than cat videos and celebrity gossip.  Provide engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, or enraging content and people will read it, share it, and discuss it.  We just have to get better at marketing the quality content as well as we market the junk content.

Upworthy’s success gives reason for hope.  Sunday night, I’ll be watching the NBA Finals and Game of Thrones.  But Monday, I’ll probably see some PRISM-related content from Upworthy in my media stream, and I’ll share it and participate further in the public conversation.  How much hope we should have is directly proportional to how large of a niche companies like Upworthy will eventually occupy.  How widely are those diverse preferences for substantive and entertaining comments spread?  Can we sustain national attention around issues like PRISM for long enough to demand answers and action from public officials, or will we quickly flip to the next story?

I don’t know.  But, as we marvel at this newly unveiled Orwellian surveillance state, it’s these Huxley-esque questions that will concern me most.

We don’t arrive at this surveillance regime through a perpetual state of fear.  We get there through perpetual distraction.

Introducing the iTelescreen!

Still from a recent Apple launch

In his iconic novel “1984”, George Orwell envisioned omnipresent “telescreens” in every home, business and on every street that could be monitored by the government.  These screens were especially powerful because the subject never knew when the screen was being monitored or if, in fact, monitoring ever occurred.  One had to live as though one were watched at all times.

As is often the case, truth seems to lie somewhere between the totalitarianism of Orwell’s “1984” and the hedonistic consumer dystopia of Huxley’s “Brave New World.” As two recent stories point out, our actual telescreens cost hundreds of dollars and have designer labels.

The useful GPS technology that allows us to navigate our way through city streets also allows government agencies to track our movements.  Not in theory, but in practice.  A recent story notes that agencies have made rampant use of cellphones to track the physical movements and identities of individuals.  As long as we are not up to any wrongdoing, who cares?  Except that the definition of “wrongdoing” is a tricky one.  One Alabama sheriff used the technology to track his daughter’s whereabouts when she stayed out too late.  Even more unsettling is the story of Michigan police who used the technology to note the identities of protesters at a labor union rally.  And these are just the abuses that had been reported thus far.

Having taken part in many marches and protests during the Bush years, I observed that police utilized cameras as weapons of intimidation, recording the faces of each and every protester for purposes that remain unknown.  Did they do this to create a record or merely the belief that such a record might exist?  Was their object to record identities, prevent illegal activity or to intimidate peaceful protesters?  In any event, it seems that these tactics have moved from digital cameras to mobile telephony.  So while tools like Twitter and text messaging have been used by protesters around the world to organize and mobilize, mobile telephony may be just as useful for officials to monitor protest and “chill” dissent.  

 Meanwhile, do you know that little camera that sits on top of your computer screen or laptop–the one that may be pointed at you right now?  How do you know that nobody can see you through it?  If that seems silly, then you should read this story from CBS News about a high school sophomore who was spied on in his home by his school using the webcam in a school issued laptop.  In this case, the danger is that this technology is not only exploitable by overeager officials, but by child predators either within the school system or who may hack into the school’s system.  That is, it might not only be Big Brother who is watching, but Big Pervert.  The FBI is investigating the incident, but it is unclear if they are looking for wrongdoing or pointers.  

 When a Philadelphia mainline school district starts taking pages from the playbook of Orwell’s Oceania, privacy advocates and consumers should take note.  With mobile computing on the rise, hundreds of millions of Americans are using objects that may be used to track their movements and to view their lives.  As cameras and GPS systems become more prominent in these devices, there is every reason to suspect that our personal devices may not be as personal as they seem.

senate approves secret spying program

Bad news, as the Senate overwhelmingly voted to legalize President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and also decided not to amend a bill that would prevent telecom companies from getting immunity for giving the government access to phone records of millions of people.A quote from an article from Wired that talks about this reads:

“The bill, which expires in six years, allows the government to install
permanent wiretapping outposts in telephone and internet facilities
inside the United States without a warrant. However, if those wiretaps
are used to target Americans inside or outside of the country, the
government would have to get a court order. However, if the target is a foreigner or a foreign corporation, and they call an American or an
American calls them, no warrant is required.”

