Report On Brooklyn College Teach-In On ‘Web Surveillance And Security’

Yesterday, as part of ‘The Brooklyn College Teach-In & Workshop Series on Resistance to the Trump Agenda,’ I facilitated a teach-in on the topic of ‘web surveillance and security.’ During my session I made note of some of the technical and legal issues that are play in these domains, and how technology and law have conspired to ensure that: a) we live in a regime of constant, pervasive surveillance; b) current legal protections–including the disastrous ‘third-party doctrine‘ and the rubber-stamping of governmental surveillance ‘requests’ by FISA courts–are simply inadequate to safeguard our informational and decisional privacy; c) there is no daylight between the government and large corporations in their use and abuse of our personal information. (I also pointed my audience to James Grimmelmann‘s excellent series of posts on protecting digital privacy, which began the day after Donald Trump was elected and continued right up to inauguration. In that post, Grimmelmann links to ‘self-defense’ resources provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ars Technica.)

I began my talk by describing how the level of surveillance desired by secret police organizations of the past–like the East German Stasi, for instance–was now available to the NSA, CIA, and FBI, because of social networking systems; our voluntary provision of every detail of our lives to these systems is a spook’s delight. For instance, the photographs we upload to Facebook will, eventually, make their way into the gigantic corpus of learning data used by law enforcement agencies’ facial recognition software.

During the ensuing discussion I remarked that traditional activism directed at increasing privacy protections–or the enacting of ‘self-defense’ measures–should be part of a broader strategy aimed at reversing the so-called ‘asymmetric panopticon‘: citizens need to demand ‘surveillance’ in the other direction, back at government and corporations. For the former, this would mean pushing back against the current classification craze, which sees an increasing number of documents marked ‘Secret’ ‘Top Secret’ or some other risible security level–and which results in absurd sentences being levied on those who, like Chelsea Manning, violate such constraints; for the latter, this entails demanding that corporations offer greater transparency about their data collection, usage, and analysis–and are not able to easily rely on the protection of trade secret law in claiming that these techniques are ‘proprietary.’ This ‘push back,’ of course, relies on changing the nature of the discourse surrounding governmental and corporate secrecy, which is all too often able to offer facile arguments that link secrecy and security or secrecy and business strategy. In many ways, this might be the  most onerous challenge of all; all too many citizens are still persuaded by the ludicrous ‘if you’ve done nothing illegal you’ve got nothing to hide’ and ‘knowing everything about you is essential for us to keep you safe (or sell you goods’ arguments.

Note: After I finished my talk and returned to my office, I received an email from one of the attendees who wrote:

 

The Most Likely Fate Of The Trump Presidency

Should Americans be cheering as the Deep State brings down an American President? Expressed in abstract schema form, this question requires an answer considerably more nuanced than the simple ‘yes’ that results if asking ‘Should Americans be cheering as the Deep State brings down an American President as clownishly, offensively incompetent as Donald Trump? (Today’s rambling press conference was merely the latest in a series of incoherent public speaking performances.) Unelected string-pullers bringing down an elected representative of the people–even if one who jets off to a golfing resort every weekend–sounds like the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Cheer now if you will, and pay later when the Deep State happens to dislike a representative you do like. (My ‘yes’ clashes with the anguished ‘no’ that would emanate from the millions of Trumpistas still hoping their anointed Savior will, any moment now, stop bragging about his election and actually get down to some work.)

That things have come to this is an acute indication of just how far through the looking-glass our polity has gone; the national security apparatus–or at least, its intelligence component–is in open warfare with the executive branch, and it is not clear that this battle will end any time soon. If more dirt emerges on the President, including evidence of illegal activity–such as directing Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian intelligence–this Presidency would be over. (As before, I do not think Trump will be impeached but I think he could be persuaded to resign by his legal advisers. Easier money, even if not as plentiful, will be waiting on the paranoid conservative talk show and lecture circuit; book deals and bestseller lists are all but guaranteed; our culture is truly degraded, and will make ample room for Trump even if he is exiled from the White House.)

