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Our Cultural Problem

How may spies does it take to spy on a spy?

How may spies does it take to spy on a spy?

I’m going to share a post today that expands on Poul Henning Kamp’s observation: NSA surveillance is a political problem, not a technological one.

Quinn Norton wrote an essay titled Everything is Broken for on May 20th. In it she describes her experiences working with the ‘intelligence community’. She explains why intelligence professionals genuinely do not understand why the public is disgusted with their dragnet spying operations. In a nutshell, Ms. Norton believes that spooks are so monitored themselves (by their employers), they think listening to the public’s phone calls is pretty small fry: “So quit whining already!”

Spooks’ attitude to their dragnet spying capabilities matters to everyone, because until we address the political problems which allow this spying to continue, spooks will continue to use and abuse said capabilities.

Disclaimer: I distrust people who say, “I used to be a spook, but now I’m not, and I’m going tell you what it’s really like.” Quinn Norton falls into this category. Ms. Norton now has a comfortable job writing for Medium, Wired and makes regular television appearances. (She was Wired’s contact with Anonymous, the sabotaged hacker group, for two years.) On her Twitter profile page, she says she is a “Member of the Lamestream Media“. Not a great way to keep your job in a contracting industry, but Ms. Norton *isn’t worried* about being fired.

Quinn Norton, as pilfered from

Quinn Norton, as pilfered from

From my very limited experience, working in intelligence is like joining the Mafia: you’re never out. Mainstream Media professionals are trusted members of the American establishment. So no matter how many head scarves Ms. Norton wears, she’s still ‘safe’ as far as the powers that be are concerned. In fact, given that she wrote what follows, I’d guess she’s very, very trusted.

But that doesn’t mean what she says is wrong; it means we should weigh her words in light of possible biases. My personal belief is what she says here is on target, though her delivery verges on nurturing the sense of powerlessness she says she wants to fight. I will only reproduce her argument concerning the intelligence community, but the whole essay is worth reading.

Then there’s the Intelligence Community, who call themselves the IC. We might like it if they stopped spying on everyone all the time, while they would like us to stop whining about it.

After spending some time with them, I am pretty sure I understand why they don’t care about the complaining. The IC are some of the most surveilled humans in history. They know everything they do is gone over with a fine-toothed comb — by their peers, their bosses, their lawyers, other agencies, the president, and sometimes Congress. They live watched, and they don’t complain about it.

In all the calls for increased oversight, the basics of human nature gets neglected. You’re not going to teach the spooks this is wrong by doing it to them more.

There will always be loopholes and as long as loopholes exist or can be constructed or construed, surveillance will be as prevalent as it possibly can be. Humans are mostly egocentric creatures. Spooks, being humans, are never going to know why living without privacy is bad as long as they are doing it.

Yet that’s the lesser problem. The cultural catastrophe is what they’re doing to make their job of spying on everyone easier. The most disturbing parts of the revelations are the 0day market, exploit hoarding, and weakening of standards. The question is who gets to be part of the “we” that are being kept allegedly safe by all this exploiting and listening and decrypting and profiling. When they attacked Natanz with Stuxnet and left all the other nuclear facilities vulnerable, we were quietly put on notice that the “we” in question began and ended with the IC itself. That’s the greatest danger.

When the IC or the DOD or the Executive branch are the only true Americans, and the rest of us are subordinate Americans, or worse the non-people that aren’t associated with America, then we can only become lesser people as time goes on.

As our desires conflict with the IC, we become less and less worthy of rights and considerations in the eyes of the IC. When the NSA hoards exploits and interferes with cryptographic protection for our infrastructure, it means using exploits against people who aren’t part of the NSA just doesn’t count as much. Securing us comes after securing themselves.

In theory, the reason we’re so nice to soldiers, that we have customs around honoring and thanking them, is that they’re supposed to be sacrificing themselves for the good of the people. In the case of the NSA, this has been reversed. Our wellbeing is sacrificed to make their job of monitoring the world easier. When this is part of the culture of power, it is well on its way to being capable of any abuse.

But the biggest of all the cultural problems still lies with the one group I haven’t taken to task yet — the normal people living their lives under all this insanity.

The problem with the normals and tech is the same as the problem with the normals and politics, or society in general. People believe they are powerless and alone, but the only thing that keeps people powerless and alone is that same belief. People, working together, are immensely and terrifyingly powerful.

There is certainly a limit to what an organized movement of people who share a mutual dream can do, but we haven’t found it yet.

Facebook and Google seem very powerful, but they live about a week from total ruin all the time. They know the cost of leaving social networks individually is high, but en masse, becomes next to nothing. Windows could be replaced with something better written. The US government would fall to a general revolt in a matter of days. It wouldn’t take a total defection or a general revolt to change everything, because corporations and governments would rather bend to demands than die. These entities do everything they can get away with — but we’ve forgotten that we’re the ones that are letting them get away with things.

Computers don’t serve the needs of both privacy and coordination not because it’s somehow mathematically impossible. There are plenty of schemes that could federate or safely encrypt our data, plenty of ways we could regain privacy and make our computers work better by default. It isn’t happening now because we haven’t demanded that it should, not because no one is clever enough to make that happen.

So yes, the geeks and the executives and the agents and the military have fucked the world. But in the end, it’s the job of the people, working together, to unfuck it.

What Ms. Norton won’t say, is that every time she gets a check from Wired, The Atlantic, etc, she’s reaffirming the system we’re all supposed to be fighting. Let’s start the ‘unfucking’ by cutting ties with the Mainstream Media, Ms. Norton. You’ve got enough name recognition to buy a trailer and strike out on your own…

keep calm example

(BTW, I studiously avoid using lingo like ‘IC’ for ‘intelligence community’ because that’s what they call themselves, wink wink nudge nudge. I encourage all writers whose primary goal is to communicate clearly to do the same.)

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2 responses to “Our Cultural Problem

  1. E. Oop ⋅

    She stated “That was it, that was the answer: be rich enough to buy your own computer, or literally drop dead. ”

    I am aware one can install an operating system on a thumb drive so you can use “someone else’s computer” without modifying the files on it, but if you use the institution’s internet or don’t mask the MAC address somehow, does that still leave someone vulnerable?

    • anolen

      That’s a great question and I don’t know the answer. Hopefully another reader will and will reply to this comment.

      Background for other readers: Your quote comes from Norton’s essay, “Everything is Broken”; she’s talking about people’s security/privacy options when they don’t have administrative access to the computers they use, so they can’t download better programs. (Love to know what her suggestions are… please not Tor!) Her conclusion was: There are no options. If you are too poor to buy your own computer, you’re out of luck.

      If I didn’t have admin access to my machine and used an USB to run whatever operating system I wanted, I would still be worried that they’d be watching what my terminal was pulling/sending from the internet. Most institutions require you to log in to use a terminal, so if your data makes interesting patterns (atypical patterns), they’d find you sooner or later.

      When I was in college, they actually had a team of people watching data usage/data flows on the institute’s cable. When 99% of people’s data looks like Netflix, finding the odd duck out wasn’t hard. (And the college kept a team of lawyers on hand to deal with the fun cases.)

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