Sunday, 13 October 2013

Access of Evil

John Naughton notes that one of the consequences of l'affaire Snowden is the realisation that the technology that runs the Internet has been compromised at the lowest level, i.e. hardware as well as firmware and software. This is hardly a shocker to the techno-literate (it's been underway since the 90s), but it causes the normally droll Irishman to lapse into the classic vocabulary of the securocrats. After a week in which MI5 and its media claque claimed the NSA/GCHQ revelations were the "greatest damage to western security in history", it is depressing to see one of the more sane technology observers talking like this (my italics):
The reason this is so scary is because virtually every bit of kit that runs the internet – the machine on which you compose your emails, the tablet or smartphone with which you browse the net, the routers that pass on the data packets that comprise your email or your web search, everything – is a computer. So the thought that all this stuff might covertly be compromised in ways that are impossible to detect is terrifying.
This is the language of integrity and betrayal (the common ideological currency of the security state) in the context of a classic revelation of the totality of a threat: everything is at risk, everybody is suspect. By aping this style, Naughton is in danger of driving an agenda through fear, which is never a good idea. The fact that he is elsewhere even-handed, correctly noting that we have as much to "fear" from the US as China, does not excuse the paranoia.

What started as a debate about the relationship of the state and big business has now subsided into the comforting familiarity of a stand-off between the liberal and authoritarian wings of the party of power, pitching the individualist concern about civil rights against the men from the ministry. Meanwhile, the technology companies have (largely) avoided difficult questions about their motivation and ethics, insisting that they are on the side of the good guys against government while furthering their state-endorsed power (the fact that the notoriously unprofitable Twitter can even think about an IPO is an indication that the market has priced in future monopolistic rents).

To be fair to Naughton, this fearful language is everywhere. In the same issue of the Observer, you can find stories about the "invasion" of Britain by killer slugs, which is just a liberal transference of xenophobic prejudice from alien people to alien animals (nature has no ethical basis - let alone a social or economic motivation - it does what it can and what it must). In a delightful juxtaposition, you could also find tales of the modern trend for "rewilding", in this case allowing urban rivers to return to their natural course. This is driven by Romantic guilt (we have brutally tamed the tautology of "wild nature" and now fear the consequences), which ultimately stems from a reactionary desire to stop the march of time.

The roots of this language go back to the pre-democratic era, when the body of the monarch was identified with the body of the state. A threat to the crown, to the bodily integrity of the king, was the ultimate treachery, which in turn justified the surveillance (and torture) of the king's subjects, who were ultimately his property to dispose of. This idea of corporeal integrity was inherited along with "sovereignty" by the nation state (via Hobbes and Montesquieu), with predictable results in the institutionalisation of xenophobia and racism. But perhaps the most pernicious manifestation of it was the idea that a single breach, like the stab of a poniard or the sting of a hornet, could be fatal, an idea amplified by the discovery of microbes in the 17th century and kept alive since by the media-friendly spectre of the lone traitor, from Conrad's Secret Agent to "free radicals" like Manning and Snowden.

The irony here is that the Internet was designed to be resilient, to not fail due to the compromise of a single node or device and to survive a breach of network integrity. It is this very capability that has allowed the development of the "dark Internet" and (semi-)secure tools such as Tor. This is not to suggest that we should be complacent about the extent of surveillance, and the determination of those who would know our interests better than we do ourselves to protect us from our folly, but I would suggest that a reliance on such emotive language is counter-productive. There are two things to remember here: first, the secret services (like the police) are nowhere near as competent as they would like us to believe; and second, the technological development of surveillance will always be driven primarily by the interests of business, not by the state.

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