In other words, Americans are screwed, but international students and other foreigners are even more screwed.Being an international student at an American university myself sensitizes me to this problem. Consider this ability to wiretap all our phone and internet traffic without requiring a warrant in the following context:

  1. the government is already tracking every move of international students and visitors.
  2. the university is asking students to provide their cellphone number so that they can be contacted in cases of emergencies.
  3. while the university has good privacy policies in place
  4. they have to comply under the Patriot Act if the government asks them to disclose private information (including cellphone numbers)
  5. the government also has the phone records from the telecom companies
  6. the government doesn’t even need a warrant or court order if it decides it wants to wiretap foreigners

You do the math. International student? Check. All his/her personal and not-so-personal information? Check. Cellphone number? Check. Phone records showing who is calling who at what time for how long from where? Check. Permission to wiretap and spy at will? Check. Civil Liberties? Uhm.

On a smaller side note, it is interesting to see how the presidential candidates have voted on this. McCain voted in favor of giving telecom companies immunity. Obama voted against. Clinton decided to abstain from voting. It’s too bad I don’t get to vote in this country.

House Rebuffs Immunity for Spying Telecoms

On Thursday, the US House passed a FISA reform bill without granting immunity to telecommunications companies accused of assisting illegal eavesdropping on US citizens.

As we noted last month, the White House and telecoms pressed for retroactive immunity. This pressure has not worked–at least not yet–despite Bush’s threat of a veto.

Administrators Trawl Through Students’ Text Messages

In light of publicity surrounding a series of incidents in the Boulder Valley School District, high school administrators in Colorado have been publicly defending their right to read students’ text messages in search of incriminating evidence of breaches of school rules.

According to the Colorado ACLU letter to the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education, administrators at Monarch High School detained a student on May 24th and accused him of smoking cigarettes. When a search of his backpack and pockets revealed no evidence, Vice Principal Drew Adams seized the student’s cell phone, reading and transcribing several messages.

The ACLU alleges this is a class 6 felony under Colorado law.

Adams misrepresented the seizure as a means of preventing distractions during the disciplinary meeting, the ACLU letter continues. The student’s mother asked for the phone, but Adams kept it over Memorial Day weekend.

When the phone was returned, the student’s mother discovered that somebody—presumably Adams—had attempted to send a text message to one of her son’s friends over the weekend, “falsely representing himself as a student.” The attempt failed because the mother had cancelled the service.

Beginning with the text messages from this first student’s phone, “Monarch High School authorities followed up with a cascade of additional interrogations accompanied by seizures and searches of additional students’ cell phones.”

After interviews “with many of the parents and over a dozen students who were drawn into these successive waves of interrogations and cell phone searches,” the group concluded this is part of a broad pattern of such behavior at Monarch.

Many students and parents report being lied to regarding the purpose of seizing cell phones. Further, “school administrators hindered students’ efforts to involve their parents and obstructed concerned parents’ efforts to obtain accurate and complete information about the school’s investigation of their children.” Two students allege to have been held for extended periods without a chance to contact their parents—one long past the end of the school day.

The ACLU also uncovered two earlier instances of Monarch administrators searching students’ cell phones.

In a press release, the district has claimed its legal right to engage in such activities, insisting that district counsel gave them the green light. The Denver Post reports that administrators in Douglas and Jefferson counties have also searched students’ cell phones.

How (Not) to Do FISA Reform

Here is a letter I just sent to Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), my elected representative, with added links:

Dear Rep. Sires,

I am a voter in your district, and I am writing in regards to H.R. 3773, the RESTORE Act. I urge you not to support this legislation unless it meets two key conditions.