There is another possibility, of course. Which is that the Republican Party, whose ability to plumb the depths is apparently still not clear to those who hope that an investigation will be launched into Trump’s malfeasance, will bring in an experienced operator–perhaps someone like James Baker–to calm the waters, negotiate a truce, and start running day-to-day affairs at the White House. The Republican Party will then have the best of all worlds: they will be able to keep a President in power, the loss of whose loyal ‘base’ cannot be afforded; they will be able to exert some control over policy and legislation; and they will be able to keep the most hostile components of the opposition to Trump at bay. I expect this to be the most likely outcome of the current ‘fubar‘ state of affairs. Such a development will certainly come as some disappointment to those of us who were settling down with the popcorn to see what further entertainment was coming down the pike, but I think most of the other President Pence possibilities that have been floated are extremely unlikely. The Republican Party’s bottom line has always been party above country, and all other outcomes put the country first.

Self-Policing In Response To Pervasive Surveillance

On Thursday night, in the course of conversation with some of my Brooklyn College colleagues, I confessed to having internalized a peculiar sort of ‘chilling effect’ induced by a heightened sensitivity to our modern surveillance state. To wit, I said something along the lines of “I would love to travel to Iran and Pakistan, but I’m a little apprehensive about the increased scrutiny that would result.” When pressed to clarify by my companions, I made some rambling remarks that roughly amounted to the following. Travel to Iran and Pakistan–Islamic nations highly implicated in various foreign policy imbroglios with the US and often accused of supporting terrorism–is highly monitored by national law enforcement and intelligence agencies (the FBI, CIA, NSA); I expected to encounter some uncomfortable moments on my arrival back in the US thanks to questioning by customs and immigration officers (with a first name like mine–which is not Arabic in origin but is in point of fact, a very common and popular name in the Middle East–I would expect nothing less). Moreover, given the data point that my wife is Muslim, I would expect such attention to be heightened (data mining algorithms would establish a ‘networked’ connection between us and given my wife’s own problems when flying, I would expect such a connection to possibly be more ‘suspicious’) ; thereafter, I could expect increased scrutiny every time I traveled (and perhaps in other walks of life, given the extent of data sharing between various governmental agencies).

It is quite possible that all of the above sounds extremely paranoid and misinformed, and my worries a little silly, but I do not think there are no glimmers of truth in there. The technical details are not too wildly off the mark; the increased scrutiny after travel is a common occurrence for many travelers deemed ‘suspicious’ for unknown reasons; and so on. The net result is a curious sort of self-policing on my part: as I look to make travel plans for the future I will, with varying degrees of self-awareness about my motivations, prefer other destinations and locales. I will have allowed myself to be subject to an invisible set of constraints not actually experienced (except indirectly, in part, as in my wife’s experiences when flying.)

This sort of ‘indirect control’ might be pervasive surveillance’s most pernicious effect.

Note: My desire to travel to Iran and Pakistan is grounded in some fairly straightforward desires: Iran is a fascinating and complex country, host to an age-old civilization, with a rich culture and a thriving intellectual and academic scene; Pakistan is of obvious interest to someone born in India, but even more so to someone whose ethnic background is Punjabi, for part of the partitioned Punjab is now in Pakistan (as I noted in an earlier post about my ‘passing for Pakistani,’ “my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab.”)

Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

Dickipedia Was Invented For Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney‘s continued existence, his persistent and unconscionable consumption of space, oxygen, and sundry precious natural resources, has long been an airtight argument against the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God. To wit, does such a God know of his existence? If not, then he is not all-knowing. If God does know of his existence, his foul, malevolent presence, his blighting of our lives, why does he not bring it to an end? If he chooses to not do so, then he is not all-good. If he wants to, but cannot, then he is not omnipotent. QED.

As Ivan might have said in The Brothers Karamazov, if the price of admission to your heaven, your promised abode of well-being, your supposed land of milk and honey, O Lord, is to tolerate this Dick, then I’d rather be intolerant; if the fraternity of man includes this Dick, then I don’t wish to put up with this hazing.  Mighty theologians tremble in the face of the Cheney phenomenon; they prepare to change professions; they acknowledge defeat; they know well their usual sophisticated maneuvers, their slippery, sophistical evasions, will find no traction here. No invocation of the free will of man, no suggestions that the suffering of Man is the suffering of God, no suggestion that this benighted presence prepares us for greater bliss,  will do justice to this ineluctable fact, this producer of dread. We are, yet again, confronted with an awful truth: there is no God. There is, instead, this Dick.

