Weapons of Mass Detection
I once had a philosophy professor who said that the way to learn dialectical thinking was to remember that things always turn into their opposite. The Snowden documents show just how quickly such reversals can occur. Despite its promising beginnings, the Internet and more or less all communications data, our data, have been militarized in theory and practice.This has occurred pretty much the way that Adams described. First, an arms race with the “terrorists.” Then a frenzied effort to develop the most sophisticated weaponry. The only difference in our century is that weapons are composed of information and the techniques of information analysis and control. When it comes to these new weapons of mass detection, we are both the bullet and the bullseye.
We know that in principle and in fact, US security operations, along with those of other nations (Germany, Spain, France, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, and probably more) have broad access to our data. As early as 2001, the European Parliament published a 200-page report on the “Echelon” surveillance program concluding “within Europe, all communications, such as emails, phone and fax traffic, are regularly monitored by the NSA.”
We’re learning from Snowden the degree to which NSA operations escalated and institutionalized breaching democratically established laws and individual rights. Regarded by the NSA and other intelligence agencies as essential to the “war on terror”, our data have been weaponized. A key feature of the new weapons system is that we are unable to discern the extent to which we ourselves might be or become targets of the armaments to whose manufacture we have unwittingly contributed. We supply the information bullets, and then the weapons are turned on us.
Secret reports captured by Snowden and released in January by Pro Publica, the Guardian, and the New York Times detail the extent to which the NSA and British intelligence agency GCHQ exploit a tsunami of data from smartphones. As one British agent was quoted in a 2008 report, “anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system.” In 2010 another British analyst described the development of smartphone harvesting as a “mobile surge,” and compared it to the surge of troops into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Demilitarization had been essential for what Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain calls the “generative” capabilities of the Internet –– the ways it lends itself to trust, interaction, invention, and creativity. Militarization is already having the opposite effect, as firms withdraw their data from cloud servers and governments explore new regulations and infrastructures that enable nation-specific privacy controls.
Of equal concern are the economic effects of information militarization. It suppresses the creative adaptation to human needs that is capitalism’s greatest strength . In the annals of capitalism, the production of prosperity and well-being have depended on a steady flow of commercial “mutations” that better align business with the changing needs of people.