First, the bill must not be amended to grant immunity for telecommunications providers who cooperated with the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping program. Such a grant of immunity will cut important court cases off at the knees before we can learn the full nature of the administration’s spying. In short, you must not reward the administration for their blatant disregard for the law of the land, including the very balanced Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and you must not reward common carriers for their willingness to join in the illegalities. Bush’s threat to veto the legislation without such a grant of immunity only confirms concerns that the law has been broken.

Second, do not approve the bill without all of its current protections for civil liberties. In particular, insist that the bill retain or strengthen the following provisions:

• Section 5, requiring oversight and periodic audits of surveillance activities
• Section 7, requiring the Department of Justice to conduct a timely audit of all warrantless surveillance programs since September 11, 2001
• Section 8, requiring record keeping of all surveillance of United States persons
• Section 10, reiterating FISA as the sole legal justification for the gathering of electronic surveillance

Not incidentally, the Bush administration’s willful disregard for FISA is an impeachable act if ever there was one, but sadly it is not the only one committed in the past seven years. Speaker Pelosi may consider impeachment to be off the table, but I do not, and if you and your colleagues do not stand up for the Constitution, I fear for the future of our democracy.


Bill D. Herman

UMass Riot Footage From an Unlikely Source

While I was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, security cameras were installed outside, pointed at certain locations. The most vehemently opposed by students was the camera at the Southwest dormitories, overlooking a favorite location for riots. People would get together to cause general mayhem following Patriots wins, Yankees losses, and power outages, to name a few examples. A friend of mine living in the area once called the aftermath of such a riot “like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

It’s unclear to me how often, if ever, these cameras get used to make charges. All the articles I’m finding about a somewhat recent riot indicate that charges were made against several students, and that security camera footage may be used.

According to UMass’s Daily Collegian, however, footage posted by students to YouTube was actually used by UMass Police “to identify suspects involved in the riot.”

Join the National Clandestine Service (Facebook group)!

The CIA’s National Clandestine Service has a new recruiting tool: a Facebook account (login required). Here’s how Wired News sums it up:

Since December 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency has been using Facebook.com, the popular social networking site, to recruit potential employees into its National Clandestine Service. It marks the first time the CIA has ventured into social networking to hire new personnel.

The profile even sports an embed of a promotional YouTube clip (read: recycled TV ad).

There’s only one problem: any would-be spy who joins the group outs him/herself for all the world to see. I hope that Cliff Kurlander (Emory ’07), Jen Sharp (UC Davis ’10), and Stew Anderson (Vanderbilt ’08) didn’t really want to be agents. But I do; why else would I have joined?

UPDATE: Boy, was I not joking about “recycled TV ad.” I finally watched the end of the clip, and there are a few frames’ worth of a 1-800-Fitness commercial. Congrats to the folks at the CIA for their top-notch understanding of both social networking sites AND video editing software.

Leahy promises privacy, patent reforms

Senator Patrick Leahy, the (presumptive) incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is promising reforms that will increase privacy and reform patents.

Among key privacy reforms, he is seeking tighter supervision of government databanks, action on data leaks and identity theft, and (the shock!) warrants as a prerequisite to surveillance of Americans.

Patent reform is long overdue, and there should be bipartisan support for his efforts. He and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah co-sponsored a bill this year that, among other things, would make it cheaper and easier to challenge bunk patents. It’s similar to a bill sponsored by Republican Lamar Smith in the House.

Of course, the Senate has a bigger concern right now: Senator Tim Johnson getting better. Our hearts go out to Senator Johnson and his family.

American travelers to get secret “Risk Assessment” scores

You think the credit scoring system isn’t Big Brother enough? Wait until Monday, when the Department of Homeland Security rolls out its “Risk Assessment” scores for travelers. See this EFF link for more on this nefarious plot.

Like the “No Fly” list, you’ll be unable to see where you stand (does this post add to my score?) or have the chance to challenge it–unless the EFF, ACLU, or another civil liberties group can win another court battle.

If the terrorists really had attacked us because “they hate our freedom” (perhaps the dumbest claim ever uttered by any administration), then we’ve done nothing but help them for the past 5 years.