Not only does Dick Cheney survive heart attacks–again and again, and I think, again, shoot friends, and wage illegal wars that cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, he shows up on national media, grinning and leering, reminding us that cartoon villains have a long way to go in catching up to him in the evil stakes. Defending the torture of innocents for the sake of a patently useless, ineffective and counterproductive tactic establishes that fact pretty clearly. Those not inclined to be force-fed this latest serving of Dick Soup will change channels or cancel subscriptions; the rest of us will defriend those who share video links showing his foul visage.

As mass-murdering war criminals go, this Dick hasn’t done too badly. He will never face trial, be cross-questioned, or spend time in jail, thanks to an administration that resolutely turns its face away–perhaps it holds its nose instead; he has many cheerleaders, who admire his forthright disavowal of humanity and decency, having long forsworn their own. Indeed, thanks to Halliburton and the determined dispensation of favors to cronies, he will continue acquire considerable fortunes, thumbing through gigantic stacks of greenbacks, now rapidly acquiring a distinctive shade of crimson thanks to the unwashable blood on his war-profiteering hands.

This Dick will live a long life, and die an old man, surrounded by those who, mysteriously, persist in their love for him. If the arc of his life thus far is any indication, he will feel no pain, no misery, no fear. In death, even as he is lowered into his grave, he will grin back at us, a rictus of triumph reminding us that he outwitted us all.

The only hope, if any, for this world, is that his grave will not be left unmarked. Perhaps sometime in the future, a well-placed and firmly hammered stake–or two, just to make sure–will bring deliverance and closure.

Waterboardin’ Brothers: The ISIS And The US

Over at The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi writes on the inhumane treatment the ISIS meted out to those they held hostage (some of whom, like James Foley, were subsequently beheaded). Of particular interest to all Americans should be her descriptions of their torture techniques:

The story of what happened in the Islamic State’s underground network of prisons in Syria is one of excruciating suffering. Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding….At one point, their jailers arrived with a collection of orange jumpsuits….they lined up the French hostages in their brightly colored uniforms, mimicking those worn by prisoners at the United States’ facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They also began waterboarding a select few, just as C.I.A. interrogators had treated Muslim prisoners at so-called black sites during the George W. Bush administration….Within this subset, the person who suffered the cruelest treatment…was Mr. Foley. In addition to receiving prolonged beatings, he underwent mock executions and was repeatedly waterboarded. Meant to simulate drowning, the procedure can cause the victim to pass out. When one of the prisoners was hauled out, the others were relieved if he came back bloodied.“It was when there was no blood,” a former cellmate said, “that we knew he had suffered something even worse.” [italics added]

If ‘waterboarding‘ is now a distinguished member of the American lexicon it is not because the US, as defender of human rights and exporter of freedom, has undertaken a bold, morally inflected campaign to stamp out its usage. Rather it is because its use as an ‘enhanced interrogation technique,’ as an instrument of foreign policy, and the subsequent failure to punish those who indulged in it has become the starkest recent instance of American hypocrisy in a domain which can ill afford such displays.

A hypocrite easily provokes rage; a sanctimonious, blustering, bullying hypocrite provokes an effusion of bilious resentment, which cannot be suppressed for too long. It all too easily finds expression in violence.  This resentment need not be confined to the socially disenfranchised, the poor, the usual subjects of concerned theorizing; instead, even those considerably more fortunate in life may find themselves infected by its virulence. Perhaps we should be a little less surprised than we profess to be that such a motley crew finds itself attracted to the fulminations of the ISIS. Its activities promise them release from the febrile anger that surges through them–no matter how barbaric.

Let us then, gaze upon the evidence before us, of where we have been brought, of how far the mighty have sunk: a prominent arrow in the quiver of one of this world’s most depraved political entities is a torture technique it has borrowed from those who loudly proclaim their perennial standing as arbiters of the world moral order. The long road to moral perdition that began with the declaration of an illegal war against Iraq in 2003 is finding, now, its wholly expected terminus–a rendezvous and commingling and hail-brother-well-mets with those that were supposedly the antithesis to our thesis.

Costas Gavras’ Missing: Harbinger of Disillusionment

A little while ago, on this blog, while writing of my reading of Alex Haley’s Roots as a schoolboy I made note of it as “a member of that group of cultural productions that changed my view of the US forever.” Another distinguished member of that group would be Costas Gavras‘ Missing, a chilling movie that,

[I]s based on the true story of American journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the bloody aftermath of the US-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that deposed the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende.

Set largely during the days and weeks following Horman’s disappearance, the movie depicts his father and wife searching to determine his fate.

 I saw Missing as a teenager, alone, at a New Delhi cinema; like most movies that I went to see in those days, I knew little about what I was in for. Indeed, my level of ignorance ran embarrassingly high: I did not know who Allende or Pinochet were; I did not know there had been a coup in Chile in 1973. And I knew nothing, certainly, of the US role in it. But I had been assured the movie’s director was ‘famous’, that the movie had garnered critical acclaim. So I bought my tickets, and settled down to watch.

I realized very quickly, that something terrible was afoot; a nation was in turmoil, and innocents were being swept up in a maelstrom of violent political change.  Soldiers ruled the streets; gunfire rang out; and blunt, uncaring, force was applied to all too many who ran afoul of those seizing and retaining power. An atmosphere of menace hung over the urban landscapes the movies’ characters traversed, and a grimly inevitable fate seemed in store for all too many of them. One of them, of course, was Charles Horman, a young journalist–living and working with his wife in Santiago–and who, for whatever reason, falls afoul of the military authorities and is arrested and whisked away. He goes missing.

The nightmare begins at this point. Horman’s father, Ed, flies down from the US to look for his son, and expects, quite reasonably, that the US consular staff will assist him–and Horman’s wife, Joyce–as they seek to determine Horman’s whereabouts. Instead, they encounter a grim, baffling world of evasion, hostility and thinly concealed threat. The adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ is used too often; but it is never more appropriately used than here to describe the dead-ends, misdirections, indifference and obtuseness the Hormans encounter.

And that’s just the American response. It is clear, all too soon, that something terrible has, in all probability, happened to Charles Horman. And it is also all too clear that the American administration in Chile might have had something to do with it.  Or perhaps they know what happened to Charles, but they aren’t telling. As father and wife stumble from pillar to post, from embassy to jail to killing field to morgue, their grief, rage, frustration and anxiety mounts, as does the anger and the fear of the viewer.

At one stage, an American consular officer, utters the following chilling lines to Hormans’ desperate, anguished father:

I don’t know what happened to your kid, Ed. But I understand he was a bit of a snoop. Poked his nose around in a lot of dangerous places where he didn’t really belong. Now, suppose I went up to your town, New York, and I started messing around with the Mafia. I wind up dead in the East River. And my wife or my father complains to the police because they didn’t protect me. They really wouldn’t have much of a case, would they? You play with fire, you get burned.

And that is that.

We never find out what happened to Charles Horman. But we suspect, as Horman’s father and wife do, that he might have met a fate similar to those whose bodies they have seen, victims of torture and execution.

As the movie ends, the following epilogue appears, in white lettering, on a black background:

Ed Horman filed suit charging eleven government officials, including Henry A. Kissinger, with complicity and negligence in the death of his son. The body was not returned home until seven months later, making an accurate autopsy impossible. After years of litigation, the information necessary to prove or disprove complicity remained classified as secrets of state. The suit was dismissed.

I walked home, a little heartsick. I had witnessed the most frightening of encounters: between mere citizens, powerless and alone, and all-powerful, opaque and violent bureaucracies. I was shaken, and for days afterwards, was haunted by the sorrow and anger and fear I had seen writ large on those who searched, futilely and desperately for their missing loved one. I had begun to dream of a life in the US; and suddenly, uncomfortably, I realized my future home had dimensions and depths to it that I had yet to discover.